Roughly a decade ago, a snowy night in Woodinville, Washington, changed everything for Rodney and Kelli Bullington.
At the time, Rodney Bullington — then living in Seattle with his wife, Kelli — was a fan of the nascent Woodinville Whiskey Co., which had opened its doors in late 2010. The distillery would occasionally invite the public to bottling parties, where visitors could help bottle spirits in exchange for free pizza. Rodney helped when he could — even if that meant driving through the occasional snowstorm, which happened one night in early 2011.
He was one of only two people to show up for the bottling party that night, on an evening when the company needed 3,000 bottles filled.
But rather than throw up his hands and head home, Rodney saw an opportunity to talk with a whiskey maker about the spirit: how it’s made, sourcing ingredients and so forth. Before he knew it, he had spent six hours at the distillery. “Those six hours I got to talk to them, I played 21 Questions,” Rodney says.
Around that time, Kelli mentioned that she’d like to move back to Pendleton, Oregon — the couple grew up less than 2 miles apart in the Pendleton area, though neither knew it until they reconnected years later in the Seattle area — and Bullington was game.
Neither knew it at the time, but the groundwork had been laid for the husband-and-wife team, along with co-founders Cliff and Judy Bracher, to open Pendleton’s first craft distillery: Oregon Grain Growers Brand Distillery.
Seeds Planted for New Distillery
The Bullingtons moved back to Pendleton in early 2011, eventually working at Pendleton Grain Growers, an Eastern Oregon-based farmers’ co-op. The duo worked in different roles — Rodney in the IT department, Kelli in human resources — but the jobs allowed them to learn more about agriculture and network with growers.
“That’s where this whole idea got built,” Rodney says of their time at Pendleton Grain Growers. “It was talking to the growers and looking at how passionate they were about growing. They’re very proud; they’ll say, ‘I’ve got the cleanest fields here, I make sure there’s no cheatgrass growing on my field.’”
Around the same time, Rodney looked around the region and saw an opportunity for a distillery to make a name for itself. “Why isn’t there one here?” he recalls asking. “Distilling is an outlet of agriculture, and agriculture was here first. So we started building on that.”
Craft and Community in Pendleton
The Bullingtons started researching the feasibility of launching a craft distillery and, in October 2015, bought an old Oldsmobile shop and showroom at the edge of downtown. The duo, along with friends and family, spent the next year cleaning and renovating the building, and held an official grand opening in November 2016.
By the time the Bullingtons completed renovations, they had recycled benches from an old grain elevator in the nearby town of Helix, repurposed wood from a former speakeasy for the bar and “upcycled” a handful of 2x4s, converting the old flooring into a tasting room table.
Oregon Grain Growers initially opened with two spirits — Ouragon Vodka and ACME Corn Whiskey — and has since expanded its lineup to pay homage to the farmers of Eastern Oregon, from which the vast majority of the distillery’s products come.
The distillery recently released a watermelon vodka, for instance, made from locally grown watermelons. (Rodney says it took 70 tries on a pharmaceutical still to get the recipe right.) Another coffee-flavored vodka uses beans roasted at a Pendleton-based coffee shop. And one of the distillery’s wheat suppliers sits atop a hillside at the edge of town, its field visible from the distillery building.
Supporting Local Farmers
In addition to wheat and watermelons, both grown in abundance in Eastern Oregon, the Bullingtons have incorporated locally grown huckleberries, mint, lavender and other ingredients in their spirits and cocktails.
“Teaching others what goes into distilling is really important, as well as using local products,” Kelli says. “We try really hard to use all Eastern Oregon, if not Oregon, products. There are some where we can’t, but we try really hard.”
To this, Rodney says, only half-jokingly: “If it can be grown in Oregon, I would love to make an alcohol out of it.”
That love for all things local extends to how Oregon Grain Growers embeds itself in Pendleton’s wider craft community. When a farmer’s products are used in a certain spirit, they get mentioned on those bottle labels — which are designed, naturally, by a local graphic designer — and the distillery hosts occasional educational discussions, open to the public, with those same farmers and suppliers. And, of course, the distillery hosts bottling parties every now and again.
And all of it, from the repurposed furniture to the locally sourced ingredients, comes back to showcasing the best of the region. “It’s another extension to show how awesome Pendleton is,” Kelli says. “We have great growers… it’s a really neat vibe here, and it’s been fun to bring this here and educate people.”