written by Shirley A. Hancock
photography by Chris Murray
While restoring the prohibition-era Central Hotel in Burns, residents Jen and Forrest Keady discovered a 500-square-foot-space hidden deep beneath the lobby. It had a distinctly mysterious, seedy, bootlegger vibe, said Jen Keady, a history buff and restoration junkie who grew up in the Eastern Oregon town. She got to work.
Using repurposed lumber, brick and metals, the Keadys created a secret, underground lair that celebrates the 1920s age of the speakeasies, the juice joints, the blind tigers. They call their’s The Boiler Room.
You won’t find much on their website and there’s no password, but a whispered inquiry to the proprietors may get you a tour—and complimentary tasting. Through the dead-bolted door that reads, “Private. Boiler Room,” down the creaky wooden staircase, dimly lit by red lights and lined with whiskey bottles, and you’re in.
The hulking form of the hotel’s original boiler, at once menacing and amusing with coal-door eyes and a mouthful of whiskey bottles, greets you. Every dark nook and cranny harbors a bottle, 400 bottles total. Taste one, taste them all. Some are on the house, you just have to find them.
“We hand you a glass and invite you to go on a scavenger hunt,” said Jen Keady. “We can tell what to find, or you can explore on your own and ask for a sample. It’s a really fun place to explore and discuss travels and tastes.”
Seventeen whiskey-making countries are represented at the Central Hotel, from Austria and Israel to India and the Dominican Republic. Practice your best Icelandic toast, “hvernig skálarðu” with a shot of Smoked Sheep Dung Reserve. (Short on trees, Iceland uses dried sheep dung to smoke the malt.) There are whiskeys culled from defunct distilleries: Van Winkle, Kentucky Owl, High Wheeler and some rare Blanton’s.
Take a shot of Blood Oath, 98.6 proof, the same as the temperature of human blood. Be the first to swig Pabst Blue Ribbon (yes) Whiskey, which claims it’s been “aged six seconds” and a local blueberry moonshine which, oddly, everyone wants to try after reading this review: “I think I’m blind, this is so bad.”
Whiskey shy? There’s pineapple, coffee habanero, orange, butterscotch, huckleberry, pecan flavored whiskeys. Even whiskey snobs love the peanut butter flavor, we’re told.
Some bottles have never been discovered. Find some and stay in one of the twelve rooms the Central Hotel has to offer, with names such as Flapper Girl or Moonshine. Do some of the brightest stargazing in the West, high desert hot springs, bird sanctuaries and the Steens Mountains—and raise a glass to Harney County wonders.
“We hand you a glass and invite you to go on a scavenger hunt. We can tell what to find, or you can explore on your own and ask for a sample. It’s a really fun place to explore and discuss travels and tastes.”— Jen Keady, Central Hotel co-owner