By Paul Omundson

“I want you to be visually overwhelmed when you visit us,” says Heritage Distilling Company (HDC) founder and CEO Justin Stiefel. With a sparkle in his eye, he adds, “People are looking for new experiences in food, drink, and entertainment, and I want to amaze you when you come in.”

Stiefel, a lawyer, engineer, and lobbyist, is also a master distiller. He hatched his idea for a unique distillery and tasting room around an evening campfire in 2011 with his buddies. “We were smoking cigars and sipping whiskey,” he remembers, “and we all were passionate about creating our own distillery. We figured we could do it better and in a way no one had ever done it before.”

The basic idea he and wife, Jennifer, co-owner of Heritage, had was pretty straight forward. “We weren’t reinventing distilling,” he explains. “We just wanted to take mystery out of the process and put it on display. We wanted to give customers a chance to participate in creating their own spirits.” Out of that concept, grew the Cask Club, with customer’s own custom barrels on prominent display, and My Batch, a one-time distilling learning lesson somewhat patterned on breweries’s “my brew” concept. My Batch participants learn about distilling from beginning to end and get personal with the still they operate that day. At the end, they bottle the spirits they helped make during the session. A food pairing primer, like a delicious garnish, ends the day.

In 2012, Stiefel and his wife, along with 50 shareholders, opened their flagship distillery and tasting room in Gig Harbor, Washington. That was followed by a second location at Gig Harbor’s waterfront and late last year a third distillery/tasting room opened its doors in Eugene, nestled in the city’s growing Whiteaker fermentation district. Two more distillery/tasting rooms are planned later this year, in Seattle and Roslyn, Washington. With a twinkle in his entrepreneurial eye, Stiefel hints this is just the beginning of ambitious expansion plans.

Stiefel and Jennifer are onto something. The Gig Harbor sites are humming and there’s been a warm welcome for Heritage here in Eugene since it opened last October. Cask Club slots are nearly filled at all locations and My Batch classes draw enthusiastic would-be distillers.

Stiefel makes good on the visuals, too. Gleaming metal machinery, displayed customer casks, and the internal mezzanine overlooking the whole operation gives customers a feeling they’re in the middle of the production space at the Madison Street location.

Heritage was the first distillery in the U.S. to allow customers to legally be involved in crafting their own spirits.

If you want to see Stiefel’s warm smile disappear, just ask about Oregon’s antiquated distribution system from Prohibition days that leaves it far behind Washington’s more open, updated approach. He’s helping to change that and is happy the trend is moving in the right direction.

At the Eugene Heritage, there’s a full line of vodka, gin, whiskey, and now, for the first time under the Heritage banner, rum. You can get Bacon to Mango flavored vodkas, BSB-Brown Sugar Bourbon to Char Barrel Finished Gin, and traditional whiskies.

The distillery, like its counterparts in Washington, uses custom-engineered and hand-built Italian stills. The Eugene location features a custom-made combination 3,000-liter pot-still with a 14-foot 12-plate copper bubble cap re-flux column for spirit stripping and finishing runs for vodka, gin, whiskey, and rum. The still can distill enough whiskey or rum to fill five standard barrels daily. Following a Heritage tradition where each location’s system is given a name, the stills here are collectively called “Bisnonna,” or “great grandmother” in Italian.

Eugene also features six micro stills, 26 gallons each, with multiple plate column configurations for small batch and experimental runs. These are the ones used for the My Batch program. Each still is named after family members of the company’s founders.

Local physician J.P Wensel, MD, a Heritage founder and local operator, says it was only natural for the company to choose Eugene for its first venture outside of Washington. “Eugene is known for supporting locally made products, which is what we are all about,” he says. “Also, being in the Whiteaker district puts us right in the heart of the action.”

What excites Wensel most is an utterly unique piece of equipment, co-created by Heritage experts here and its equipment manufacturer in Italy.

“This is absolutely the highest level of foundry work,” Wensel emphasizes.

The equipment he describes is a one-of-its-kind continuous polishing still. It stands more than 20-feet tall and features a stainless steel 32-plate bubble cap column. It’s designed to gently extract any trace amounts of remaining impurities from the spirit during the final stage in the distillation process. The still is affectionately named “Big John” after one of Wensel’s uncles.

“The smoothness that results is indescribable,” Wensel says.

Master distiller Stiefel nods his head in agreement. “We’re in a sweet spot here,” he smiles.

110 Madison St.