Botanically infused libations naturally spice up cocktail hour
- Liz Crain
- Portland Tribune - Features
In Season: Infused Spirits
Infused spirits aren't exactly the next big thing.
Step into a metropolitan bar these days and chances are you'll find a few house-infused spirits, sometimes with the fruit and herbs still steeping in the hooch, alongside several big-name commercial flavored vodkas.
Mike Sherwood wasn't chasing the next big thing when he launched Sub Rosa Spirits, maker of Sub Rosa tarragon vodka and Sub Rosa saffron vodka, in late 2007.
Sherwood's complex, savory infused spirits, which can be found throughout the West Coast, started out as a kitchen experiment at his home in Dundee, where he lives with his wife, Linda Lausmann, Sub Rosa's chief financial officer.
Sherwood says: 'Everything that came into the house I infused. I used any spice that was there - chipotle, all the Indian spices that I have. So I had all these little bottles all with one flavor. What am I saying? I still have 20 of those bottles at home.'
Sherwood knows libations. He was the founding executive director of the Oregon Brewers Guild, a post he held for five years. He built and for several years ran Rogue's Newport distillery , and these days he works half of the year at Sineann Winery in Newberg.
When not making wine, Sherwood is infusing Sub Rosa vodka. He doesn't formulate his spirits with artificial flavors, sweeteners and colors, as most major-market brands do. Sub Rosa Spirits are made with the real deal - fresh and dried herbs and spices steeped individually for three to seven days, depending on the botanical.
Sherwood made his first infused spirit with tarragon from his backyard. These days, since Sub Rosa produces an average of 100 cases a month, Sherwood buys fresh tarragon and the other herbs and spices necessary in bulk.
'It takes about an hour and a half per pound to strip the tarragon leaves off of the plant. I tried just throwing the whole leaf and stem in there before, but it comes off as very vegetal and stemmy. You have to catch everything at its peak flavor.'
Each botanical - there are eight in the saffron and three in the tarragon - is infused separately in 190-proof vodka that's been passed through an activated carbon filter several times to extract any lingering off-flavors. Then the infusion is blended with 90-proof vodka, hand-bottled and labeled.
With so many fresh ingredients involved, every batch is a little different. Sometimes the tarragon throws off a little more chlorophyll than usual, making the vodka brighter and more vegetal. Other times, Sherwood chops cumin in addition to toasting it to extract more flavor.
'It's as complex as a gin, which also uses eight or so spices,' Sherwood says. 'Unlike gin, though, I don't redistill after the infusion.'
Although Sub Rosa currently produces only two infused vodkas, Sherwood has tried his hand at vodkas infused with everything from chipotle to wasabi.
Lately, Sherwood has been harvesting leaves from the 8-foot-tall, 4-foot-wide bay laurel tree in his yard for a dessert liqueur that incorporates the bay leaves, cinnamon stick and lemon zest, making a subtly sweet after-dinner drink.
'When you're a carpenter and have a hammer, everything looks like a nail,' he says. 'When you're a distiller, everything looks like something you can distill.'
Sub Rosa Spirits shares distillery space with House Spirits in Southeast Portland, but Sherwood would like to find a place a little closer to home in Yamhill County. In addition to the bay laurel liqueur, spirits on the horizon include a dessert liqueur based on the saffron vodka - with added orange peel, vanilla and more cumin.
Sub Rosa can be found in many Portland liquor stores. It's regularly stocked in Portland at 11th Avenue Liquor Store, Uptown Liquor Store and Lloyd Center Liquor Store, as well as being shaken and stirred in plenty of specialty cocktails in restaurants and bars around town.
Although the recipes below - courtesy of Sherwood - make excellent cocktails, Sherwood's favorite way to drink both the tarragon and the saffron vodka is on the rocks so the flavors can shine on their own.
Hot Summer Night in Paris
1 1/2 ounces Sub Rosa tarragon vodka
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup (see note)
Fresh mint leaves
2 ounces 7UP, Sprite or Squirt
Lemon twist and mint sprig garnish
Muddle a pinch of mint leaves with the lemon juice and simple syrup in the bottom of a pint glass.
Add ice, pour in the vodka and add 7UP or other soda.
Pour the ingredients into a rocks glass.
Garnish with a lemon twist and mint sprig.
If you want to boost the tarragon profile, use fresh tarragon leaves instead of mint.
Note: To make simple syrup, heat one cup of water and one cup of sugar until the sugar dissolves. It will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks.
This drink has a pale yellow-orange cast to it from the saffron vodka and Cointreau. The aroma is warm and familiar, yet totally unidentifiable - toasted cumin wafting over orange liqueur and fresh lime. Think of it as a golden Cosmopolitan.
2 ounces Sub Rosa saffron vodka
1 ounce Cointreau
1/2 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice
2 ounces mango juice
2 dashes Peychaud's bitters (orange bitters will work as well)
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with cracked ice. Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a long twist of lime.
Sub Rosa Spirits