Born from the inspiration and creativity of “The Divine Comedy,” the famous poem by 14th century Italian poet Dante, the couple behind Divine Distillers in Salem, Oregon, is fusing their globetrotting experience into a unique line of craft spirits. Jason Greenwood and his wife Jennell Ives launched Divine Distillers in 2017 with the purpose of drawing on the influence of Dante’s long narrative poem about the afterlife while showcasing local Oregon ingredients with a heavy focus on sustainability. We spoke with Greenwood to explore his approach, style and what makes Divine Distillers unique in the expanding world of craft spirits.
1) How has the inspiration of “The Divine Comedy” influenced your process in crafting your spirits?
It has definitely given us a roadmap to structure all our products and given us a narrative of how and why we produce all the things we produce. It gives us a way to structure our tastings as a journey through the spirits world, as Dante was our guide through the afterlife (in his poem)… While my son’s name is Dante, my daughter’s name is Angelica, and we intend to have a line of well-crafted aged products called “Ange.” It will take us years to create these spirits, but we have a story and a reason to strive for the divine.
We take great joy in sharing how we create our spirits an amazing repertoire of ways to play our spirits in the real world. It’s given us the ability to give. The Divine Comedy has inspired a lot of our names, it has guided our way of thinking of our spirits, and given us the freedom to create and pay attention to our spirits in a way that I many people who struggle to find a cohesive narrative in their story don’t have.
2) What are some of the steps you’ve taken to growing your commitment to creating an eco-friendly distillery?
We are constantly looking to reduce waste, reuse materials and find more ecologically friendly ways to create our product and improve our environment. We use environmentally friendly “HAY! Straws” from California, biodegradable cups for as much as possible when we are doing shows and glass in our tasting room. Virtually all our waste is consumed by farm animals. We try to use other Oregon ag byproducts in the creation of our liquor: Our grappa is made from pomace, a byproduct of wine production. Our whiskey is made from beer products, while our “cowcohol” is made from whey, a byproduct from cheese manufacturing that is very difficult to dispose of in environmentally friendly ways.
3) How are you able to showcase your distilling style while crafting distinctly different spirits?
I started with the flavors and styles I love and found a way to bring those to life through the distillation process. The fruits of the Willamette Valley are amazing. Taking farm-fresh apples and creating an apple brandy embodies the flavors of fall in Oregon, but my distillation style is uniquely catered to the products I distill.
We tested many permutations of yeast, agave, water and aging agents to get a flavor that, for me, highlights the depth and yumminess of heirloom agave. I would say my distillation style is to tailor the process to bring out the flavors hidden in each ingredient. My style is to never be content to produce a spirit. I am always testing and experimenting with different techniques, constantly trying to improve our product.
4) How have your experiences living in Brazil, Mexico, England, France, Belgium and Canada influenced your distilling approach and profile?
Our experiences with a vast array of cultures have led us to never conform. We don’t do things the way that people have always done, because we have seen so many different people do so many similar things differently. We see how cane sugar alcohol (rum) is made differently in almost every country, we have seen how different agave plants produce vastly different flavors, how the same grains cooked differently can taste so completely foreign from each other just by minute changes.
Living all over the world has exposed us to flavor palates that few have had the chance to experiment with. We come with an open mind and a curiously adventurous spirit in this industry. We take chances — sometimes they pay off, sometimes they lead to catastrophic failures and we have to get rid of the product.
Our worldwide exposure also lends itself to us constantly creating new products and innovating them and putting our own spin on products that have been strictly regional. We use our platform to expose our customers to a vast world of flavors and profiles that few know.