Two friends, David Schleef and David “Rusty” Caldwell, went hiking in Oregon’s Mount Hood National Forest on a summer day in 2015. Pausing for refreshment, they quaffed lukewarm light beers they’d packed along. Wishing for something with more flavor, they pondered why it is rare to see a cocktail in a can. The notion stuck with them and, two years later, they launched 503 Distilling with a mission to create unique, ready-to-drink canned cocktails.

“We came up with the concept and then just decided to go forward [as] the market had just opened up for it legally,” say Schleef, referring to a change in Oregon liquor laws that made this type of product possible. “I like the idea that it’s such a new market.”

FIRST STEPS

Together with partner Andy Diacetis, they purchased a used copper still, shipping it from Germany. The trio, all beverage industry professionals, started the distillery in 2017 to create spirits for their craft cocktails — in a 12-ounce can.

Inspired by the outdoors in the beautiful 503 area code of Oregon, 503’s portable, ready-to-drink cocktails are aimed at the craft beverage drinker on the go, from picnics and camping to a day at the beach or one spent relaxing in the backyard. You’ll find them in most Oregon liquor stores, and selected retail outlets in Southwest Washington and Northern California.

503’s first release, the Wicked Mule, is an “ass-kicking” twist on a traditional Moscow Mule, made with lime-infused vodka and ginger beer. Lightly carbonated and not too sweet, tangy citrus is quickly followed with heat from the ginger, offering a palate-cleansing drink that pairs nicely with savory or spicy foods. At 15 percent ABV per serving, it is best to imbibe this one at home or with a designated driver.

With the Blood Orange Greyhound, 503 enhanced a basic Greyhound of vodka and fresh grapefruit juice with lime and blood orange juice. The tartness of the grapefruit is tempered by the sweeter orange flavor, creating a well-balanced drink that goes down easy. At 9 percent ABV, this festive mango-colored beverage is perfect for summer sipping.

La Vida Mocha, the company’s first winter seasonal, blends rum infused with orange peel, cold-brew coffee, Mexican chocolate and cinnamon. For this drink, 503 partnered with Bend’s Riff Cold Brewed Coffee and Holy Kakow, a Portland maker of organic chocolate products. Served cold, the cocktail is like drinking diluted Kahlua over ice. Heated and served with a splash of cream, it is reminiscent of a Spanish Coffee.

TOASTING WHAT’S NEXT

The company recently opened a cocktail tasting room at its Oregon City manufacturing facility. In addition to the canned products, the tasting room will feature a rotating selection of house-made cocktails and mixers on tap, plus tasting flights. Light fare such as pizza by-the-slice and sandwiches are available, as well as other craft beverages.

“Having cocktails on draft, it’s more of an experimental experience,” says Caldwell. “When you come here, you’re actually having a chance to vote for a cocktail that might go to a can.”