Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Next OR Artisan Wave, Fermented and Distilled

It's a calling card of our state that we've lovingly touched on several times--food and beverage prepared with care and the best ingredients from our own soil. The mystique around Oregon's relationship with the earth and its bounty continues to grow as more state products and processes become part of the national conversation about food and drink. There's only one consumer magazine devoted to all alcoholic beverages, for instance--and it's based here. Why not? Long established as the second if not first city of craft beer, Portland and its surrounding valleys are also gaining notoriety in the wine world, as its products mature and the pinot noir mini-craze capitalizes on the perfect soil in the region for growing the grape.

Of course there's more to drinking than beer and wine, and until now when you talked distilleries you talked Southern or foreign. To me the epitome of the mom and pop outfit is Jack Daniel's, oldest in the nation, although they are a recognizable corporate icon now. (A side benefit of iconography being plenty of money for websites; Jack has a dilly, including an awesome virtual tour.) On the veneration scale, I have Kentucky as the true home of American distilling, then maybe Canada for other whiskies, Russia for vodka, Carribbean for rums, Mexico for tequila, etc.

As I said, I like Jack's because they are careful to maintain a mystique about quality, patience and superior ingredients. It has more of a down home, "we do it slow because we do everything slow" feel than our more elitist coastal version, but it's still an artisan approach, a craft ethic that supercedes profit or expedience. It's the ethic that creates the additional value, because products made that way have their own individual character, unsurpassed quality and freshness, and usually cleaner process than larger-scale manufacturing processes.

So naturally the place where artisan distilling would begin to take hold is Portland, right? I've been keeping an eye on the New Deal distillery; they've had their vodka out for a couple years now and I pimp it when I drink at places that don't have it. Why not? It mixes well, and although it's a little aggressively priced for an unknown local brand, you know where it comes from and what it's made of--Mount Hood, primarily. This article in the GuestOnTap website from the Tribune companies highlights New Deal and other distilleries in the area, and it turns out the state is already one of the national leaders in raw numbers, with 12 different companies expected to be moonshining by the end of the year.

And no offense to New Deal, who makes a solid if relatively simple beverage, but the emphasis on the craft here is originality and mixing of flavors:
Oregon craft distilleries are making grappas, gins, brandies, whiskeys, eaux de vie, aquavit and rums.

Of particular note is House Spirits Krogstad Aquavit with a touch of caraway and anise. Exquisite.

Rogue Spirits Dark Rum is quite nice, more akin to bourbon than rum in many ways; and Dolmen Distillery’s Worker Bee is one of the few commercially distilled meads in the world. This rare distillate carries a hint of white flowers and honey, but with a nice blast of fire at the end.

Distillers are adding local juniper berries or spruce bows to their gin to make a product with a unique regional story.
For some reason the Joe household has had more liquor flowing through it lately--not due to any strife, but maybe a touch more income that makes coffee with Bailey's or Frangelico seem less extravagant. So I'm all the way down on the eclectic booze tip, and (while this would have been a much better suggestion before the holidays) you might want to keep an artisan bottle of Oregon liquor in mind for your next gift to someone who drinks.

Also apropos of Oregon bevs in the news is this wire item run by KOIN today:
EUGENE, Ore. - Pinot noirs and chardonnays have put Willamette Valley vineyards on the map. But now a few Oregon wineries are branching out, dabbling in the production of champagne and other sparkling wines.

Vintners say it's a natural fit: Pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, after all, are two of the three varieties used in champagne.

Nationally, sparkling wines accounted for 4.1 percent of all wine purchases in 2005, according to the Wine Institute, an advocacy organization for California's wine producers.

Stephany Boettner, senior communications manager for the Oregon Wine Board, says she sees the overall sparkling wine market as being relatively flat. She thinks most people see it as a "celebratory" drink, reserved for special occasions.

But Oregon winemakers say they see champagne as a way to make ordinary meals special.
OK, we're doing sparkling wine as a state too, although our spokesperson should be fired and then whipped for telling the oldest carbonated beverage joke in the book. But what kind of story is this? It's like the editor ripped a story fragment off the wire and assigned it--and the reporter pretty much just returned the wire copy back to him. There's a reason you're the bottom of the heap when it comes to news, KOIN.