Whisky Advocate: Distillers Hold Their Breath—And Rally to Help—As Wildfires Devour the WestSeptember 21, 2020
As fast-moving fires incinerate swathes of the West Coast, killing dozens of people in multiple states and sending smoke across the U.S., whiskey makers too are feeling the heat. Yet even as they battle a double whammy of Covid-19 and wildfires, some are tackling relief efforts to support local first responders and evacuated residents.
“The Riverside Fire got to within 12 miles of the site of our warehouse, so literally the entire future of the company was 12 miles from a fire that was at zero percent containment, and moving,” said Thomas Mooney, founder and CEO of Oregon-based Westward Whiskey. “That makes you think about things. You can’t pack up 4,500 barrels of whiskey and run away, so we held our breath.”
Fortunately, the fire spared the warehouse. “At this point, it seems we’re no longer in immediate danger from the fire itself, but Portland now has some of the worst air in the world,” Mooney says. As a result, the distillery suspended production and shut down the visitor center at its Portland distillery on Sept. 11. “We were hoping that by now (the fires) would have eased up, but they haven’t, so we’re keeping everybody home and offering to pay the shifts they’re not working,” he adds. Westward is donating $10 for every bottle sold in Oregon through the end of the month to American Red Cross wildfire relief efforts.
Talent, Oregon-based Pioneer Whisky had an even closer call when the Almeda Fire all but annihilated the small city and burned within a quarter mile of the distillery. “With the pandemic and state orders to social distance, our tasting room hasn’t really been open at all this year,” says owner, brewer, and distiller Todd Kemp. “Now with the fires, the whole distillery is shut down, and what (bottles) we do sell through the state-run stores are taxed at 50%. It’s tough.” Because the two neighboring cities, Talent and Phoenix, “are pretty much 50% consumed by the fire, we’re not selling much of anything,” Kemp adds. “I’ve kind of just put the distillery into neutral, hoping that when things cool off, the fire’s under control, the city gets rebuilt, and Covid gets dealt with, maybe we can start selling again.”
Jesse Gallagher, managing partner at Immortal Spirits and Distilling Co., was shocked to find his Phoenix, Oregon distillery still standing when he walked in on Sept. 9, the day after the Almeda Fire swept from Ashland to Talent to Phoenix. “It was pretty miraculous,” Gallagher says. “There was a mobile home park right next to it, and several businesses in front of it, completely destroyed, so it’s a stroke of luck our building remained intact.” Whisky Advocate has more on how western distillers are coping with and responding to the wildfires in their regions.Subscribe to Shanken News Daily’s Email Newsletter, delivered to your inbox each morning.