Diane Paulson, president and co-owner of Cascade Peak Spirits, demonstrates the bottling process of their organic vodka in Ashland Tuesday. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

Ashland distillery debuts organic liquor

ASHLAND — Oregon's first organic liquor — a vodka distilled in Ashland — goes on shelves and in bars and restaurants Thursday.

The target market? People who spend money on fine wines and organic foods, regardless of the economy, and who want their liquor, like their food, to be tasty, made locally and free of manmade chemicals, says Diane Paulson, president of the fledgling Cascade Peak Spirits.

Paulson and Vice President David Eliasen, her business and domestic partner, have signed up the state liquor stores and at least 20 restaurants in the valley to carry O-N, or Organic Nation vodka.

It's distilled from rye grown in nearby Etna, Calif., and put through seven carbon filters so it's as pure as possible.

"We've done a lot of tasting with friends and family and everyone is really impressed with the taste," said Paulson. "It's smoother than Grey Goose (a popular vodka from France) and has no harsh chemicals, fertilizers or pesticides." The vodka has virtually no smell or taste and, notes Paulson, "that's the beauty of vodka. It's a neutral, colorless, odorless spirit and you only taste the tomato juice or grapefruit juice in the mixer." Soon to come are vanilla and ginger vodkas and in a few weeks, O-N organic gin, made from juniper berries and botanicals grown in the valley, said Eliasen. Because of its distinctive taste, he said, it might equal sales of vodka.

Although there's one organic gin micro-distiller in Colorado and nonorganic micro-distillers in Bend and Brookings and a dozen in the Portland area, Eliasen, a former Ashland water treatment worker, said he doesn't see them being competitors. Cascade Peak is the only one in the state certified as organic by Oregon Tilth.

Paulson and Eliasen found eight shareholders among their friends and got a $150,000 loan from Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc., repayable over 10 years and with the proviso that they create seven jobs.

With the present credit crunch, area banks have told them they'll provide capital once Cascade Peak Spirits establishes a successful track record, the couple said.

As for the stressed economy, joked Paulson, a former teacher and real estate agent, "Alcohol is recession- and depression-proof because people drink more when they're depressed." (See clarification below) She added: "and the organic-food people are going to keep their commitment to organic, no matter what."

The company bought a $20,000 column still from Bavarian Holstein in Germany and took instruction in Arizona on how to use it. With funding, they want to buy a still 20 times its size, they said.

The still makes eight gallons in two hours, ending up with three to four usable gallons of 80-proof spirits, which is mixed with ionized water. The pair say 75 percent of their work is marketing the product, something that must be done in person, carrying the product to fine restaurants and bars — which in turn creates demand at state liquor stores.

They hope to enter the Washington state liquor store system quickly, market their product in the well-attended Olympic trials in Eugene this June and be set up in Whistler, B.C., for the 2010 Winter Olympics, they say.

Eliasen says they hope to "feed into the food revolution" in the region, as seen in Rogue Creamery, Dagoba Chocolates, Caldera Brewing, Rising Sun Farms and scores of wineries.

The vodka will sell for $32.85 and will be featured at a tasting from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday at Ashland's OLCC on Lithia Way at Oak Street. Tastings will follow soon at Medford OLCC stores.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

Clarification: This paragraph has been altered to clarify Paulson was joking when she made the statement about alcohol being recession- and depression-proof.

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