Ever hear the story about how water was turned into wine? For one Oregon winemaker, that story has a different twist – the turning of smoke-tainted wine into brandy and, by extension, a whiskey/brandy blend.

In September 2020, the winemaking team at Oregon’s Patricia Green Cellars, led by winemaker Jim Anderson, was setting about the annual ritual of harvest. At the same time, fires raging throughout much of the state were generating a lot of smoke that found its way into the Pinot Noir and other grapes that were set to be picked. The end result? Tens of thousands of gallons of wine impacted in varying degrees, ranging from slightly tainted to downright full ashen-tasting.

Anderson and associate winemaker Matthew Russell pulled out every tool they had in their winemaking book to try to salvage what they had. Some white and rosé wines were still made, as they were less subject to smoke taint. Hundreds of cases of Pinot, from grapes harvested before the fires, were produced as they normally would be. And a lower-end Pinot was produced as well from the least tainted wines after being subjected to some special tricks.

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Even after pulling off these small miracles, the winery was still stuck with what was essentially a lot of very acrid and bitter Pinot (“hot garbage,” as Anderson describes it). Anderson and Russell had no desire to just dump what was left and write it off. Instead, they learned from a fellow winemaker about that person’s attempt to distill some ruined wine into brandy at an Oregon distillery. They tried it and were not impressed.

Enter into the story now maverick distiller Lynsee Sardell, who Anderson met while visiting a different winery. Conversation was struck up and Sardell convinced the winemaker to let her try her hand at distilling a small amount of it. What she came back with wowed the folks at Patricia Green so much they asked her to take on the project on a contract distilling basis.

Fast-forward to the end of 2023 and what’s now known as Patty Green Whiskey Distillers is out of the gate with its first distilled spirits releases. Sardell, alongside producing a Pinot Noir brandy, has also turned to locally sourced Pacific Northwest barley types to craft a handful of whiskey-type spirits that make use of the brandy in an 80 percent whiskey, 20 percent brandy blend (other products with other blend ratios are in the works).

We sat down with Anderson, Russell, and Sardell recently over samples of the spirits in a makeshift speakeasy on the Patricia Green Cellars grounds to get their takes on their out-of-the-box distilling adventure.

1. Let’s start with a little background on the project. Take us back to what was the beginning stage of this, why did it occur, and go from there.

Anderson: In 2020, the early stages of September, the wildfires in central Oregon really started to take off. And for anybody who lived in Oregon in the Willamette Valley at that time, there was a couple-week period where the smoke in the valley was simply unbelievable. The AQI, the air quality index in Oregon, was over 700 at one point. From our winery, you couldn’t see the top of our vineyard because of the smoke. It was really something else.

We were three-quarters of the way through harvest before we knew that there was an issue. We did everything that we could, everything that we thought of, every scrappy idea that we had and little of it really worked. We just had this stuff, and we didn’t know what to do with it.

I met Lynsee and I told [her] the story about how we went and tasted some brandy at this other place, and it wasn’t very good. And she was just like, “You should let me try.” And so she came on over and took away a few gallons of this really tainted wine and brought us back different cuts in all these little Mason jars. And it was unbelievable. It’s just this pure, beautiful, clear, clean, sweet, buttery-textured brandy.

2. What do you have to do to get the smoke out of the wine? What’s the distilling process like?

Sardell: I distill in a very particular way. I control temperature and pressure very meticulously, and by hand, not a computer. It’s very time-consuming — it’s a 27- to 36-hour process, each batch, because of the way the still was designed. I don’t sleep a lot. But it’s just by taste, by feel. And then I also take very specific cuts of the distillate, and that means a few things. It means not only watching the foreshots and the heads cut, but it also means every couple of minutes you’re tasting. And I’m not actually tasting, I’m smelling and I’m aromatizing everything as it goes, so that it’s not just about what’s in the mouth, it’s what develops over time and smell and taste.

3. So over 36 hours, how much wine did you go through?

Russell: It was like 12 or 13,000 gallons, I think. We’d load up one of those plastic totes and drive her down to the distillery and drop it off, take the distillate back with us. We’d bring it back here and Jim and I would water it back to barrel strength and we would taste and decide what we liked. The thing that really struck us was just this richness in it that was unusual.

4. And you noticed no smoke?

Russell: Oh, no. None. Not at all. It was incredible how pure it was.

Anderson: When that brandy first came back, it was the first time since it was picked that it smelled like fruit again.

5. So here we are, early 2024. You’ve released these products, a standalone brandy and some whiskeys with brandy blended in. What are you looking for from a flavor profile when you bring brandy and a grain-based product together?

Sardell: I think the grapes and the brandy help to just carry it along. Single-grain, single-malt, single-strain barley can be thin. I think as American whiskey drinkers, we’re used to something that’s resonant — it stays on the palate a little bit longer, and that brandy really helps contain that characteristic nicely. It’s a complement, not a detriment.

Anderson: We just started trying, like, 90 percent grain, 10 percent, 80 percent. And we did lots of iterations, things we knew we’d probably reject. What we were trying to do is find the fine line between where you could feel the brandy’s texture while still getting the grain to be all the force of the flavor.

We put it together and we came up with this 80-20 amount of grain distillate to the brandy, and it tasted like what we were looking for, this balance between the grain showing the flavor and the brandy giving it enough of the structural lift and the mouthfeel and texture and depth to it.

6. For a winery, why whiskey?

Anderson: This winery is one of the weirder wineries in the state. We produce as many as 36 different Pinot Noirs in any given vintage. We’re seen for using the highest-quality grapes from old-vine grape sources using organic farming. Moving into a place where we could be like, hey, if we’re going to do this, we just don’t want to have [any] whiskey. We want it to be something that’s tied back to what the winery [values are].

Having these single strains of barley that really spoke to us would be something that we would be able to not only be interested in, but if it’s going to be as good as we think it’s going to be, it’s going to be a natural fit in terms of selling it, people will understand.

Not every wine person is a whiskey drinker. Not every whiskey drinker is a wine drinker, but there is obviously a Venn diagram where the circles overlap pretty heavily. And so that’s why we felt like we could not only do it as a one-off, but as an ongoing project.

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