Monday, February 22, 2016

Epic Spirits: A Tale of Two Gins

From my liquor cabinet...
The Fading Angler is an avid fan of adult beverages.

I've travelled around the country for work on a near-weekly basis for 14 of the last 18 years.  This has provided me with excellent opportunities to sample a variety of beer, wine, and spirits.  I savor these opportunities because many of these beverages are not available outside of the borders of their home state, due to arcane and archaic federal laws and rules controlling the interstate distribution of the evil that is alcohol.

I believe, but am not certain, that this is the case for both of the spirits feature herein.  One is a product of the State of New York (upstate!) and the other is produced in the Puget Sound of the State of Washington.  I have visited both distilleries once and look forward to doing so again.

I am not an aficionado of any sort, gin least of all.  I've sipped gin martinis.  I've enjoyed the occasional gin & tonic with Bombay.  I have also endured a few others made with the cheap gin (and lots of lime) that are now stocked as the "complimentary" bottle in the lounge of the airline to which I have sworn fealty. (Correction, 3/24/2016 - It seems that Delta has recently replaced the rotgut with a decent Bombay in their Skyclubs.  Surprising and welcome.)  However, I sample new things when I can, and I've found both of the items up for review to be exceptional.  If you are also a traveler with a wandering palette, I offer these for your consideration.

Bainbridge Heritage Organic Doug Fir Gin

My family took a trip island-hopping through Puget Sound via ferry a few years ago following some business in the Seattle area.  Our first destination was Bainbridge Island, a short ride west of downtown Seattle.  This was the first stop on a tour leading up to the San Juan Islands.  We own at least six Sage fly rods, so there was no way we were going to miss out on a tour of the Sage factory and headquarters on Bainbridge Island.  And like any average tourist, I took a few moments to peruse the tourist pamphlet center on the ferry, scanning for other interesting sites or activities on Bainbridge.  Luckily, an item caught my attention: Bainbridge Organic Distillers.  Tours available!  At the conclusion of our first visit to the Sage factory, we found the distillery a handful of miles away.  Our tour guide (one of 2 people in the facility) offered my kids each a handful of their organic, Washington-grown wheat to chew on while showing us the equipment.   They produce small batches of vodka, gin, and whiskey.  I was immediately curious (nay, intrigued!) about the Heritage Doug Fir Gin.  Here's the official description from their website:
A wet gin by definition, this American wheat gin features 10 organic botanicals including juniper, orris and angelica root, 2 types of citrus peel, whole licorice root, coriander, cardamom, fennel seed and Douglas fir, freshly harvested in northeastern Washington State a day prior to the final distilling of each small batch. 
The flavor is full and lush, without being harsh or astringent, with pronounced essences of juniper, licorice and cardamom with a heady evergreen fir aromatic. Our gin's unique green tint comes from the Douglas Fir, extracted from the needles by our still's Carter-Head inspired set up.
Sample time arrived, and I went straight for the exotic gin.  I was not disappointed.  I inhaled deeply through the nasal passages, and immediately thought of Christmas, but sweeter.  The alcohol vapor was strong, as expected for a 90 proof (45% alcohol by volume) spirit.  The smell was light and refreshing.  The taste is a different experience altogether.

I've been tempted to say, "There's nothing subtle about this gin."  That's where my mind immediately goes after a small sip of the straight product at room temperature.  Two things rush to the forefront. First, there's fire in the 90 proof.  Second, there's much more than a hint of evergreen flavor.  Many friends of mine found this combination overpowering and stopped there.  That's a mistake.  Following the fire and light evergreen is a subtle and pleasing herbal aftertaste.  Followup sips are even more rewarding, provided you either like the 90 proof warmth or can endure it.  I happen to enjoy strong spirits in the 90 to 140 proof range.   If there's more burn in this gin than you care to endure, you might not get to enjoy the underlying flavors.   I found this spirit is just not compatible with tonic water in any amount.  I tried everything from a splash to a 1-1 mix, all unpalatable.  No good.  I did not try ice.  

Bottom line: take a whiff, and if the aroma agrees with you, take a small sip, but coat the front of your tongue with a layer of saliva first to quench some of the heat.  Perhaps you'll enjoy this as much as I do.  On my last trip to Seattle, I hauled home two more bottles (legally) in my checked luggage.  I'll be back in Seattle in a couple of weeks and am considering grabbing another.

Seneca Drums Gin

I've been working in the Finger Lakes region of New York state frequently for nearly two years now.  Discovering  Finger Lakes Distilling was another random chance side-effect of a family visit.  My wife hauled the Mobile Hotel® (aka 5th-wheel RV) out to NY state (along with the 2.5 kids and her parents) for a two week road trip.  On a rainy day, we decided to tour some of the numerous wineries and vineyards that pepper the shores of the Finger Lakes in central New York state.  When I saw the sign for Finger Lakes Distilling, I called time-out and we went in.

This a popular stop along the Finger Lakes wine trails, and the place was busy despite the foul weather.  We wandered a bit around their spacious shop, disappointed by the fact we had just missed the day's tour by 45 minutes.  One very interesting thing about their products is that the primary source of sugars in their spirits is not grain, but grapes.  Their distillery is surrounded by acres of grapes grown on-site.  

Here's the product description from their web site:
Seneca Drums Gin is an expressive, yet harmonious, dry gin, distilled from our own local grape spirit and a signature blend of 11 botanicals. Voted New York’s Best Spirit at the Food & Wine Classic, this gin is zippy and fresh – it will keep you coming back for more, with notes of citrus peel, juniper, cucumber, clove and light anise.

I bellied up to the bar for my paid samples.  They make two varieties of gin, but my focus was on whiskeys, both aged and white.  I was disappointed to find that none of those tickled my fancy.  (For reference, I enjoy Knob Creek in the bourbon department, Pendleton for canadian, Macallan as scotch, and 136 proof Buffalo Trace White Dog Mash #1 for white whiskey.)

Bells chimed when I sniffed the Seneca Drums gin.  Sweet and floral.  Juniper.  Here's to your health. The flavor emerges immediately but gently, herbal and a little sweet.  Even though this is an 86 proof spirit, there's no harsh burn.  There's delayed heat in the aftertaste, but surprisingly mellow for 86 proof.  I can contentedly sip this gin, straight, all evening.  I've done so frequently.  I enjoy it so much that I've never contemplated tonic water, because I cannot imagine it would bring anything to the experience.  My final recommendation for this gin: cucumber.  It begs for a cucumber slice or a some muddled juice and pulp as a complimentary flavor and aroma.

The Chaser

It hardly seems fair to conclude such a discussion of two distinctly different gins without some sort of direct comparison.  I'd perhaps liken the Seneca Drums gin to a young woman of French aristocracy: refined, desirable, a pleasure to spend an evening with, and a bit flirty but not forward.  The Heritage Doug Fir Gin is a more of a Cockney gentleman or perhaps a Scottish Lord: mostly well-mannered, somewhat off the beaten path, best taken in measured doses, great fun at a party, but not for everyone.

Your mileage may vary, but it's worth the nearly coast-to-coast travel for the experience.

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