An Interview With Karen Locke – High-Proof PDX: A Spirited Guide to Portland’s Craft Distilling Scene

This evening the launch of the latest book on Portland’s drinking culture will take place. Local author Karen Locke will officially release her new book, High-Proof PDX: A Spirited Guide to Portland’s Craft Distilling Scene (Overcup Press, $12.99) tonight at Bit House Saloon from 5:00-10:00pm.

HIGH-PROOF PDX: A Spirited Guide to Portland’s Craft Distilling Scene explores the Portland culture of drinking and the local distilleries that make the Rose City a world-class drinking city. Locke explores the ever-growing distillery scene in Portland that now boasts having the largest amount of distilleries of any city (as well as breweries). It’s these distillers that also help feed the local cocktail culture in Portland. The scene of mixologists has exploded over the past few years and Portland boasts some of the best out there.

Locke offers to distinct sections in High-Proof PDX, the first section that goes in depth into Tasting and the other into The After Party. The Tasting section takes up about two-thirds of the book and goes deep into the history of distilling in Portland from 1985 when Steve McCarthy opened Clear Creek Distilling to the more recent explosion of Distillery Row in SE Portland and the NW Distillers District. She then explores the distilleries located outside of the Portland including distilleries form the Oregon Coast to the Columbia Gorge to Bend and to the Southern Willamette Valley.

It is then in The After Party section that Locke delves into the Portland cocktail scene. Divided into three chapters, Cocktail Bars, The Home Bar and Hangover Cures, this is where the read gets more insightful and creative for both locals and tourists. The section on Hangover Cures is interesting as Locke goes out into the wild and asks some of Portland’s best mixologists their favorite and most trusted cures to the dreaded hangover.

Karen Locke, author of High-Proof PDX: A Spirited Guide to Portland’s Distilling Scene. (photo courtesy of Karen Locke)

Locke is a freelance food and spirits writer, former bartender and creative marketing strategist. She has been published in Bon Appetit, Thrillist, Sip Northwest, Chilled magazine, Cidercraft, OnTrak magazine, Tales of the Cocktail along with serving as editor of Drink Portland for three years. Locke can also be followed on her blog –

Here is our interview with Karen Locke…

Is High-Proof PDX: A Spirited Guide to Portland’s Distilling Scene the first book you have written?
Karen: It is! So many people want to write books in this world, so I feel very fortunate to have gone through this experience. When people tell me they want to write a book, I always get an image of Tobias from “Arrested Development” sobbing in the shower after his breakup. Kidding. It’s not all ugly crying but it really has become a huge part of my life.

What made you decide to write this book and when did you begin this process?
Karen: Nearly three years ago I noticed a plethora of writing about beer, and ​very little content about distilling in our state. I began interviewing all of the distillers in 2014 before I had a book deal. I pitched to a local publisher and signed my first contract in December of 2015. That deal fell through, and I signed with Overcup Press about a year ago.

How did you connect up with Overcup Press to publish High-Proof PDX?
Karen: My now fiancé proposed to me and I lost my book deal on the same day last summer. I signed with Overcup shortly after. With that timeline, that means I’m getting married and releasing the book in the same month!

I had been working on the book for around seven months with that other publisher. When I pitched my book to Overcup Press, I was already promoting the brand and had quite a few followers, plus I already had a manuscript ready. Needless to say, Overcup was into it.

After completing all the research from writing this book what was the most important piece of insight that you took from this experience?
Karen: Maybe this is more personal insight, but even I have so much to learn!​ We live in a city full of “artisan this,” and “artisan that.” We’re often critiquing, judging and comparing all of the food and drink at our fingertips. This experience reminded me when it comes to experiencing all that Portland has to offer, it’s not always at our fingers tips. Sometimes we have to dig deeper.

When it comes to spirits what is your preferred choice?
Karen: If I’m sipping spirits,​ I prefer brown spirits like whiskey, aged vodka, or aged rum. I’m into Flooded Fox Den’s Búsqueda Rum right now. For cocktails, I’m so happy to see gin showing up in more cocktails.

What is your current favorite cocktail?
Karen: I recently tried the Heart Breaker at Headwaters in the Heathman Hotel. Bar manager Brandy Feit and her team there have mastered the art of the memorable cocktail. Heart Breaker is one of their tap cocktails, and made from ​New Deal Distillery‘s Gin 33, strawberry Aperol, Bruto Americano, and ​Cocchi Rosa.​

Heart Crusher cocktail at Headwaters. This draft cocktail is priced right during happy hour! (photo by D.J. Paul)

You wrote a section on Made in Portland vs. Distilled in Portland. I feel the city’s distilleries are creating a better whiskey or bourbon but many still lag behind. What is your opinion on this topic?
Karen: Oregon’s whiskey production as a category is still maturing, this is true. A bulk of the distilleries in Portland opened in 2009-present and when you compare that to the amount of time it takes to age whiskey, it all starts making a little more sense. More distilleries in Oregon are making whiskey than ever before. I encourage people to try the region’s whiskey to better recognize how the climate and ingredients here affect the taste of the whiskey. While there is a point of comparison, Portland is not Kentucky. Our whiskey will inherently have different characteristics.

I really enjoyed the section on hangover cures. Were all of the bartenders you interviewed very receptive to offering their advice?
Karen: Some ​bartenders passed on offering up hangover cures, which I understand. The last thing I want to do is perpetuate a stereotype of excessive drinking in the industry. Some bartenders offered up hangover cures that weren’t as personal. I think had I written a book about just cocktails, I wouldn’t have included hangovers. Distillery touring is a new experience for many and judging intake by the half-ounce is a little trickier.

Not that you’d ever be hungover, but did you find any success with their advice?
Karen: Hangover cures can be very personal but one that I love is Tommy Klus offering up Gentiane Liqueur and soda water, which can be good for nausea.

Karen Locke, author of High-Proof PDX: A Spirited Guide to Portland’s Distilling Scene. (photo courtesy of Karen Locke)

Karen Locke will be doing a brief book release tour in and around Portland the begins tonight at the Bit House Saloon and continues on Sunday at Powell’s City of Book and on September 28th with a High-Proof PDX Cocktail Dinner at Quaintrelle. Here are more details on each event.

High-Proof PDX Book Launch Party
Thursday, September 7 from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Free and open to the public with cash bar
Bit House Saloon – 727 SE Grand Avenue, Portland
Meet author Karen Locke and purchase a signed copy of High-Proof PDX: A Spirited Guide to Portland’s Craft Distilling Scene. Special cocktails will be available featuring local spirits and a celebratory ice luge.

Powell’s City of Books: Karen Locke in Conversation with Lee Medoff, distiller and founder, Bull Run Distillery
Sunday, September 10 at 7:30 p.m., Free
Powell’s City of Books – 1005 West Burnside Street, Portland
Join Karen and Lee for a behind-the-scenes discussion of Portland’s craft distilling scene with stories and insider tips for where to sip and how to taste like a pro. Join Karen for cocktails following the event at Quality Bar, 931 SW Oak Street.

High-Proof PDX Cocktail Dinner at Quaintrelle
Thursday, September 28, 6:30 p.m.
$90 per person includes 4-course dinner, paired cocktails and signed book
Quaintrelle – 3936 N. Mississippi Street, Portland
Enjoy a multi-course dinner from chef Bill Wallender paired with cocktails featuring local spirits from bar manager Camille Cavan. Meet author Karen Locke and learn a few insider tips about Portland’s local craft distilling scene.

For additional upcoming book events, please visit