Vendor in the Spotlight: Melissa Heim of Eastside Distilling — by Katrina Emery

August 7, 2016 |  by  |  Blog, Vendor Profiles

Eastside Distilling has been blowing Portland away with expertly crafted spirits since 2008. Located in SE Distillery Row, they now offer fourteen styles of rum, whiskey, vodka and holiday spirits. Appearing regularly at the farmer’s market (as well as in your favorite local bar), their small-batch recipes mix high-quality natural ingredients to create an outstanding taste.

Master Distiller Melissa Heim has headed up the distillery since 2012, mixing new recipes and pushing the company further (they’re in 9 states and counting). She shows no signs of stopping! Mel was kind enough to answer some questions about being one of the few women in the industry, how she got there, and most importantly, her favorite summer cocktails.

Katrina Emery: You came from Rogue Distilling before joining Eastside: what drew you to distilling originally? How did you get your start in it?

Melissa Heim: In a nutshell, my career is the result of knowing the right people at the right time. I had zero interest in the beverage industry beyond being a casual drinker of craft beer. Having an education in liberal arts I was fairly certain I was doomed to a life of bartending (I am a TERRIBLE bartender. Like, really bad.  I’ll pour you a beer but it will be slow and I’ll probably ring it up wrong kind of bad). Or, doing odd jobs like managing a bunch of rowdy teenagers at a food truck or data entry at an office job which I did do both of. It was at the data entry job, at Rogue Ales, where my husband (now ex, but it’s cool) and brother-in-law worked where I had my first stroke of luck. I would stroll upstairs to the distillery to chat and Alex, the brother-in-law, would include me in his barrel samplings. And as it turns out, I had a pretty developed palate. Not to say that that is the single greatest qualifier for becoming a distiller but it is important. One afternoon he asked me to write out my own tasting notes for 4 barrels he’d pulled samples for and I just followed my nose. Alex then asked if I wanted to apprentice under him as he had designs on going to law school after his upcoming wedding and I agreed. 6 weeks later I was running the entire distilling operation. I made three varieties of rum in two wonky pot stills that went on to become Rogue’s most awarded spirits for the time. I also spent my days extensively studying other spirits, chemistry, fermentation theory, the beverage economy, marketing and everything in-between. Fast-forward 8 years and here I am, honored to be a part of a nationally expanding company, leading a great team with big ideas and willing minds.

KE: Your online bio notes that you’re the first female distiller east of the Mississippi, and one of the few in general. Have you encountered many obstacles because of that? What has your reception been in the distilling world?

MH: My bio states that I’m the first female master distiller west of the Mississippi. This may be true. There is no registration and records for ‘master distillers’ so making such claims can be reckless. But from my knowledge of who’s who in the industry this claim can also not be disputed. I prefer to say that I’m one of a few female distillers running full operations. But times are changing quickly. I’m happy to report that Eastside puts real value in my skills and knowledge. And that value was earned, not given: I had to earn my stripes at Eastside. I started as a part time production assistant, then tour guide, then production manager, then master distiller but that is to be expected as the role comes with earning trust and acquaintanceship with the organization. I would not consider that an obstacle. I’ve met a few sour apples along the path but even they had lessons for me to learn from.

KE: What does a “typical day” look like for you?

MH: A typical day as a distiller is not as sexy as it seems. Ask anyone and they’ll attest that with much alcohol production comes much paperwork. So a typical day is spent forecasting, dredging through the many logistical intricacies of selling nationally, labeling, batching, bottling and if I’m lucky, a bit of experimentation. For the most part all days look the same but vary by product. One week we’ll focus on vodka and the next two will be spent on whiskies. Right now we’re approaching holiday spirit production which I cannot even wrap my head around.

KE: What sets Eastside apart from other distillers in the Portland area?  

MH: I think we share the same philosophies and ideals as our local colleagues: take care in the details and produce something you’re proud of and something that reflects the infinite tastes of the consumer. We’re all in it for the same reason and that’s the love of the craft, respect for the local renaissance movement, and the opportunity to educate through our practice. Our physical sizes, portfolios and histories are varied but the fundamentals remain the same for each of us.

KE: Let’s talk summer: what’s the best spirit or cocktail to get us in the summer mood?

MH: I love summer cocktails and because I’m a terrible bartender/mixologist, as stated above, the simpler the better. An in-house favorite is what we call ‘The Riveter’ which is 3 oz. lemonade, 2 oz. Marionberry Whiskey and ice. If you want to be fancy go throw a lime wedge in there. It’s super tasty, a very seasonal flavor and a good sipper on a hot day. The berries are local, grown in the Willamette Valley within 50 miles of the city. We post cocktail recipes on our website and our social media platforms so anyone can find what they’re looking for.

KE: And last, do you have a personal favorite from your product line?    

MH: I try not to have favorites – it makes the other kids jealous. But my preferences lean towards anything aged in one of our Oregon Oak barrels (like the Burnside Bourbon Oregon Oaked or the Barrel Hitch Oregon Oak American Whiskey).

To learn even more about Mel (including her status of holding three black belt titles!) check out this feature on Votre Grande Soeur. And for more cocktail recipes head to Eastside Distilling!

Photo from Eastside Distilling.


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