Coquille Indian Tribe to open Oregon’s first tribal-owned, operated distillery


A new Native-owned distillery in North Bend will soon begin making craft spirits — the first in the state to operate on tribal land.

The Coquille Indian Tribe will distill its own line of spirits starting this year inside The Mill Casino Hotel & RV Park, which is owned and operated by the tribe’s economic development arm.

Margaret Simpson, tribal member and chief executive officer of the Coquille Economic Development Corporation, said the tribe struck a partnership to produce spirits under the brand and guidance of Washington-based Heritage Distilling Company as part of the tribe’s efforts to diversify its economy.

“We’re also working to find and establish strong, steady economic resources for the tribe and seek out business opportunities to diversify the tribe’s revenue streams so we can take care of tribal family members and our community or communities,” she said. “After much research and vetting the opportunity, we’re confident that Heritage has a fitting brand to complement our vision.”

She said the tribe’s leadership came up with the idea for a craft distillery two years ago. They were trying to come up with ways to promote The Mill Casino as a regional destination. A tribal elder told leaders about Heritage and its previous work helping tribes set up distilleries.

Heritage Distilling collaborated with the Chehalis Tribe in southwest Washington to open the Talking Cedar distillery in 2020. The project was the first Native-owned distillery on U.S. reservation land; it opened after a four-year lobbying effort to repeal a nearly 200-year-old law that prohibited anyone from setting up a distillery in Indian Country.

The Indian and Trade Intercourse Act of 1834, which intended to regulate trade and “preserve the peace on the frontiers,” banned the manufacturing of liquor on tribal land. Congress repealed the law in 2018, opening up the craft spirits industry to tribes across the country. Heritage Distilling joined the lobbying to overturn the law.

Simpson said the Coquille Tribe also had to navigate Oregon’s liquor laws and get approval from the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission to start a distillery.

Justin Stiefel, president and co-founder of Heritage Distilling, said it was the first time his company assisted a tribe in a liquor control state like Oregon, where the state owns the wholesale, distribution and retail sales. After two years of talks with the OLCC, the tribe was given approval for the distillery in May, he said.

“It was a lot of work navigating through the intricacies of state and federal law, alongside the rights and desires of the tribe as a sovereign partner,” he said.

Through its partnership with Heritage, The Mill Casino distillery will produce, bottle and sell both Heritage and Coquille-branded craft spirits at the casino, bars, restaurants and retail outlets, Simpson said.

In addition to a distillery, the casino also will build a new tasting room.

Simpson said the distillery would help the tribe differentiate The Mill Casino, its largest economic engine, from competitors.

“As operators, we’re always looking for ways to differentiate ourselves amongst the competition,” Simpson said. “We’re in rural Oregon, and it takes a bit of effort to get to our location. So we work really hard to create an experience that’s memorable for our guests.”

Michael Laffey, a tribal member and marketing director for the Coquille Economic Development Corporation, said the idea for a distillery was in “response to the elevated experience that travelers are looking for today.”

“Oregon has a very rich history in wine, and it’s also known for its breweries. This is just our opportunity to do something unique,” Laffey said. “Today’s travelers want local products, new flavors and they want new experiences.”

As with other tribes, Stiefel said his distilling company will be licensing its brand to the Coquille Tribe so that the tribe can produce Heritage products with their recipes, while also creating their own unique brand and products.

“For us this is also about partnering with the tribe to help them to exercise sovereignty,” Stiefel said.

All earnings from distillery and related retail operations will go toward tribal schools and education programs for Native youth, health care, wellness programs and other services the tribal government provides to its 1,200 members, according to Simpson. The tribe’s service area spans five Oregon counties — Coos, Curry, Jackson, Douglas and Lane.

The casino, which employs roughly 500, will undergo renovations later this year to add the tasting room and a new waterfront restaurant that overlooks the bay.

Simpson said the distillery is projected to add at least 30 new jobs, while more workers will get hired once the tasting room and waterfront dining areas are ready to open.

Construction at The Mill Casino is expected to begin in the third quarter of the year, according to Laffey. He said there’s a lot of preparation underway for “a monumental facelift of the property.” The distillery will be built first, followed by the tasting room and waterfront dining area.

“We have to do it in such a way that it doesn’t disrupt the normal operations of the casino,” Laffey said. “So it’s a delicate dance that we do between making sure the customers are still enjoying their time here.”

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