Drinking schnaps cocktails at Trocadero Club, San Francisco

Drinking schnaps cocktails at Trocadero Club, San Francisco

Why You Should Hunt Down REAL SCHNAPS

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Hochstrasser schnaps at Sporer, Salzburg

Hochstrasser schnaps at Sporer, Salzburg

Whatever association you have with the word Schnapps, or Schnaps, as it is known in Germanic countries (the word means “swallow”), it likely isn’t good. Sour apple, pucker, fruit flavors… you might think of cheap, sugary liqueurs in unnatural colors. But this, my friends, is not real schnaps.

In Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and the French region of Alsace, schnaps, edelbrande or brand (as in brandy), is another thing entirely. The French term is eaux de vie, among my favorite spirits categories and the supreme example of distilled fruits. A classic fruit eau de vie/schnaps will never be too sweet or cloying, but rather fresh, sometimes clean or lush. Production is involved, requireing tons of fruit to produce a mere bottle. The fruit is macerated, fermented, and distilled, typically in a grain liquor base, sometimes a liqueur with sugar added, other times a clear spirit.

McMenamins Pear Brandy (photo source: www.mcmenamins.com)

McMenamins Pear Brandy (photo source: www.mcmenamins.com)

One of the most classic eaux de vie, and my favorite strain, is pear, typically made from Williams pears (the same as Bartlett), aka Poire Williams. I judge American eaux de vie producers by their pear, and the best producers make a crisp version, tart with the taste of fresh pear skin, sometimes floral. In the US, I love the pear brandies/eaux de vie (and plenty of other eaux de vie) from St. George, Clear Creek (which, after decades as an independent distillery, was just sold to a larger spirits corporation so I would keep an eye out for changes in quality), Old World Spirits, McMenamins, and Stone Barn Brandyworks. While decidedly American, these are fine examples of quality eaux de vie.

The great American pioneers in brandy? Jörg Rupf, who founded St. George in 1982, brought Old World methods and precision to California from his native Germany with his brandies. Another US/California pioneer important to mention in a brandy discussion – known for his Cognac/Armagnac-quality spirits rather than for fruit brandies – is Hubert Germain-Robin, who founded Germain-Robin in 1982.

How I wish for this book to be translate to English (or better yet, I read German)

How I wish for this book to be translate to English (or better yet, wish I read German)

In Austria, there are such fantastic brands that would surely be in demand among spirits lovers in the States were we able to get our hands on them. What would it take to get more of them imported here?

I wish I spoke/read German anyway, especially while thumbing through this fantastic book, Edle Spezialitäten in Österreich, a giant, coffee table book outlining every schnaps/brandy and wine producer in Austria via photos and facts (available at Sporer in Salzburg, below). If only someone would translate this invaluable book into English.

Wall of Rochelt spirits at Culinarium in Innsbruck, Austria

Wall of Rochelt spirits at Culinarium in Innsbruck, Austria

Many schnaps made an impression this visit to Austria. One is Golles, produced in the village of Riegersburg in the region of Styria, near Hungarian and Slovenian borders. Alois Gölles distills his schnaps in copper stills, the ones I tasted boasting a rustic elegance and welcome earthiness, among the most lauded in the country.

Tyroler Single Malt Whisky

Tyroler Single Malt Whisky

Reisetbauer in Axberg, northeast of Salzburg, is a beloved, award-winning brand from Hans Reisetbauer, who leased barely 4 acres from his father’s farmland to grow fruit used strictly for schnaps. While many producers source their fruit from other parts of the country and Europe, he has direct supervision and control over fruits grown on his land. Reistebauer schnaps are clean and refined, fragrant and unique, like carrot schnaps, which reminds me of St. George’s experimental carrot brandy years back which I wish was released.

Sporer barrels, Salzburg

Sporer barrels, Salzburg

I was intrigued by and wanted to taste more Siegfried Herzog schnaps. The surprisingly refined, nutty Nusserl or hazelnut schnaps was so brilliant, I bought a bottle at Sporer in Salzburg (see below). Another Sporer win was a recommend from the shop owner: forward-thinking Hochstrasser bottles in sleek black with galaxy/space labels. They produce a range of products from zirbenz (pine liqueur) to banana liqueurs. Their fruit vakuum-destillat, or vacuum distilled, schnaps is a fascinating line. It has been explained to me as a slow-heat, slow “cook” process akin to a sous vide concept where maximum flavors are taken from fresh fruit without “overcooking”. The result, particularly with Hochstrasser’s Rote Williams Birne (red pear schnaps) is tart, clean, tasting of pear skins. I also brought home this stunner, wishing I could have transported the entire line home with me.

Rochelt (photo source: www.rochelt.com)

Rochelt (photo source: www.rochelt.com)

Rochelt is the most exciting of the many schnaps I tried and is respected – almost worshiped – in Austria. Just 15 minutes drive outside Innsbruck, Gunter Rochelt (who opened the distillery in 1989) and his son-in-law, Alexander Rainer, who now runs the business with the three Rochelt daughters, Julia, Annia and Teresa, distills a wholly different kind of schnaps. While still using fruits, from wild rowanberry to morello cherry, these are boozy, high proof schnaps, often 50% ABV or more. Bottled at cask strength and blessedly not sweet, they feel like the whisk(e)y of schnaps. Bracing and complex, I bought bottles of quince and Poire Williams, marveling at the nuance and depth of each. This is fruit liqueur from a completely fresh angle. There’s a whole wall of Rochelt for sale at Culinarium in Innsbruck (see below).

pür bierbrand (photo source: www.purspirits.com)

pür bierbrand (photo source: www.purspirits.com)

Taking an overview of the category, the range of schnaps is broad. German schnaps are often made from pears (Poire Williams or Williamsbirne), apples (often combined with pears and called Obstwasser), plums (Zwetschgenwasser), cherries (Kirschwasser), apricots (Marillenschnaps), Himbeergeist (a raspberry spirit). But non-fruit spirits are also referred to as schnaps, including popular kräuterlikör (herbal liqueurs) such as Underberg, Wurzelpeter, and the infamous Jägermeister. Bierbrand is another ubiquitous category in Germanic countries, essentially a brandy that is distilled beer. One quality brand available in the US is pür•geist bierbrand from pür spirits.

As you might suspect, we are missing out here in the states by having little access to the majority of schnaps. While I’d highly recommend traveling to Austria, I’d also love to see demand grow amongst knowledgeable industry folk (bar managers, writers, consumers, etc.) for these products, with importers and distributors working to bring more to the US. It’s time distilled fruits, nuts and the like had their day… I suspect there are many would-be fans. Consider Austria an underrated diamond in the spirits rough.

Dresden cocktail at The Trocadero Club

Dresden cocktail at The Trocadero Club

Where to drink Schnaps in the US

In LA, you can order pours of the Golles and Reisetbauer lines at Bierbeisl, a great Austrian/German restaurant. In Sacramento, there’s a surprisingly strong selection of schnaps and Germanic liqueurs to drink neat or in cocktails at hip sausage and beer house, Lowbrau. There’s also a strong collection of Reisetbauer and a few other schnaps and Germanic liqueurs at Cafe Katja in New York‘s Lower East Side.

El Chapo

El Chapo: Nocino (Italian green walnut liqueur), Mezcal, Creme de Cacao, Lillet Blanc, lemon

Trocadero Club, a newer San Francisco bar (just opened in October 2013), one of Dennis Leary’s newest spots, is ahead of the curve in its treatment of Austrian drink. Bar Manager/Partner Eric Passetti – part of the opening team for Mamacita and Delarosa and helping to run all of Leary’s bars – envisioned a bar featuring Austrian wines and schnaps. “I’m a contrarian who likes doing things other people aren’t doing,” explains Passetti. With a grandfather and great grandfather who both owned bars in San Francisco, and having bartended for 13 years himself, he wanted to do something different with this bar, noting: “The scene is exhausted as it is.”


Sipping a Dresden

Unfortunately, the crowds coming to the relaxed, white-walled, high ceiling bar on a grubby Tenderloin corner, are not quite there. Austrian wines have been reduced due to demand for other wines and there are really only about four schnaps, which is in part due to inaccessibility as imports. But as Passetti knows from his own research on schnaps, instead of, “being high in sugar and low in alcohol, true schnaps are higher in alcohol, lower in sugar.” He showcases schnaps in a good half of his cocktails ($10).

The Dresden shows off the subtle hops of Bierbrand with herbaceous gin, dry Italian vermouth and Green Chartreuse, while the Baroness goes a boozy-yet-elegantly sweet and bitter direction with pur spirits Bierbrand Märzan Schnaps (distilled malted barley aged in chestnut casks), sweet Italian Amaro Nonino, Tempus Fugit’s Gran Classico, and lemon juice.

Baroness  cocktail at Trocadero Club

Baroness cocktail at Trocadero Club

Where to drink Schnaps in Austria

Sitting at the bar looking at vinyl collection

Sitting at the bar looking at vinyl collection

One of the best wine and schnaps bars in Austria (and, thus, the world?) is in Salzburg. Just a couple doors down from my wonderful apartment rental on narrow, cobblestoned-lined Steingasse street, is Fridrich. Run by Fridrich himself since 1986, I would easily call this tiny wine bar one of my favorite bars in Europe. And I’m a spirits and cocktail girl first.

Intimate perfection at Fridrich

Intimate perfection at Fridrich

Though the bar, under arched stone ceiling with glowing lighting, is intimately sexy, Fridrich almost imparts a subtle punk-rock attitude to the relaxed environs. It’s partly his expert knowledge of all things Austrian – he tasted me through the crisp, earthy notes of Nigl (pronounced nee-gel) Gelber Muskateller white wine, harvested from tiered, hillside vineyards, and likewise earthy, complex Golles schnaps. Another visit, it was a glass of lovely Stiegelman Grauburgunder Weingut, a white wine I’d loved at a restaurant in the Tyrolean-chic village of Kitzbuhel.

Entering Fridrich in Salzburg

Entering Fridrich in Salzburg

The other reason for Fridrich’s uniqueness is his impeccable musical tastes and expansive vinyl and CD collection, which he plays interchangeably like a sophisticated DJ. His top of the line sound system envelops the bar with a tapestry of sound.

There’s a wonderful woman who works with him, demure yet engaging, both of them offering recommendations, pours, humorous asides. Lou Reed died the last night we were in Salzburg. Fridrich told us the news, then put on Reed’s music. We all raised a glass, shedding a tender tear. It’s that kind of a bar.

The Renaissance Man and I were so inspired, we dreamed of opening our own tiny bar like this somewhere in the world: a place where you immediately feel like a local, where what is poured and what is played is of equal importance, where there is nothing to prove, only to relax, savor to feel at home.

Where to buy Schnaps in Austria

Culinarium, Innsbruck

Culinarium, Innsbruck

Salzburg’s schnaps/brandy shop extraordinaire is Sporer, which has been on Salzburg’s main, touristy-yet-utterly-charming shopping street, Getreidegasse, since 1903. Sporer staff are informed and passionate about schnaps and can chat about it for great lengths of time, offering samples and spot-on recommendations.

In Innsbruck, don’t miss Culinarium, a father and son-run shop that’s been around over 40 years. There’s a whole wall of nearby Rochelt (see above), and fascinating local spirits like Vir Gin, an Austrian dry gin, or Tiroler Single Malt Whisky.

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Rarities: 50 Year Old Scotch & 1950 Cognac

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

Photo courtesy of lastdropdistillers.com

When you get the rare chance to try 50 year old Scotch or Cognac, you do. When it’s a tasting with drink industry legends like James Espey, who is behind the creation of iconic brands like Bailey’s Irish Cream, Malibu Rum and even Johnnie Walker Blue, it’s an imperative. I enjoyed a rousing lunch at Hakkasan this week with James and Ben
Howkins of Royal Tokaji, one of the partners in his unique project, Last Drop Distillers.

With the tag line, “Before There is No More,” Espey and his three Last Drop business partners hunt for rare treasure: cellared casks, stored for decades undiscovered. They  release them in elegant, limited edition bottlings, and only in key markets: UK, US and China.

Tasting both the whisky and the Cognac, both coming with fascinating stories.

There’s only 388 bottles of this second edition/release of The Last Drop 50 Year Old Whisky (selling for about $4000 per bottle!), made from over 82 whiskies. They found three casks of this blend, forgotten in the back of a warehouse produced by many now-defunct distilleries around Scotland, married (blended) over 50 years ago.

This heaven of a whisky carries whispers of the enchanting country of Scotland in each sip. A woody, dried fruit and spice nose gives way to a taste that hints at the peat of Islay, alongside the balanced nuance of the Highlands. It’s rich, warm and unfolding, with a touch of water. It’s a privilege just to have tried this beauty.

Photo courtesy of lastdropdistillers.com

Photo courtesy of lastdropdistillers.com

Likewise, The Last Drop 1950 Fine Aged Cognac (selling for about $2800 per bottle) is revelatory. It’s story is romantic and inspired: they met a mother and daughter in the Cognac countryside, the mother 93 years old. She had distilled a Cognac when she was in her 30′s. Though much of what remained had evaporated, what survived was still shockingly lively, and the Last Drop boys bought up all her Cognac casks.

Aside from the unreal time I tasted 1805 and 1865 Cognacs with Salvatore Calabrese and Dale DeGroff during Tales of the Cocktail 2010, this is the best Cognac I’ve ever had. It’s shockingly fresh, clean and floral, yet retains the maturity and depth of a fine whisky, blessedly bottled at cask strength. It imparts a woody playfulness and welcome dryness.

More fun Espey facts: In June 2013, James received an O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) from the Queen “for services to the Whisky Industry.” He is also founder of The Keepers of the Quaich, a leading international Whisky Society, and recently published a book on building and marketing your brand (you), no matter the industry, Making Your Marque.

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Bay Area Bottled Brandy-Fruit Infusions

Article and Photos by Virginia Miller

San Francisco Bartender Bret Sylvester has done the somewhat impossible: created a line of fruit-infused brandies to please the spirits and non-spirits drinker alike. I recently tested out his sparkling line on visiting family and friends.

(photo source: drinkverbena.com)

(photo source: drinkverbena.com)

My wine drinking and even some generally teetotaling family members all loved Drink Verbena, while I and other spirits drinkers found the line complex as it was refreshing. Granted, we each had different favorite flavors but the universal appeal is the bubbly balance of these dry, bright infusions. With convenient Zork corks to reseal and maintain carbonation, Verbana comes in small 187 ml bottles ($7) or larger 375 ml ($14). At 13% ABV, it’s low alcohol, ideal to take out on picnics, usable in cocktails but each perfectly lovely on its own.

Playing off his years of experimenting with infusions at bars, Sylvester sources an unaged brandy as the base, then infuses with a range of ingredients, including fruits all sourced from Nor Cal farms, from Fresno to Sebastopol. In the case of the Meyer Lemon Infusion, for example, he works with lemon, lime, green cardamom, coriander seeds, lemongrass, juniper berries, allspice, black peppercorn, lemon zest, agave, gentian root, weaving all together into a seamless whole.

Impressively, Sylvester is a “one man show” since he launched in March 2013, making and bottling everything himself, currently just for the Bay Area. He continues to experiment with and test out a range of infusions. Of the few I’ve tried, my favorite is the dry tart of the Cherry Infusion, balanced by vinegar, pineapple, vanilla bean, lime, lemon zest and gentian root.

The bottles don’t need to be refrigerated, although being bubbly, they taste best chilled. Citrus-based infusions can keep up to 5 months, while some, like Pineapple Infusion, can last up to 10. One of my longtime favorite restaurants, Brenda’s, serves the Cherry and Meyer Lemon Infusions, as does Grub. In San Francisco, bottles are sold at Whole Foods, Liquid Experience, Noe Valley Wine Merchants, Swirl on Castro, and now also at SoMa StrEat Food Park, to name a few (more locations for purchase here).

I suspect expansion will be in Sylvester’s future as demand for Verbena continues to grow.

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Article by Virginia Miller

CHRISTIAN DROUIN Pommeau de Normandie

Photo: Virginia Miller

If you love spirits and apples, then Calvados is your is your ideal imbibement. The elegant French version of apple brandy grown in the Calvados region of France, the apple brandy is often rounded out by pears, and in the case of Calvados Christian Drouin, one of the world’s best-selling small Calvados producers (around 150,000 bottles per year), they grow over 30 varieties of apples used to make their Calvados.

Recently spending a quiet morning over coffee and Calvados with the gracious Christian Drouin himself, I learned his father made Calvados as a hobby but never sold a bottle. Christian launched the company in the 1970′s, wisely growing the business in untapped Calvados markets like US, Asia and Russia, now working with his son, even publishing the first recipe books of Calvados cocktails.

Sipping aged beauties like a crisp 1992 vintage, a lively 1982, and a 1972 Calvados prove that fine Calvados is as pleasurable an experience as Cognac, Scotch, whiskey, and the like. On the affordable side, there’s much to excite. Pays d’Auge is light, floral, and popular with bartenders in elevated cocktails, while Blanche de Normandy is a fragrant, clear aperitif that doubled in sales in 2012.

However, I want to alert you to Pommeau de Normandie ($23): this bright spirit is a blend of Calvados and pre-fermented must, or essentially apple juices, made from 20 varieties of apple. It’s crisp, refreshing, a lush exploration of apples that tastes like fall and spring combined. The Christian Drouin line is distributed in the US by SF’s Anchor Distilling.


In Northern California, we’re ridiculously blessed with pioneers in every realm of drink. Whether beer, wine, or spirits, these few pioneered methods long before we saw them around the country. The earliest craft spirits were happening here decades past at St. George, Germain-Robin, Anchor Distilling. There’s another longtimer you might not recognize: Quady.

Quady Winery was launched by Andrew and Laurel Quady in 1975 in Madera, California (inland between Fresno and Modesto). They specialize in muscat dessert wines and ports, but are known in the cocktail world for Vya Vermouth (Whisper Dry, Extra Dry, Sweet), released in 1999 well before vermouth experienced its widespread resurgence.

The bottling you may not be familiar with is their lovely Palomino Fino ($29.99). Andrew says they modeled it after a traditional Spanish Amontillado sherry, which begins as fino sherry, the driest style. Using biodynamically grown Palomino grapes (the variety sherry is typically made from in Spain) and producing via the painstaking aging and blending Solera method, this elegant fino – we can’t call it sherry – tastes as if it were made in Spain: dry, nutty (think hazelnuts) and ideal after dinner.


St. George already produces some of the best gins around. Then they go and taunt us with a limited release, this one being their second gin released through K&L’s hand-selected, independent bottlings: Faultline Gin ($34.99). They’re calling it “the 4th gin”, following after St. George’s line-up of three.

Think St. George’s vivacious use of botanicals with savory celery seed and roasted orange peels for a smoky, umami essence. It shines in a gin and tonic or a Bloody Mary… and there’s only 900 bottles produced. I can’t help but wish it was permanently the 4th gin.

DIDIER MEUZARD Ratafia de Bourgogne

Didier Meuzard has been producing gorgeous Burgundian eaux de vie and brandies (like marc brandy, France’s version of grappa) for decades – you’d do well trying any of them. But you just might fall in love with Ratafia de Bourgogne ($52), which you can order by the pour at The Alembic.

Ratafia is almost like a wine cordial, not unlike Christian Drouin’s Pommeau. Fresh grape must (not yet fermented) is added to brandy for a dynamic, lush pour. It’s a brandy simultaneously tart, light and sweet, stunning as an aperitif before dinner or as a midday sip.

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10 Best Spirits Releases of 2012

Article by Virginia Miller, Press photos/from brand websites

Each year holds a range of interesting spirits released from around the globe. As the craft spirit industry continues to explode, there are many exciting newcomers this year. Here are some of the best of what’s crossed my desk in 2012.

FORD’s GIN ($27)The 86 Company is a new venture from spirits and cocktail world stars Simon Ford (former International Brand Ambassador for Plymouth Gin), Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric (owners of New York’s Employees Only bar, authors of Speakeasy). Just last month, they released Caña Brava Rum (a Panama rum, aged 3 years), Aylesbury Duck Vodka, and Ford’s Gin. It’s the gin I’ve been mixing with at home in every kind of cocktail from a basic gin and tonic to complex Ramos Gin Fizz. The gin’s bright citrus-juniper properties shine in each – and the price is right. Master Distiller Charles Maxwell, of Thames Distillers, worked with Ford to develop Fords Gin, made with nine botanicals, including juniper, coriander, cassia, jasmine, bitter orange, grapefruit peel. A nice, local connection (and environmental plus): distilled gin is shipped in bulk to and bottled by our own Charbay in Napa, cut with fresh Mendocino County water.

HIGH WEST CAMPIRE WHISKEY ($54) – Though I’ve been partial to Balcones Brimstone when it comes to a wild and wooly American smoked whiskey (in Balcones’ case, a corn whiskey smoked with Texas scrub oak), High West’s new Campfire continues in that rugged vein,  smoky with Old West charm. Bourbon, rye and smoky single malt are blended together in a spicy, woody, sweet, floral whole that makes me crave BBQ.

IMBUE PETAL & THORN Vermouth ($27) - From Portland and the creators of bittersweet vermouth Imbue (Derek Einberger, Neil Kopplin, and Jennifer Kilfoil), Imbue’s Petal & Thorn is a gorgeously bitter gentian liqueur using homegrown beets for color, alongside cinnamon and menthol – a truly unique elixir that’s lovely with soda on the rocks, in twists on classic cocktails like the Negroni, and on its own.

TEMPUS FUGIT KINA L’AVION D’OR ($35) – Fresh off the heels of their unparalleled Crème de Menthe and Crème de Cacao last year, Tempus Fugit does it again with Kina L’Avion D’or. Reminiscent of Lillet and Cocchi Americano but with a more intense flavor punch and elegant bitter quotient, it’s made from a hundred year old recipe from a Swiss distillery… a shining beauty in the quinquina family of aperitifs, distinct with quinine bite.

1512 SPIRITS Poitín ($39) – Poitín is a rare Irish spirit made in this case from potatoes and barley (the word poteen refers to small pot stills in which the liquor is historically made). Clear, bold and light, it evokes cucumber and Summer, with the spirit of an eau de vie and robustness of a white whiskey. There’s nothing quite like it.

WAHAKA MADRE CUISHE MEZCAL ($80) – New to the US this year, Wahaka Mezcals are solid across the line, from an affordable Espadin Joven ($30) to an award winning Tobala ($80). I especially appreciate the earthier Madre Cuishe ($80), made from the wild agave plant of the same name, evoking fresh earth, cigar ash, citrus even fresh, green vegetables. If you get a taste of their Real Matlatl Tobala Mezcal ($125), it’s blissfully like sucking on a stone, intensely earthy, fascinating – for the mezcal aficionado.

CHATEAU de LAUBADE BLANCE ARMAGNAC ($55) – From a Gascon, family-run Armagnac house established in 1870, this clear, refined Armagnac has more in common with an elegant grappa or pisco than beautifully rough and ready Armagnacs. Airy yet substantial with pear and floral notes, the lack of color is due to it being an unaged Armagnac. The purity of the base, made from 100% Folle Blanche grapes, shines. Consider it the cleaner, lighter side of brandy.

LEOPOLD BROTHERS FERNET ($35) – First tasting Leopold Brothers’ Fernet straight from the vat as it was fermenting when I visited their family-run Denver distillery in Sept. 2011, its release this year yielded a lighter, layered fernet-style amaro, where ginger, mint, cacao and floral notes peek out alongside the menthol bitterness Fernet is known for – the brothers (Todd and Scott) added sarsparilla root and molasses for a distinctly American touch.

GLENFIDDICH MASTER MALT Edition ($90)This limited-edition whisky was released in September from the classic distillery, one of only four in Scotland still owned and run by the same family since the 1800′s. At 18,000 bottles, it’s small production for Glenfiddich, celebrating their 125th anniversary. Malt Master Brian Kinsman crafted this double-matured whisky, which spent roughly 6 to 8 years in used Bourbon barrels, then 4 to 6 years in sherry casks. Sherry characteristics hit first but don’t overpower, with accompanying brine and spice.

FOUR ROSES 2012 Limited Edition SINGLE BARREL BOURBON ($90)  – A bracing bourbon at 100-114 proof, depending on the barrel, with only 3600 bottles released, Master Distiller Jim Rutledge has personally selected these uncut, unfiltered 12 year bourbon barrels for special release this year, among the more noteworthy whiskey tastes of 2012.


Wandering Traveler

Clear Creek, Oregon's distilling great


Bull Run's charming tasting room

Article & photos by Virginia Miller

In my recent travels in Portland I trekked to three distilleries within city limits, two established, one brand new. My top priorities were Clear Creek and House Spirits which have been the best I’ve tasted historically of what is coming out of Oregon.

I also visited brand new Bull Run Distillery near Clear Creek, boasting a retro tasting room lined with vintage barware and paraphernalia, with plans for tastings and bartender parties. In tasting their light Pacific Rum, Medoyeff Vodka and Temperance Trader whiskey blended from Kentucky whiskies (which they aren’t allowed to name), unable to taste the Oregon whiskey they have begun to age (scheduled to release in 2015), thus far it’s hard to say there’s yet a standout spirit putting them on the national craft distilling map. Waiting for their Oregon whiskey to be released…


Clear Creek's stills

On the one sunny afternoon during my week in Portland this May, I walked through the peaceful Alphabet District along leafy, tree-lined streets to Clear Creek Distillery. Housing four stills and smelling sweetly of apples, which they were distilling the day I visited, I spent the afternoon with Steve McCarthy, the gracious owner/distiller who started Clear Creek in the late ’80′s using fruit from his family’s orchard. He told me how he learned directly in the 1980′s from Northern California pioneers Jorg Rupf (St. George Spirits) and Hubert Germain-Robin (Germain-Robin), who pioneered the first US craft brandies on par with the best in Europe. McCarthy’s products are in that style, recalling Old World Europe. Utilizing local fruits and ingredients, he crafts everything from his best-selling pear eau de vie to grappas, an Oregon Single Malt Whiskey and Douglas Fir liqueur.

In production at Clear Creek

TRY: McCarthy said it and I agree: the traditional Williams Pear Brandy ($25.45 for 350ml; $40.45 for 750ml) is my favorite Clear Creek product, pure and intensely pear, on par with Poire Williams brandies I’ve sipped in France, Austria and Switzerland. I appreciate his elegant Cassis liqueur, akin to the black currant liqueurs of France, tart, sweet and ideal in a number of classic cocktail recipes. His Cranberry and Loganberry liqueurs are unique, particularly the bracingly tart, lush cranberry.


Spending a rainy morning at cozy House Spirits Distillery (launched in 2004) with distiller Colin Howard was a pleasure as we sampled future releases straight from the barrels.

Tasting with House Spirits distiller Colin Howard

House Spirits may be best known for Aviation Gin (admittedly a solid Dutch-style gin, though not one of my favorites) – they also produce Krogstad Aquavit and the small batch, limited edition Stillroom Series. Where I was particularly intrigued, however, was in tasting their upcoming Oregon whiskey (due Oct.-Nov.) and just-released rum. Howard exhibits a willingness to experiment, even play, that I admire in distillers and witness in the range of what House Spirits is creating.

WATCH FOR: As Oregon distillers pursue Oregon whiskey as a category, House Spirits is the more intriguing I’ve tasted, nuanced with spice and sweet, creamy grain, made from 100% malted barley, aged in new American oak barrels.

My taste buds were most piqued by their aged rum. It shines with a molasses sweetness from Barbados molasses, fermented with a Guadalupe Island yeast strain. Simultaneously, it exhibits a whisper of grassiness, an almost rhum agricole quality, that surprised and delighted me immediately, giving it greater character than a sweeter molasses rum. Aged in used, whiskey-washed barrels for 6-8 months, it’s smooth but stands apart with a welcome earthiness.

Two Willamette Valley WINEMAKERS

Though unfortunately this trip I did not have time to make it to Oregon’s famed wineries, I recently enjoyed long lunches with Oregon winemakers visiting San Francisco, tasting through either their entire line or in the case of Argyle, vertical tastings through vintages of the past 25 years. Both of these winemakers and wines impressed, produced with care and verve.


Argyle winemaker, Rollin Soles

As part of Argyle Winery’s Roadhouse Tour around various US cities, I attended a special media luncheon at Ame offering a vertical tasting of Argyle wines celebrating their 25th anniversary with head winemaker and founder, Rollin Soles. With quirky, knowledgeable insights (and timeless mustache), Soles led us through the tasting with laughter, commenting in depth on winemaking in the cool weather climate of the Willamette Valley: “We say, ‘It’s not Oregon wine unless it gets rained on.”

Soles says the climate as ideally suited not just for Oregon Pinot but for Chardonnay, Riesling and sparkling wine, all of which he produces from 650 acres of hillside slopes. His Rieslings sing with Asian-influenced dishes, like Ame’s gorgeous “Kaisen” sashimi salad, dotted with Japanese cucumber and tobiko caviar in a yuzu soy vinaigrette.

Naturally, the Pinots are beauties – Argyle’s Nuthouse, Spirithouse and Reserve Pinot Noirs exemplifying Oregon’s place as one of the world’s great Pinot-producing regions. I also savored a complex yet delicate 2007 Blanc de Blancs’ Brut (earthy minerality on the nose; tastes of white peach and hibiscus) and a meaty 2001 Nuthouse Chardonnay, lovely with cheese. A 2001 Extended Tirage Brut was aged 10 years in the bottle exhibiting a funky mushroom nose, crisp yet creamy on the tongue, while a 1999 Nuthouse Chardonnay is ripe with melon, vanilla, floral notes, and acidic bite.


Stoller winemaker, Melissa Burr

Stoller Vineyards boasts the distinction of being the first LEED Certified winery (with Gold rating) in the US. Stoller was founded by owner Bill Stoller, a third generation Oregonian on a 400 acre parcel of land – once Oregon’s largest turkey farm – which his family has farmed and lived on since his grandparents. It’s all volcanic soil above 200 feet, adding depth and earth to wines grown from clones Bill secured in Dijon, France.

Bill brought on a female winemaker in 2003, the lovely Melissa Burr, who I recently enjoyed a long lunch with at RN74. She looks too young to have been winemaking for over a decade, but has a rich history, from science major and intern at Cooper Mountain Vineyards to winemaker, her care apparent in the handful of Stoller releases. I was impressed hearing she’d just become pregnant when first interviewing at Stoller, and upon informing Bill, he welcomed it and brought her on board as winemaker, affirming his belief in a family-friendly winery and business.

A 2009 Chardonnay ($28) – again confirming the rise of Chardonnay production in the Willamette Valley – is crisp, barrel fermented and aged with enough acidity to be food-friendly. It’s pleasantly perfumed, tasting of light baking spice and mushroom. Though I enjoyed the expensive 2008 Reserve Cathy’s Pinot (merely 110 cases, $100), sourced from their oldest vines, I preferred the 2008 Pinot SV ($40), blended from their best 2008 barrels, its nose of plum and violets gives way to damp earth, dusty berries mushroom, and cardamom.



CLASSIC CURACAO: Restoring a 19th Century Recipe

Did you know there is an orange called the Curacao? It’s a variety of orange extremely bitter to taste, with weathered skin. Drying them in the sun releases fragrant oils. Homely as the orange may be, its intense flavor was valued in making curacao in ages past.

American palates aren’t exactly prone to bitter. We’ve been so weaned on sugar, even the most subtle of bitter can throw us off. I can vouch personally that one can in time acquire the taste. In fact, these days I crave bitter and sour far more than sweet (once was the opposite).

Enter Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao Ancienne Methode. While Triple Sec, Curacao and orange liqueur brands work well in cocktails, this new product is closer to 19th century style orange liqueur. The defining Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide of 1862 calls for curacao in over 35 recipes.

Leave it to cocktail historian (and one of the more real – and crazy – guys you’ll meet in this industry), David Wondrich, to be instrumental in its revival. Cognac Ferrand proprietor Alexandre Gabriel consulted Wondrich on this modern take of a classic. The recipe utilizes Curacao sundried orange peels, along with 14 ingredients and spices, including a bit of lemon and sweet orange peel for balance. These botanicals are blended with brandy and Pierre Ferrand Cognac, then aged in oak casks. The curacao is still sweet with vanilla and Mandarin orange, but balanced by floral notes and spices, from cinnamon to black pepper.

Released to bartender and press acclaim in Europe this past October, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao Ancienne Methode will be available across the US in March. $29.99 for 750ml bottle

Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Three Star Cognac
Alongside the Dry Curacao, Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Three Star Cognac makes lovely classic cocktails. As a 19th century style cognac, it seems “three star” was historically the younger, more affordable, yet robustly flavored cognac compared to expensive, rare cognacs. It is more akin to VS cognac today but higher in proof (90).

Gabriel again worked with Wondrich alongside Ferrand cellar-master Christian Guerin on this cognac blend. They closely modeled it on a preserved 1840 bottle of Pinet-Castillon cognac, from a time when cognac was king before grapes were wiped out by phylloxera.

It’s initially sweet and soft (despite being 90 proof) with vanilla crème brûlée notes, but as it unfolds is perfumed, buttery yet mineral. In some ways it reminds me of bright rhum agricole. $44.99

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