New Deal Distillery - Tom Burkleaux - Side Dish

Tom Burkleaux

New Deal Vodka
Portland, OR      



What influenced you to start a distillery? 
The idea literally came to me one day in 2001. I was talking with a friend about spirits, and complaining about how all the brands didn’t resonate or mean anything.   My comment at the time was spirit brands we either vague European names or geographical features. I also thought after the go go nineties we were due for a recession.  I didn’t want to drink over-polished, over-marketed sprits, but I didn’t want to switch to just beer. That combined with a lifelong love of making things, enjoying food and drink, and the inspiration of Portland’s DIY culture.   Next thing I decided I should make my own spirits. There wasn’t a craft distilling industry at the time, and I had no idea if this was something you could even do. But why the hell not?  

How did you learn how to do it?  --are you self-taught or did you have formal training?  

I studied spirits on the consumer side for many years. But no formal training. My partner Matthew and I started teaching ourselves when we got our distillery license. After 6 years we’ve learned a lot, but we still have more to learn.   

Do you have a favorite cookbook(s)? 
There are two old cookbooks I’m especially fond of: The Joy of Cooking and Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking.  My mom had these in her kitchen when I was a kid.  I used to make the eggnog recipe from the Joy of Cooking all the time. A few simple ingredients and you had this awesome delight.   From the Art of French Cooking I struggled to make simple breads. Sometimes they were ok, sometimes sublime.   But again, there recipes we so simple. I think somewhere in these early attempts I began to appreciate the importance of process, and how deceptive simplicity is. I did master the grilled cheese sandwich.    

What's the one ingredient you couldn't live without? 
Whiskey! Then coffee. Oh wait, you mean can live without? Quinoa. 

What is your favorite type of drink to make? 
Right now I’m into Manhattans. Research for our own whiskies and un-aged spirits like our Wildcat. Research requires dedication. Also, it’s a way to explore vermouth, which is underappreciated.  

Favorite music to listen to while working? 
While working?   I don’t like the assumption. Last week I listened to Led Zeppelin (same fondness as the grilled cheese sandwich of old), and my Camera Obscura station on Pandora.    

What is your favorite type of food (cuisine)? 
Too hard a question. And of course it changes.  I’m not done with pork belly just yet. Well-made food is the simple answer. I don’t even know what you call the food now in Portland. Good?    

Most memorable batch? 
The first time we got a good heart cut on our Wildcat Barley Cane spirit. We had been struggling with the type of column and distillation style to use. When we finally found the right balance, it was absolutely sublime!    

Most memorable guest at New Deal? 
Back in 2004 when we first got started, I was at a nearby pub talking about the distillery. People were curious and I suggested we check it out. When I opened the door to our distillery (a small 120 square foot space) a woman with us looked very surprised there was actually a still inside and exclaimed:  “I thought you were just bullshitting!”   

What makes indie distilleries better? 
What makes any craft or creation better is when the person doing the labor is also the person making the decisions. Obviously that’s not a guarantee of quality: pride, desire, talent and dedication play a part. But when products are driven only by the bottom line, and the decisions makers are detached from the process of creation, something usually suffers. Craft-distilleries create an opportunity for the creation of well-made and delicious spirits that mean something to the people making them.