Westland First Peated-Virginia Miller

7 Washington Craft Spirits You Should Know

Article and Photos (unless otherwise noted) by Virginia Miller

Three Seattle visits in the past seven months centered around craft distillery and cocktail bar research means a few spirits have stood out among the dozens I’ve tasted from Washington state, most launched in recent years. Here are my top seven from the glut of craft distillers hitting the Washington market:


(photo source: brovospirits.com)

(photo source: brovospirits.com)

With “Lady & Mac Made Liquor” stated on each bottle, BroVo Spirits is an intriguing line of 17 amari (Italian herbal/bitter liqueurs) and counting, made by distiller/owner Mhairi Voelsgen and distiller Mac Kenney in collaboration with hand-selected bartenders from Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago, with Atlanta soon to be released. No two amaro are alike, varying dramatically with each bartender’s recipe, ranging from spiced to floral, complex to crowd-pleasing.

Of the 11 BroVo amari I’ve tasted, I find #11 from Jon Christiansen in Seattle to be the most classic in the Italian amaro sense: balanced, bitter, herbal and sweet. He uses damiana, marigold, grapefruit peel and vanilla bean in his well-rounded amaro. One of Chicago’s best bartenders, Mike Ryan, created the #14 recipe, a unique blend that includes chocolate, sarsaparilla, cinnamon and thyme notes. The San Francisco range is broad and refined: Amanda Womack’s (of Cask) delicate, floral # 8, Suzanne Miller’s (of Novela) Indian spiced beauty # 10, or Will Popko’s (of Hard Water) aromatic pineapple sage #9.


(photo source: sidetrackdistillery.com)

(photo source: sidetrackdistillery.com)

A spirit that impresses me with every sip is the uncategorizable Bete from Sidetrack Distillery in Kent, WA. The spirit is distilled from sugar beets and like the great beet cocktails I’ve had over the years, it’s vegetal, earthy, while simultaneously light and bright.

Figuring out ways to use it in cocktails may seem initially daunting, but messing around at home, I find it plays beautifully with lime, lemon and other citrus, as well as vegetables like celery. A fascinating product, never has the essence of beets quite been captured like this.


Westland-Virginia MillerIn Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood, Westland‘s 13,000 sq. ft. distillery has been getting a lot of attention – for the dramatic space, yes – but most notably for the whiskies, which are easily among the stronger American whiskey releases in awhile.

It’s tough to choose a favorite, whether Deacon Seat Whiskey or their peated whiskies. American Single Malt Whiskey is made from a pale malt base grown in Washington, redolent of chocolate, caramel and coconut. First Peated American Single Malt Whiskey is a vatting of two separate new make spirits, the first a smoky mash of peated malt, the second is the WA pale malt which balances the peat with dried fruit and bright, spiced notes, the blend spending time in ex-Bourbon and Sherry casks.


EvenStar Shochu-Virginia MillerOpened in 2009 as the first craft distillery license in Seattle proper, Sodo Spirits Distillery’s EvenStar Shochu at first glance sounds gimmicky: flavored shochu, starting with rosemary, their first product released in 2011. But one can actually taste the barley base in the shochu itself. Though a clean spirit, it is not flavorless. Eastern Washington-grown barley shines, and they use Koji mold spores from Japan, with no sugar or flavorings added. Whether rosemary, ginger or mint shochus, all are made with fresh macerated herbs and roots, so subtle as to be but a whisper. Chili shochu particularly stood out for its barley backbone and fresh, bright chili flavor.


Heritage Barrel Aged Gin-Virginia MillerHeritage Distilling Co.’s Cask Club offers members-only special releases: their Distillers Reserve 4 year gin stands out in the over-hyped barrel aged gin category. At a boozy cask strength (62.5% ABV), it’s a unique beauty that tastes like Christmas, treacle/syrup and spice, with a long, dry finish. While I’m not as big a fan of their regular gin release, this aged version boasts a memorable profile, a truly unique barrel aged gin.


Sound Spirits-Virginia MillerSound Spirits‘ Ebb + Flow Gin is a balanced gin, emphasizing both herbal and citrus notes. I enjoy this gin but am even more taken with Sound Spirits Aquavit, strong on the traditional caraway, dill, coriander, fennel, anise notes, all singing together in harmony. Likewise, their Old Tom Gin is exceptional in this category of 18th century-style gin, redolent of citrus/orange and cardamom tempered by a floral presence. While many aquavit and Old Tom gins I’ve tasted blend together (or can be downright bad), Sound stands out in both categories.


Madrone Brandy-Virginia MillerSuzy and Hawk Pingree, the husband/wife team behind San Juan Island Distillery, are an inspiring couple. In their 60′s, they’ve changed careers, pursuing a passion for Calvados/brandy and cider on San Juan Island where Hawk produces cider and Suzy distills a range of spirits from ingredients foraged on the island. Most of their spirits are available to purchase at the distillery only, so it’s all about experiencing the island’s resources in its natural setting.

I particularly enjoyed their madrone brandy ($85 at the distillery), made from blackberries, madrone bark and blossoms sourced on the island. It’s complex, an elegant brandy tinged with subtle bitter and spices.

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Rusty Cerven wins

Bols Around the World Grand Finals

In the Netherlands with BOLS GENEVER

Photos & Article by Virginia Miller

Barrel sampling with Master Distiller Piet

Barrel sampling with Master Distiller Piet van Leijenhorst

Getting lost amid the canals and museums of Amsterdam is mesmerizing. This May, I took a memorable journey to the Netherlands with legendary Bols Genever, genever (pronounced “jeh-NAY-ver”) being the precursor to gin (read my Amsterdam food/dining recommends and best cocktail havens and dive bars here).

Confusion still exists around genever and I am ever learning more, as with recent revelations about the history of genever in neighboring Belgium. Though the grandfather to gin, genever is a grain-based, malt spirit, sharing similarities with whisk(e)y, yet, like dry gins, distilled with botanicals such as juniper, angelica, coriander, or anise. Genever’s malty-yet-herbal profile can sometimes be light, as in the case of less-malty, clean jonge (young) genever, or it can be complex, botanical-dominant as with some oude (old) genevers. When in the Netherlands, there is also corenwijn (corenwyn), or “grain wine”, the maltiest and strongest of the three, beautiful to sip on its own like a good whisk(e)y or brandy. I long for corenwyn to be imported to the States.

Stunning recreation of original Amsterdam distillery

Stunning recreation of original Amsterdam distillery room filled with artifacts

An intimate party at Tales & Spirits (my favorite restaurant/cocktail bar in Amsterdam) to announce the final 12 for Bols Around the World - the final 12 congregate in the stairwell

An intimate party at Tales & Spirits (my favorite Amsterdam restaurant/cocktail bar) announcing the final 12 for Bols Around the World – the 12 congregate in the stairwell

A highlight of my visit was tasting 8 year aged corenwyn out of barrels with Bols Master Distiller Piet van Leijenhorst, a generous, welcoming man who has been with Bols for decades. Barrels of corenwyn and genever are aged at the huge Bols plant about 30 minutes drive outside of Amsterdam amid lush, green farmland and gouda cheese dairies.


Antique genever bottles

Though I would have loved to witness stills and distillation production as I have at distilleries around the world, Bols products are not actually distilled in the Netherlands. The liqueurs are distilled in France, the malt wine for the genevers and corenwyn in Belgium. Genever and corenwyn are aged in this location, however, and new recipes are developed in their lab at the plant, including their new jonge (young) genever or 21st Century Recipe, just-unveiled during our visit, with modern, arty label (photo below) and released in Holland.

Exploring aromas of Bols liqueurs in their Amsterdam museum

Experiencing Bols liqueur aromas in their Amsterdam museum

The original Bols distillery opened in Amsterdam in 1575, iconic storefronts of seven separate houses with a rich, vibrant history of distilling, among the oldest in the world. So influential was the Bols family, that Lucas Bols is buried with Rembrandt in Amsterdam’s Westerkerk (West Church), a striking church I visited in the heart of the city.

Bols moved to the current plant in 1969 which retains one section of the original distillery storefront from Amsterdam, and an unforgettable room recreated from the original location. The light-filled room (pictured above) is packed with fascinating artifacts like antique genever clay bottles and glassware, distilling equipment, the Bols family Bible from the 1660 (a massive work of art), and a handwritten book on distillation in German from 1572. It was an unreal moment caressing the pages of this book and the family Bible, envisioning the painstaking hours outlining distillation step-by-step, hundreds of years ago.


Sailing with Bols & the global bartending finalists

The central event of my trip was the Grand Finale of the Bols Around the World competition, an international, six-month-long competition ending in a TV-worthy showdown at Escape in Amsterdam, complete with a show from world bartending flair champions, all to a crowd of over 1000 people.

Sailing with Bols Genever to the fishing village of Marken

Sailing with Bols Genever to the fishing village of Marken

Granted, it was all a bit flashy compared to what I typically cover. At intimate bars and imaginative restaurant cocktail menus around the world, I seek out artistry, boundary-pushing, well-versed classic technique and, above all, balance. Rarely does this come with a lot of flash – and never are the best drinks of the world crafted in clubs or settings with priorities on music and a “scene”. Nonetheless, it was a privilege to chat with bartenders from Korea to Argentina, learning of what they’re doing in their respective countries and cities.

Historic distillery room recreated outside Amsterdam

Historic distillery room recreated outside Amsterdam

I spent the week with 25 or so of the final bartenders (chosen from nearly 3000 competitors in 66 countries), narrowed down that week through more levels of competition to the top 12: Rusty Cerven (UK), Ciro de Giorgio (The Netherlands), Mateusz Szuchnik (Poland), Jimmy Barrat (Dubai), Seongha Lee (South Korea), Tom Richter (USA), Gonzalo Cabado (Argentina), Michie Nishida (Japan), Leszek Stachura (Denmark), Alexandru Tudor (Romania), Luuk Gerritsen (Curacao). Hungary’s Fanni Lajkó won Young Talent out of five finalists (from 500) in the 21-and-under category.

The judging panel was a cocktail world “who’s who”, including Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown (Mixellany Limited, England), Hidetsugu Ueno (Bar High Five, Tokyo), Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (Drink Writer, New Orleans), Ago Perrone (Global Brand Ambassador for Galliano/Head Mixologist at Connaught Bar, London).

Bols Yonge Genever, unveiled during my visit

Bols Jonge/21st Century Genever, unveiled during my visit

The finalists made their cocktails in front of judges and the crowd of 1000 plus (no pressure), with the UK’s Rusty Cerven named 2013 Bols Bartending World Champion. His winning drink was William’s Punch, a blend of lemon sherbet, rhubarb juice, Bols Parfait Amour, Bols Genever and champagne, topped with nutmeg and lemon peel, beautifully served in a vintage punch bowl. He won an eight-day trip around the world to four cocktail cities of his choice, and Platinum Bols Ambassadorship, including two all-expenses-paid trips to Amsterdam for bartender training.

The House of Bols museum is a worthwhile visit when in Amsterdam, while the Bartending Academy is sought out by would-be bartenders around the world.

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Sampling Hendrick's Quinetum with Master Distiller Lesley Gracie

Sampling Hendrick’s Quinetum with Master Distiller Lesley Gracie


Article and Photos by Virginia Miller

No doubt about it: gin has had a year. Small batch producers are sprouting up in greater numbers than ever – in the US but also the UK. Though Bay Area local, Old World Spirits, made waves with their barrel aged gin, Rusty Blade, years ago, the aged gin trend has taken off, with even legendary Beefeater (who I had the privilege of spending a week with in London a couple years ago) releasing a barrel aged gin, Burrough’s Reserve.

This year I delved deeper into gin’s predecessor, genever (read about the first Belgian genever imported to the US here) by visiting Bols in Amsterdam this May (articles on that trip in upcoming newsletters). On the American side, I tasted through a dense array of new American, small batch gins flooding the market during ADI’s Judging of Craft American Spirits in Kentucky this spring.

As I reflect on the year in gin, here are few trends:

American Craft Gins Explode

BelleWood Gin

BelleWood Gin

Over the last decade and even before, many of the best small batch gins are from my home of the Bay Area, including Anchor Distilling’s great Junipero, pioneering in 1996 (even the gin martini master of London raved about Junipero when I visited London’s legendary gin bar, Duke’s), elegant 209 Gin, experimental Blade Gin from Old World Spirits, and since 2011, St. George’s remarkable gins.

Around the country, Death’s Door Gin from Wisconsin is a longtime favorite, and in Washington, Voyager remains an excellent gin. In the last couple years, FEW in Evanston, Illinois, is a newer standout, both FEW American Gin, wild and wooly in spirit but not lacking in finesse, and FEW Standard Issue Gin, an intensely vibrant beauty at 57% proof.

Myer Farm Gin

Myer Farm Gin

While more is not always better, and, in fact, there’s much more to wade through now, “more” does mean interesting interpretations and potential greats. Not making any claims of lasting greatness yet, of the over 40 new American gins I tasted this spring alone and from what I continuously find in my travels, these gins displayed interesting characteristics: Green Hat in DC, for unique packaging and sweet lemongrass notes; Myer Farm Gin from Orid, NY, had a strong but pleasurable juniper bite; and Valentine Distilling Co.’s Liberator Gin from Detroit, offered dusty, vibrant character. However, my top two of the newcomers are:

Rob’s Mtn Gin, Formula No. 44 – Loveland, CO: Rob Masters, President of the Colorado Distillers Guild, produces this gin at Spring 44′s distillery (see Old Tom section below). It is balanced, blessedly juniper-heavy, subtle with unique botanicals of kaffir lime, basil and peppermint. Floral aromatics open up when mixed with a quality tonic like Fever Tree.

BelleWood Gin – Lynden, WA: While I enjoy Tuthilltown’s Half Moon Orchard Gin, distilled from NY State wheat (80%) and apples (20%), and I love Scottish Caorunn Gin with Scottish apples added, the best of apple-inflected gins I’ve tasted is BelleWood, distilled on a farm growing most of its ingredients. Though apple based, offering a dusty, cinnamon-inflected nose, the taste is still juniper-heavy, with a crisp apple finish.

Old Tom Gin might still have its day

Spring 44 Old TomA few years back, everyone was talking Old Tom Gin, the dominant, malty, whiskey-like gin that was commonplace in America in the 1800′s before London dry became the popular style.  It bears more relation to gin’s predecessor, genever, than it does to London dry gins, yet it is also quite different from genever. During the last Old Tom revival years ago, the only brand with staying power has been Ransom from Oregon, to this day the brand I see used in Old Tom cocktails menus in countless cities.

This spring during ADI’s Judging of Craft American Spirits in Kentucky, we had enough Old Tom submissions to form its own sub-category, an unexpected sign of Old Tom’s revival (again). Most were better than expected, these three being the most interesting:

- Spring 44 Old Tom: A new distillery in Loveland, Colorado (their gin was just released in California in the last few weeks), Spring 44 was my favorite of the new Old Tom gins (and silver medal winner with ADI). Citrus and spice marry with ginger, oak notes for the most elegant, realized Old Tom of the new releases.

Tasting Old Tom gins

Tasting Old Tom gins

- Downslope Distilling’s Ould Tom Gin: A distillery founded in Centennial, Colorado, in 2008, Downslope considers their Ould Tom somewhere between genever and dry London-style gins, infused with 11 botanicals and an unusual base of US sugarcane. Being somewhere between, it is more dry, citrus and juniper-forward than Old Tom typically is, but has caramel-oak notes and full-bodied texture reminiscent of genever and Old Tom.

- Corsair’s Major Tom: Though my least favorite of the three and possibly just an experimental, one-time release, this Old Tom-inspired gin landed on the funky, green side, savory and heavy with celery notes. I typically love that sort of profile but somehow it didn’t quite gel here.

The arrival of even these three begs the question: might Old Tom still have its day? It may never be mainstream again, but with talented distillers crafting new versions and reviving old recipes, it seems we might not yet have tasted the peak of this all-American spirit.

Major Brand Experiments with New Product


Sampling Quinetum in cocktails

At the beginning of October, I experienced a magical evening in the historic Haas-Lilienthal House with Hendrick’s Gin’s Master Distiller, Lesley Gracie, during her first visit to the US (she only hit 5 or 6 cities). No, the beloved cult gin that became one of the world’s leading brands, is not coming out with a new gin. Gracie and the William Grant & Sons team shared Hendrick’s quinine cordial, Quinetum, which Gracie has been working on for nearly five years in Scotland at the distillery where Hendrick’s is made.


Quinetum & gin cocktails fireside in Haas-Lilienthal House

With around 4,000 bottles produced, the cordial is only available at two dozen cocktail bars across the U.S. and is not for sale. When I asked Gracie if it eventually might be, she said it is possible but the objective right now is to have key bars and bartenders experiment and provide feedback before they decide on a second batch or broader distribution in the future. The personally-selected San Francisco bars carrying a limited amount of Quinetum quinine cordial are Trick Dog, 15Romolo, Prizefighter in Emeryville, Jaspers, Rickhouse, and Coqueta. If lucky enough, you just might be able to sample an experimental cocktail made with the cordial at one of these bars.

Charming, soft-spoken, witty Lesley Gracie

Charming, soft-spoken, witty Lesley Gracie

Quinetum adds subtle notes to the cocktails I tried that evening and am experimenting with at home, but I enjoy sipping it neat. At a low 4% ABV, it is easily quaffable. Like any cordial or liqueur, it is viscous with sugar yet bracingly tart and lively with a soft bitterness, keeping it from sweet overkill. Floral lavender and bright orange distillates come through. It’s also made with caraway seed, cubeb berries, wormwood, holy thistle, and the key ingredient of cinchona succirubra bark.

Gracie’s recipe was inspired by pioneering mathematician/chemist, Thomas Whiffen, who made great advances in the use of quinine in the 19th century, known for its curative powers, particularly in regards to malaria. Also of note: the lovely, angular Quinetum bottle is modeled after a 1940’s poison bottle found in an old London shop.

Craft London Gin Finally In the US

Stunning views from the 40th floor of the Mandarin Oriental for Sipsmith launch

Stunning views from the Mandarin Oriental’s 40th flr. for Sipsmith launch

Spending two weeks in London and Plymouth in 2011 exploring gin distilleries, cocktail bars and labs, restaurants and food markets, was one of my all time favorite trips. One of the distilleries I visited in London, Sipsmith, was the first small distillery to secure a license in 2009 to produce in London since Beefeater nearly 200 years before. They have changed the distilling landscape in London/England as numerous small distilleries have cropped up since.

Sipsmith G&Ts

Sipsmith G&Ts

In a neighborhood garage once the workspace of famed drinks writer Michael Jackson, Sipsmith’s intimate distillery reflects the best of the craft spirits movement: a place where passionate individuals create thoughtfully-made, delicious product on a small scale. They produce using the rare one-shot method with no neutral alcohol added (spring water is added post-distillation) in Prudence, their custom-designed copper pot alembic still. Making only 400 bottles at a time, each is hand-labeled. Sipsmith is about to move from their garage to a slightly bigger space around the block in Brackenbury Village near Hammersmith.

Of all the small-batch gins I tried in England that we could not get in the US, Sipsmith was my favorite. I’ve held on to bottles from my last trip and have tasted friends on it, waiting for the day it finally came to the US. That day came this September. Of the number of US cities it is now available in, it came first to San Francisco, and specifically the Mandarin Oriental’s Brasserie S&P gin-centric bar where it was available for over a week before its September release.

Jared Brown educates on Sipsmith gin

Jared Brown educates on Sipsmith gin

On the 40th floor of the Mandarin Oriental before breathtaking views of the Bay and America’s Cup races happening during our event, we took in a gorgeous, warm September day sipping Sipsmith neat, in a gin and tonic and a specially-made cocktail. Sipsmith Gin is bold, but also dry and clean, made with 10 botanicals: Macedonian juniper berries, Seville orange peel, Spanish lemon peel, Italian orris root, Spanish licorice root, Belgian angelica root, Madagascan cinnamon peel, Chinese cassia bark, Spanish ground almond, Bulgarian coriander seed. Sipsmith is $39.99 per bottle and distributed in the US exclusively by Wilson Daniels in St. Helena, CA.

It was lovely seeing Sipsmith founders again at the event: Sam Galsworthy (formerly in wine in Chile, then 10 years at Fuller’s London Pride), and Jared Brown, one half of the writing/cocktail/spirits husband/wife team, Mixellany (on the financial side, Fairfax Hall is the third founder).

You can now find Sipsmith at numerous bars around the US. Sipsmith also produces vodka and the best sloe gin I’ve ever had (less sweet and candied, more tart and bright), which hopefully will eventually be imported to the US.

GinventBONUS UK Export: Master of Malt’s Drinks by the Dram series is an excellent opportunity to order sample sizes of countless spirits, the best way to educate one’s palate and find new favorites. They offer many gin and genever samples and also a brilliant concept of a Ginvent (and a whisky) advent calendar with a sample size drink for each day of advent – a perfect holiday gift for the gin aficionado.

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First Belgian Genever Imported to the US

Article and Photos by Virginia Miller

Meeting lovely Véronique Van Acker-Beittel here in San Francisco in September, I learned fascinating things about genever (pronounced “jeh-NAY-ver”) that I was not aware of even after years of drinking and exploring the Dutch/Belgian spirit that is the predecessor to gin.

Genever BookAs a Belgian native (from East Flanders, specifically) who moved to the US in 2002 and married an American, Van Acker-Beittel eventually left Fortune 500 jobs to found Flemish Lion LLC, the first company in US history to import Belgian genever. The first brand she’s importing is a hand-selected, small producer, Diep 9 (pronounced “deep nine,” as it is made with nine botanicals), their recipes unchanged for import to US markets, which is unusual for the category.

She’s spent the ensuing years intensely researching genever history, leading to the recent release of her fascinating book, Genever: 500 Years of History in a Bottle. I love Bols’ genevers (and US genevers like Anchor Distilling’s Genevieve), but genever imports to the US are limited so there are few brands to choose from.

I tasted a range of genevers in Amsterdam this May when visiting with Bols (articles in upcoming newsletters). Though I also visited Belgium, there I focused on beer, with limited spirits on most menus. Veronique informed me of an important reason Holland is known for genever, while Belgium is not: Belgium faced a 66 year ban on the sale of hard liquor in bars from 1919 all the way until 1985, a prohibition Holland escaped, thus preserving their genever production and growth. While this opened the door for Belgian beer to thrive, it diminished Belgium’s genever influence, and to this day few associate Belgium with the spirit.

Diep 9 Genever - Virginia MillerThough there is no definitive proof as to who first created genever, Van Acker-Beittel notes that history can be traced back to 13th century Flanders (now in Belgium territory) where it was originally distilled from wine. During the phylloxera nightmare of the 16th century, grain began to be used instead, ushering in genever as we now know it, aka “malt wine” or moutwijn.

In her book, Van Acker-Beittel explores the first printed genever recipe from 1552, created in Antwerp. She delves into other fascinating facts: the higher ABV of many Belgian beers became commonplace to make up for the lack of spirits in bars; and most of the AOC’s (regions) producing genever are in Belgium, with some production in Germany and France. No AOC’s actually exist in Holland (as I learned in Holland, Bols is produced in other countries, though aged in its facility just outside of Amsterdam).

Her book offers sections outlining every style of genever (more than we are exposed to in the US), the origins of traditional genever jugs/bottles, and cocktail recipes grouped by style of genever.

Flemish Lion LLC imports two Diep 9 genevers: young (jonge) and old (oude), the big difference being that there is no corn in the mashbill as there is with Dutch genever. These small-production, Belgian genevers are softer, more subtle than Dutch genevers I’ve tasted. Young is floral, dry and laden with citrus notes, while my favorite, the old genever, is aged two years in French oak, still soft but complex with hints of ginger, citrus, even spice.

Though the 35% ABV of both genevers is light compared to the average 40%  or higher we’re used to in the US (35% is a common ABV for genevers in Holland), and thus could be lost in some cocktails, choosing the right recipes and partnering spirits can yield sophisticated cocktails.

Find cocktail recipes here or purchase here (Diep 9 is distributed in San Francisco through Waterloo Beverages).

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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.



Tasting craft beers alongside (expensive) Scotch at Highland Park & The Beer Chicks fantastically fun seminar at WhiskyFest SF 2012 (photo: Daniel Stumpf)


Photos (unless otherwise noted) and article by Virginia Miller


photo source: Plymouth Gin website

Unforgettable: my journey to the south of England in the town of Plymouth and its legendary distillery with Master Distiller Sean Harrison. Possibly the most beautiful distillery I’ve yet visited, I relished drinking Plymouth Navy Strength ($34.99) while in the UK, a bracing version of their classic gin at 57% ABV/114 proof, the preferred gin of the British Royal Navy. Though still smooth like Plymouth gin, Navy Strength packs a greater botanical punch, enlivening cocktails.

The good news is it finally arrived to the US merely weeks ago in September so drink up. It radiates in a classic Pink Gin (2 parts Plymouth Navy Strength, 3-4 dashes of Angostura bitters, lemon twist to garnish), which I enjoyed in the hills above Plymouth made by Harrison using fresh drops of reservoir water from the reservoir we enjoyed tea alongside. 


The sassy, lovely Beer Chicks (photo: Daniel Stumpf)

This year’s WhiskyFest was another memorable one. The hilarious Martin Daraz of Highland Park and the uber cool Beer Chicks, Christina Perozzi and Hallie Beaune (their book, The Naked Brewer, just released), killed it with their laughter-packed seminar. There wasn’t enough room for all who wanted to attend their tasting pairing Highland Park whiskies, all the way up to the glorious 30 year (still a favorite every time I taste it) with well-chosen craft beers selected by the Beer Chicks – a number of pairings went shockingly well together. This seminar should definitely return next year, giving all those who missed it a chance to partake of the joys.

Get him a stand-up comedian gig already! Highland Park's hilarious Brand Ambassador Martin Daraz (photo: Daniel Stumpf)

Digging further into the independent distillery line of BenRiach whiskies with international Brand Ambassador Stewart Buchanan was a highlight, whether the affordable steal of 10 year Curiositas, a robust, elegant 1995 Pedro Ximenez Cask #7165 (at cask strength, 52.3%) or the otherworldly, perfectly balanced 25 yr. The BenRiach line is a nuanced alternative to an Islay Scotch. Though peaty, these whiskies corner balance, letting the peat shine alongside other layers.

Photo source: Ben Krantz

On the American side, the standout was St. George’s 30th Anniversary XXX Single Malt Blend, a layered blend of whiskies from three generations of St. George distillers, Jörg Rupf, Lance Winters, Dave Smith. This new release (only 715 bottles) is a rare blend of whiskies: Winters’ first single malt distillation, his 1999 single malt aged in Rupf’s pear brandy barrels, a small portion of Lot 12 whiskey, and a whiskey distilled in 2007, aged in a port cask made of French oak. Pear notes shine in this bright whiskey as does ginger, butter, banana, hazelnut and orange peel.

Another Scotch standout was Classic Malts’ Glen Spey 21 year, a limited edition whisky maintaining a lively profile in spite of age from bourbon casks with notes of coconut, caramel, toffee.


My favorite new taste at Spirits Carnival: Rhum J.M. Millesime 1997

Held this weekend in the massive Fort Mason, the first SF Craft Spirits Carnival was yet another opportunity for the consumer and industry to sample a wide range of international spirits. Though burlesque felt off in the middle of the vast space, acrobatics were more in line as we explored a US craft spirits-heavy selection with a good mix of Scotch, tequila, rum and the like from around the globe surrounded by gorgeous Bay and Golden Gate Bridge views.

While a number of my usual favorites were there (Highland Park, St. George, Old World Spirits, Charbay, Rhum Clement), there were quite a few new releases to taste. Charbay started importing beloved Tapatio tequila earlier this year, one of the best values out there for quality tequila, and at the Carnival, poured Tapatio’s just-imported Reposado and Anejo tequilas. Finally in the States, both are green, bright beauties thankfully allowing the agave to dominate over barrel wood.

Local distiller Don Pilar just released a refined Extra Anejo (aged a minimum of three years). Though I am typically not a big Extra Anejo – or sometimes even Anejo – fan when it masks agave properties with too much oak, Don Pilar manages complexity with agave liveliness.

Spirits tasting in a massive Fort Mason pavilion

Greenbar Collective’s (aka Modern Spirits) spiced rum ($30) from downtown Los Angeles could have been too sweet – as their fruit liqueurs were for me – but the spiced rum is subtle, nearly dry, aromatic with allspice, clove, cinnamon, vanilla, and orange zest, redolent of fall.

Michter’s from Kentucky (I’ve long appreciated their 10 year bourbon and their rye) poured their two brand new releases out this month, a decent Sour Mash (86.6%) aged over 4 years, mixable more than sippable, and a robust, cask strength (114.2%) 20 year single barrel bourbon, aged over 20 years with a definite rye spice, although they can’t disclose any information whatsoever on the grain make-up or distilling location.

Tapatio's just imported Reposado & Anejo tequilas

The tasting highlight of the weekend belonged to Rhum Clément. Already a fan of their elegant rhum agricoles from Martinique, they just released a fresh, smoky 6 year old ($56), and a cinnamon, wood, vanilla-inflected 10 year old ($73), both aged in virgin and re-charred oak.

In addition, Rhum Cément Cuvee Homere is aged in French Limousin barriques and re-charred bourbon barrels, smooth with tastes of biscuits, almond butter, hazelnut, chocolate, black pepper, while the stately, pricey Clément XO Rhum, is a Cognac-reminiscent treat blending rhums from highly regarded vintages, like 1952, 1970, 1976, complex with fruitcake, toffee, tobacco, leather. My favorite ended up being a cask strength (though still reasonable under 100 proof) 10 year old Rhum J.M. Millesime 1997, unfolding with toasted nut, lemon, sage, passion fruit, white pepper, cinnamon.

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On the Town

Oddities and kitsch galore at Voyages Into the Unusual


Photos & Text by Andi Berlin

On June 20-21, San Francisco “opened its mind, unfastened its senses” and joined Hendrick’s Gin in two evenings of unusual revelry (Hendrick’s Voyages Into The Unusual). The Scottish gin company went to great lengths to create a Victorian underworld-themed party, decking out the 100-plus year old Swedish American Hall with anthropomorphic shrubbery, taxidermied animals, sideshow characters and an indoor botanical garden. When we arrived at 9 p.m., the crowd obviously had already taken full advantage of the array of “tipples” offered in each themed room. The main hall was overflowing with swagger and spillage, and everyone – even the actors – was having fun.

Bartenders prepare aquavit and fennel cocktails - a dozen at a time

This character manned the hot air balloon all night, posing for photos and juggling bowling pins

Funky tunes by the house swing band

The centerpiece: a birdman shrub











Upstairs, the "green house" was a sanctuary of Hendrick's herbs, flowers, spices

The yarrow plant is one of 11 botanical ingredients used during distilling

Downstairs was a cabinet of curiosities, including this picture












A mechanized cocktail machine downstairs pours the perfect negroni

One of several "tipples": The Nom de Plume with Lillet Rose, mangosteen, strawberry

A bear waving goodbye - or doing the Thriller dance?

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