Growing up, Portland native Mike Selberg spent every summer on the Oregon Coast in Cannon Beach. So when it came to find a location for his burgeoning Cannon Beach Distillery in late 2011, the seaside town seemed ideal. For the first year and a half, Selberg was a one man show — owner, distiller, janitor, tasting room staff — and admits juggling everything alone was a challenge. Today he runs a successful business that has expanded into a larger location, with a staff, a still named Burnie and dreams to make even more unique spirits.
1) It seems to be a common thread among distillers to name their stills. Can you share why you selected “Burnie” as yours?
Burnie is named after my grandfather Burton Selberg who went by the name Burnie. He passed away a year or two before I started the distillery and I wanted to honor his memory in some way since he never got to see the business come together. Burnie was a character, but had a tremendous work ethic that runs in my family. He was solid, reliable and fun… just like my still. We spend a lot of time together and the name has kept him alive for me in a small way.
2) The Tidal series comes and goes like the tides, allowing you to experiment and try new distillations. What are your pipe dreams for future spirits?
I could write a book about all the spirits I would like to make. When you think about it, I can make a spirit out of any ingredient that I can extract a fermentable sugar out of. Then I can introduce botanicals, fruits, nuts or anything else into that fermented wash during the distillation. The sky is the limit.
There are so many combinations out there that have never been tried, and that is what I am interested in. For one example, we have recently been experimenting with pechuga-style spirits. Pechuga is an agave-based spirit that is unique to Mexico. They distill it over fruits, nuts and raw chicken. Sounds crazy, but the meat is suspended in the still, and thus cooked by heat and high purity alcohol so it is sterile. We have experimented with other meats like T-bone steak, smoked salmon, bacon and duck. The flavors are so unique and interesting that you can’t compare it with any other style of spirit.
I have no idea how they will mature if we decide to age them and we are still figuring out how to pair certain meats with different fermentable bases, plus botanicals (etc.), but the potential is there. We have already made a couple pilot batches that make outstanding cocktails.
3) You make a spirit out of agave that is more like brandy than tequila. How did this come about?
We use 100 percent Blue Weber agave just like tequila, but we ferment distill and mature the spirit using brandy techniques. I’ve never been a huge tequila fan, but I’m always looking for new ingredients to ferment. I got my hands on some raw agave and was struck by how different it tasted from the majority of tequilas I had tried. I realized that the process of fermentation and the traditional tequila-making techniques provided the bulk of the flavor.
Agave is not the easiest thing to ferment and most tequila is wild fermented to produce the peppery, spicy flavor unique to that spirit. I decided to try and preserve as much character of the agave as possible by fermenting it as clean as possible. Brandy should taste like the fruit it is distilled from, so it seemed like the logical model for my production technique. Fermenting agave in this way was very tricky to figure out, but the result has become our best-selling spirit.
4) It sounds like your mother played an important role in the early days of your business. How did she help you stay on track?
Those days were absolute chaos and there is no way I would have made it without my mom. She would find merchandise and start accounts, work the tasting room when I couldn’t be there, sweep the floors, take out the recycling and clean. If anyone thought my tasting room was well organized and well decorated, that was entirely due to my mother. There are so many things that she did that I will probably never know about because I was so focused on keeping the business afloat. She refused to ever be on the payroll and remains my best customer to this day. I have the best mom.