Bend may be known as a beer town, but the spirits scene is picking up speed. With the recent emergence of popular cocktail bars like Dogwood Cocktail Cabin and Stihl Whiskey Bar, it's clear that Bendites have a taste for the hard stuff. So it's only natural that Bend's oldest distillery would follow in the footsteps of brew pubs co-located within breweries and open its own on-site cocktail lounge.
Tucked away on the south side of the burgeoning Maker's District, Oregon Spirit Distillers opened its Barrel Thief cocktail lounge over the summer to better showcase its craft spirits. And they may be the first distillery in the state to venture into territory typically reserved for craft beer.
"Distilleries in Oregon are allowed to have tasting rooms and serve sample- sized cocktails using just one mixer in the drink and keeping the portion of liquor per sample to half an ounce," explains co-owner Kathy Irwin. "I believe that we are the only distillery in Oregon that has also opened a full-premise licensed bar on site of the actual distillery location, which enables us to make cocktails from the spirit we are making right there."
For her co-owner Brad Irwin, adding a cocktail lounge was the obvious extension of the craft distillery.
"[He] started his career in booze as a bartender and wanted to incorporate that experience into the business to be the maker of the spirit and see it come full circle back into cocktails at the bar," she explains.
The cocktail menu, which includes both specialty and classic drinks, was a collaboration between Brad, who tackled the classics, and Barrel Thief's lead mixologist Nicole Rushton, who created most of the specialty cocktails.
The classic menu includes the usual suspects—Manhattan, whiskey sour, mint julep, old fashioned, and the like—while the specialty menu uses the spirits as inspiration for a whole host of creative concoctions.
A highlight of the specialty menu, the Silver Lining, builds on the herbaceous overtones of Scribble dry gin, pairing it with lime and two unique house creations—a seasonal "shrub" and a "dusk" simple syrup. On a recent evening, we tried the Silver Lining with a peppermint, ginger, cardamom shrub (a type of drinking vinegar). The complex herbal notes matched beautifully with the simple syrup, which was infused with black tea and lavender. The dangerously drinkable results were bright, fresh, and herby.
Other inspired options include the Tanked Limeade (Wild Card absinthe, hard cider, lime, and bitters) and Young Love (Scribbles dry gin, strawberry basil simple syrup, strawberries, black pepper, tonic, and lime). What gives the drinks that extra kick is the handcrafted shrubs and simple syrups, including combinations like meadow flowers and sweet grasses, raspberry and pink rose, and chamomile and honey.
Those creative infusions also give patrons the option to customize their drinks, including non-alcoholic options, like a seasonal shrub with soda water, or a lemonade with raspberry-rose syrup.
Still, Irwin says it's a time-tested classic that patrons ask for more than any other drink.
"Our number one selling cocktail is our Moscow Mule, made with Oregon Spirit vodka, ginger beer, lime juice, and served in an authentic copper mug," Irwin says. "Those fly off the bar on busy nights."
And as fall creeps into winter, the Barrel Thief will launch a new menu during the first week of November that offers hot drinks and boozy adult milkshakes using locally-made Bonta Gelato.
And it's easy to see how the bar, despite its out-of-the-way location, could become a local hot spot. Aside from the delicious drinks, the spot has a colorful patio backdropped by a large mural and including cozy fire pits. Inside, the lounge has a vibe somewhere between brew pub and fancy cocktail bar. A little bit rustic, a little bit classy, it captures the upscale casual aesthetic that epitomizes Bend.
While the drinks are the main draw here, the food menu offers a mix of pub-style sandos and small plate options with a dash of the unexpected (specifically, Pringles and a broad array of pickled veggies).
"From our kitchen, our number one selling item is our pulled pork sandwich," Irwin says. "It is smothered in bourbon BBQ sauce, made with our own C.W. Irwin straight bourbon whiskey."
In the end, it all comes back to the spirits.
"The Barrel Thief is unique as a bar because it only serves the craft-distilled spirits made at Oregon Spirit Distillers or other NW distilleries," Irwin explains. "We have a viewing window to the production facility to engage the lounge customer in the distillery process. We love to educate our customers on the art of distillation, the crafting of fine spirits, and the crafting of quality handmade cocktails."
The Barrel Thief at Oregon Spirit Distillers
740 NE 1st St.
Open daily: 11:30 am-10 pm