Jake Holshue is the distiller at Rogue Ales and Spirits, at this point somewhat of a West coast institution full of inventive craft beers, spirits, and a company culture that eskews the tried, true, and traditional in favor of pure innovation. Though Jake and I have never met face to face we keep in contact quite frequently via social media and I always appreciate his commentary and conversation.
Jake- tell us how you got into the business?
Well I certainly didn’t know being a distiller was an option during high school “career day”, that’s for sure. Born and bred Montanan (and damned proud of it). Before distilling, my previous career path was as an Emergency Veterinary Assistant- blood, surgery, x-rays, lab work, even running an animal crematorium was one of my many duties. I loved the animals and the work, but the hours killed me. Four and a half years of 3rd shift work takes a toll physically, mentally, and relationships suffered. As a hobby, I took up homebrewing. I loved it, and met many passionate people about craft beer. Eventually I started the Rimrock Brewers Guild, a homebrew club to bring like minded individuals, to educate, and to raise the level of beer in my hometown of Billings, Montana. I was looking for a brewing job as a way to allow me to do what I loved to do, and also give me a “normal schedule”. One fateful day, I went to our local homebrew shop. The owner asked me if I was still looking for a job in the industry, as a guy came in looking for a distiller. Someone told him if you can’t find a distiller, find a brewer. I grabbed his business card and called him up. I told him I don’t know what I don’t know, but I’ll figure out the rest. I took very little money, and had to take a second job to make it work. Those were difficult days financially speaking but I never learned so much, worked so hard, slept in the distillery so I could make enough product to fill orders, and so unexpectedly fulfilled. Since then I have been in the industry almost 5 years, consulted for distilleries all over the world, and have been able to provide a living doing what I love for me and my family.
What attracted you to Rogue Ales and Spirits, tell us a little about the company?
Rogue Ales and Spirits started the original brewery in Ashland, Oregon in 1988. They started distilling in 2003, right at the beginning of the proliferation of craft distilling. In 2006 they moved the distilling operation from Portland to Newport. Rogue attracted me because they have always embodied their culture of Dare, Risk, Dream. This is more than a clever slogan, its a way of life. Rogue is a company that continually leads with innovative ideas and production techniques. And perhaps I am biased, but I have the extreme privilege and honor to work with some of the most dedicated, and hard working people in the industry.
You guys are pretty well known for your Oregon Rye Whiskey, can you give us some details on the “terroir” of Oregon grown Rye and what kind of distillation process that undergoes?
Rye, for me, is a labor of love. As a self proclaimed “rye-holic”, I thoroughly enjoy going through our rye stockpiles and tasting my way through them. At Rogue, we grow our own rye. We originally started growing it at our farm in Independence, OR. Of which we found out the hard way, is not ideal for growing rye. Our first years rye crop was decimated by slugs. Since then, we’ve moved the rye out to our barley farm in Tygh Valley. I find our farm grown rye to be a very soft, and almost fruit forward character. It still has that beautiful spice backbone that a fine rye should have. When you distill farm to glass, you will have slight variations batch to batch, and year to year. This to me is the most exciting aspect of our farms.
You have a couple of gins in your lineup that include local spruce, can you talk a little about the process of deciding on that ingredient and in general with so many startups making gin tell us a little about your approach to making a great botanical spirit?
Well the Rogue Spruce Gin, and Pink Spruce Gin were mainstays in the Rogue lineup long before I came on board. That being said they are some of my favorite contemporary style gins. I wouldn’t change a thing on them.
I have three tips for botanical usage for distillers. Make something that can be enjoyed straight, as well as in classic cocktails. Funky/hyper local ingredients are cool but if they overwhelm other, more traditional flavors, I feel they can be off-putting. Lastly, make something YOU love first. I have found creativity by committee is hardly creative at all.
What kind of stills are you guys using? Any odd methodologies or configurations?
We have 2 Vendome stills. One is a 150 gallon model we call “Tracy”, the 500 gallon is “Torey”. First off, I love our stills. I liken them to a good ole pickup truck. They show up to work every single day, and they work hard. At the same time, they aren’t going to win the Indy 500- and that’s okay. We’ve also added a 20 gallon Still Dragon still, “Tina”, for research and development. All three stills are 4 plate, depleg topped, hybrid column stills. Since we have been aging our spirits longer in the barrel, we have also switched to a single pass distillation. The character of a single pass distillate is much more complex, and the big mouthfeel is not destroyed with double or even triple distillation. Let the barrel do the work.
For those interested in becoming distillers can you give any advice?
Rising tides raise ALL ships. Be active in your local community, as well as the distilling community. Be a good neighbor to other distillers. If they need some grain, be the first to offer up yours. Make lasting friendships, and ask as many questions as possible. Join your state guild, and a national trade organization like the American Craft Spirits Association.
What’s next on the horizon spirit wise for Rogue Ales and Spirits?
We are working on many new whiskey offerings. For me, the most exciting of them all will be the expressions that are aging in our Rolling Thunder Barrel Works barrels. In 2014 we started down the path of opening our own cooperage, and in 2015 we made our first barrel. Our cooperage makes us the only brewery, distillery, AND cooperage in the United States. We are making our barrels exclusively out of Oregon Oak (Q. Garryana). No one has committed to this cousin to American Oak (Q. Alba) quite like Rogue. We are hoping to have our first product that is aged solely in Oregon Oak out soon, so stay tuned for that.
If you were stuck drinking one thing from now until your last breath, what would it be?
At the end of my day, after sweating it out in the distillery, I need something strong and well made. For me a Manhattan, with a nice higher proof rye, sweet vermouth, bitters, Luxardo or homemade brandied cherry garnish, shaken and served up. It is my favorite cocktail, but I rarely order it unless I know the bartender knows what they are doing.