SaloonBox Behind The Scenes: Melissa Heim, Master Distiller at Eastside Distilling
We were amazed at the number of delicious spirits that the craft distillery Eastside Distillery manages to produce. Their spiced rum is the highlight of one of our October cocktails. Clearly, there had to be a mastermind behind all this. What we found out is that the mastermind is creative and quite funny. We have a great interview below with a number of insightful tidbits for the home mixologist.
What is your personal background and how does it impact your work? How did you come to work with Eastside Distilling and what intrigues you about the brand?
To summarize: I’m a Portland native, middle child, English Major, sports enthusiast with a passion for craft drinks and corny jokes; all of which qualify me to be a Master Distiller, clearly.
My career is the circumstance of social serendipity then a lot of hard work. I got my start when my brother-in-law, a distiller at the time, was leaving his post to begin his law degree and was looking for a protégé. He offered me the opportunity which quickly turned into an obsession – fast forward 8 years and here I am leading the charge at the fastest growing craft distillery in Oregon.
I have found a true balance of art and science in this profession while creating harmonious flavors and also ensuring that the final product is stable and safe. Eastside embraces the philosophy that you can have craft and be competitive. You can be small batch and have big goals. You can be innovative and affordable.
I love what I do and as a company we work hard to get our products to as many markets as possible and believe we make something for every taste.
We've been seeing great spirits coming out of Portland, OR. How does your location play a role in your production?
Portland IS THE beverage craft mecca be it beer, wine, cider, spirits or coffee and for good reason. We have an advantage because of the many resources at our disposal. I use fresh, local ingredients, which allows us to support local agriculture and other small businesses while staying within a short driving distance of our warehouse.
Then there’s the matter of the people. Every 3-5 years Portland experiences ‘A Great Migration’. In 2001 it originated from the Midwest, then in 2006 half of California moved here. Because of this, Portland has an immense amount of talent, creativity and we have new friends and customers so I’m happy to have them.
What are some challenges you face?
Keeping my cats fit as they age. Remaining calm in traffic jams. Staying relevant in a saturated market. The normal stuff.
What’s your opinion of the current rum market?
Rum is a constant on the commercial level. You have white, dark, aged and spiced. But when you delve into the craft sector you see a lot more playfulness. Our mission is to keep it simple and to make rum that really exemplifies the category.
There are a lot of factors involved but I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a growing interest in cane spirits in a few years.
Ever heard of Havana Club? No? You’re about to.
Any new trends you’ve seen lately with rum cocktails?
I’ve been seeing a surge in savory elements and I have to say that I’m a fan. Rum is traditionally associated with ‘sweetness’ and juice and it’s neat to see mixologists bending those rules. Rum can be so many things like funky and fruity to sterile and stiff opening the door to a variety of combinations. We make an Eggnog Advocaat Liqueur that would traditionally use brandy as a base but the lightness of cream, mouthfeel of egg and acidity of lemon pairs really well with our silver rum.
While tradition is king for rum cocktails there is still ample room to explore.
Can you tell us more about Below Deck Spiced Rum, how the ingredients are sourced and the production process?
Below Deck Spiced Rum is a direct infusion of spices into our Below Deck Silver Rum. We really wanted the spiced rum to be spicy so there is no sugar added and no artificial colors, enhancers or preservatives (that goes for all of our products). What you end up with is a layered, warm drinking experience.
Because you cannot make a wholly local rum in the Pacific Northwest I made this product a global experience. In it you’ll find the usual flavors such as cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla. But there is nothing usual about this rum. You’ll also find grains of paradise, a Moroccan peppercorn that smells like corn silk, and galangal root, a member of the Chinese ginger family and even mace.
Each ingredient lends a subtlety that cannot be mimicked with artificial flavors. When mixed together it takes on a flavor of fizzy cola, ginger cookies, and burnt sugar.
It was named best spirit in the Northwest – probably because it makes you feel warm despite all of the rain.
What are the markers of excellence in rum? And what sets Below Deck apart?
It is easy to make good rum - but it is easier to make bad rum. Don’t kill the flavor by taking it to a high proof. Don’t add sugar – train your palate to pick up the nuances of the cane. Don’t cheat. Adding extracts and coloring does not do the spirit any favors. Below Deck rums are tasty and affordable without any gimmicks.
What indicators of quality can consumers look for when shopping for rum?
Knowing the difference between ‘Aged’ and ‘Dark’ is a good start. Dark rums can be many things. They can have molasses added post-distillation for that rich color and depth of flavor. They can also be silver rums with caramel coloring.
Aged rum has spent time with oak, whether in a barrel or with staves and chips. Usually the color is indicative to the amount of time.
Look at the ingredient list – it’s a trick because there shouldn’t be one. Avoid additives. The highest quality rums are usually the simplest.
What has been one of the most exciting moments for Eastside Distilling?
Every day is exciting! Going national was a bucket list item for us. Moving from 1,000 square feet to 40,000. Opening satellite locations in the local malls was a first. Being honored with gold, double gold and triple gold medals is a validation of jobs well done. It has been a true pleasure and blessing to have accomplished all of this with a small team of dedicated individuals who share the same values.
What’s next? Any plans for new versions or products in the pipeline that you can talk about right now?
I really think flavored vodkas are the next big thing….. Just kidding. I’d say stay tuned! I have shelves upon shelves upon jars upon buckets of experiments in my office. That might be why it is the most popular room in the building, although I like to think they come by for the company.