Couple crafts award-winning spirits at historic Hood River Valley
By Drew Myron
In the Hood River Valley, in an old red barn filled with wooden barrels, Sasha Muir and Phil Downer stand at the forefront of a growing culinary movement: local, handcrafted, small-batch spirits.
Headed by this husband-and-wife team, Wanderback Whiskey is making a mark as a top micro-producer.
It is an unlikely endeavor for the couple. Phil is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in hip preservation. Sasha is an industrial engineer who founded, built and sold two successful businesses: Butter London, a cosmetics company; and Bevee, featuring wallets and handbags.
Fifteen years ago, the two bought a 30-acre farm east of Odell in the central Hood River Valley as a way to combine their enthusiasm for outdoor sports—especially kiteboarding, motorcycles and skiing—with their love of the Columbia Gorge. Based in Seattle, the couple have made Hood River a second home to their burgeoning passion.
They say Wanderback is both a way of life and a family business.
Sasha and Phil didn’t intend to get in the liquor business. In fact, until a few years ago, Sasha never even drank whiskey. And farming is a long way from where they started.
Sasha was born and raised in London. Phil is from Newfoundland.
The couple met in Paris while attending business school at Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires, and then moved to the Pacific Northwest. They have been married 14 years and have children ages 8, 10 and 13.
Once in Hood River, the couple starting making new friends and curating spirits from distilleries around the country, with Phil—who is earning a distilling diploma from Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland—as whiskey maker. Sasha handles marketing and distribution.
At its essence, making whiskey is simple: Start with grain, add water, let set. But making good whiskey is a skillful mix of art and science.
Phil says the recipe starts with a good grain bill— clear spirit that serves as the “extremely variable and important” base.
The Wanderback base is mashed, fermented and distilled at a partner distillery, then transported to the Hood River Valley farm where it is barrel-aged, finished, blended and bottled.
Wanderback produces 2,500 bottles in each batch, called a release. The first batch of single-malt whiskey was released in fall 2017, followed by another in 2018. A third is in the aging process.
The first release was made in partnership with Westland Distillery in Seattle, with the whiskey aged in new American oak barrels. The second batch was aged in what were once Nicaraguan rum barrels, providing hints of tropical aroma and flavor. The third release is aging in barrels carefully chosen for heritage and condition. The valley’s temperate climate is ideal for the craft, Phil says, noting the mild winters and warm summers.
“This is a really good place to age whiskey,” he says. “The climate here is very special. And the water here is just pristine.
“The fun thing about whiskey is that it’s a rabbit hole. There’s so much complexity. You learn so much. It’s one of those things like wine. It’s endless the things you can learn. You could study it for decades and not fully understand it.”
Phil’s attention to detail earned a Double Gold Medal from the American Distilling Institute—a rare accomplishment for
a first batch. High Proof PDX—a guidebook to craft spirits tasting—included Wanderback on its list of “Ten Oregon-Made Whiskeys You Should Try Right Now.”
Far from the moonshine days of the past, in many ways Oregon distilleries are the new wineries. There are more than 50 distilleries in Oregon—several opened in downtown Hood River in recent years—and the number is growing. In 2017, sales of American whiskey grew more than 8 percent, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.
“Consumers, once convinced of the value of highest-end examples within a particular category, tend to eventually begin seeking out more idiosyncratic expressions of it,” notes Forbes magazine. “This is just as much the case with whiskey as it is with watches, purses and more.” While being on-trend is a boon, just as important to the couple is the sense of place the whiskey represents.
The property was once a cherry orchard. In keeping with the agricultural history, Sasha and Phil are growing barley, which they hope to use in future bottles of Wanderback Whiskey.
They have restored the 1923 barn into a production facility and tasting room.
“We want to honor this special place,” Sasha says.
Wanderback Whiskey is available at liquor stores throughout Oregon and at wanderback.com.