Down in Hood River, Oregon, barrels of whiskey sit stored inside a picturesque old red barn on Phil Downer and Sasha Muir’s farm. The couple didn’t exactly foresee that buying the farm would be the first step in starting their distillery, Wanderback Whiskey.
The pieces were there but it took a little bit of time to put them together. A native to Newfoundland — the most northeastern Canadian province where Scottish ancestry is common — Downer was always partial to a good Scotch whisky.
“It’s a super complex spirit, [there’s] a huge difference between good and bad whiskey,” Downer says.
“Not only do the good ones taste really good and complex and interesting but there’s so much to know about each whiskey or each distillery or each process,” Muir adds.
Downer and Muir fell in love with Hood River after visiting friends who would head down for the wind sports. “The gorge is a striking area, the river cuts through the land and then the mountains are there,” Downer says. “Eventually I convinced Sash fairly soon after we were married to buy property there.”
They ended up buying one of the first places they looked at — a farm on 20-acres of land with an apple and cherry orchard, plus an old barn to boot. When Downer started to look into whiskey making, he soon found that the farm and its setting would be perfect for growing barley and aging whiskey. Barley can grow most places but people are finding that it grows particularly well in the Northwest with its temperate climate, he explains. The mild winters and warm summers also makes an excellent climate for the aging process.
Wanderback’s first release of whiskey — which was made in partnership with Seattle’s Westland Distillery — featured four barley malts from Washington. The husband-and-wife-team aged their first batch in new American oak barrels but decided to change it up for the second batch.
“If you age [whiskey] in a barrel you allow the spirit to go in and out of the wood, it interacts with itself, the wood component, the sugars and the fibrous components of the wood and oxygen,” Downer says. “Over time it creates new compounds, gets rid of others and it really has an amazing magical way of mellowing the tastes.”
The second batch was aged in the barn on their Hood River farm in former Nicaraguan rum barrels, lending a tropical flavor to the whiskey.
Downer and Muir are in the midst of sorting out their third release which they hope to have out by this time next year. Unlike the first two batches this one won’t be made with Westland, the only hint they would give was that it was not a Northwest distillery.
Muir explains that rather than having a flagship whiskey, each release will have its own bottle design, its own story and finish and once it’s gone, it’s gone. Downer says he likes the finiteness of the small batch model.
Part of what the couple loves about the business is the chance to seek out and meet new people, create new friendships and memories but always being able to return home to their Hood River farm — it’s what inspired the name for their business, Wanderback.
“This whiskey is a complement to and an augmenter of a lifestyle that we have down here in this area,” Downer says. “We hike, we sail, we do whatever and then we come back in the evenings to share those stories and generally enjoy some whiskey.”