I’ve always felt that the best wine experiences can be divided into two categories: immersion and transportation.
The former is a sip of Pinot in a dank Burgundian cellar, the barrel sample pulled by a vigneron in must-spattered boots. The latter is any great Burgundy on your table that carries you back to that moment.
Food can do the same: biting into Dungeness crab within the sound of crashing surf on the Oregon Coast, or a perfectly crafted risotto that takes you back to an Italian piazza. These flavors are grounded in geography. They immerse you more deeply into where you are, or they transport you in an instant to a place where you’ve been or someday hope to go.
So for this reason, I’ve always cast a wary eye on cocktails. It might be due to the fact that I came of age in the dark days of Jell-O shots and butterscotch schnapps, long before the current cocktail renaissance. But I’ve also found it difficult to reconcile this notion of immersion and transportation with mixed drinks. Is there a sense of geography in a cocktail when it can be made almost anywhere by a skilled hand and the right ingredients?
I recently set out to explore this question, and was surprised by what I found.
Art Tierce might be the perfect person to ask about cocktails and terroir, that flexible French notion that loosely translates as sense of place. He’s an assistant winemaker at Ransom Wines & Spirits and grew up in wine country in Santa Rosa, California, where the vineyards started just beyond center field of his little league ballpark. But he strayed into the world of bartending with stints in Las Vegas and Portland before joining Ransom in Sheridan, Oregon, to make wine.
When Tierce isn’t manning the pumps or working harvest, he serves as resident mixologist, finding creative ways to showcase Ransom’s artisanal spirits in mixed drinks. When I arrived at the distillery, Tierce was waiting with an upended whiskey barrel arrayed with the gear needed to mix three cocktails evocative of the Northwest in late winter — all of them featuring Ransom’s sweet vermouth, produced with the region’s grapes.
“The trends tend to be darker, heavier, richer flavors in the winter,” said Tierce as he mixed a cocktail he calls “Empty Chamber,” a full-flavored, low-alcohol drink with sherry, vermouth and egg white. “The flavors represent cold winter months, but you’re not going to get this waft of alcohol.”
And indeed, the complexity of the flavors combined with the richness of the mouthfeel and texture evoked the roiling maritime clouds that slip over the Coast Range and hang over the valley for much of the season.
Next up was “New World Voyages,” a rum-based drink that places the spirits up front. “I’ve always found that in the winter, and especially living in Oregon with the dark, cloudy, overcast skies, that I love rum,” Tierce said, shaking a drink that may call winter skies to mind, but also offers a hint of brightness. “I think most people think of rum as their summer beverage.”
His last suggestion, “The Emerald, by Ransom,” is a twist on a classic Manhattan that uses their Irish whiskey, The Emerald 1865. It is a recreation of a recipe from the late 19th century discovered buried in archives. “It historically represents how dense and aromatic the Irish whiskies of the heyday were,” Tierce said of their flagship spirit, stirring a drink that served as a foundation, showcasing the whiskey’s malty notes, and creating something strong enough to stand up to the season.
With the three drinks lined up on a barrel in an Oregon Coast Range distillery, the ornate onion dome of the Ransom still looming overhead like something out of a Jules Verne novel, I certainly started to feel that sense of place as we tasted through Tierce’s creations.
The Human Factor
I carried this question of cocktail terroir to my local mixologist. Michael Monroe tends bar at a cozy college town speakeasy in Corvallis, Oregon. Not even visible from the street, you need to slip through the front door of a restaurant called Magenta and descend a flight of stairs to find SnugBar, where Monroe focuses on cultivating the next generation of cocktail connoisseurs.
At my elbow in the tight quarters, a college-age drinker ordered a whiskey sour. Monroe checked his ID and grew excited. “Hey man, have you always ordered good cocktails?” he asked.
The kid shrugged. After Monroe mixed the drink, he leaned over to me: “That kid turned 21 a few months ago and he just ordered a nine-dollar whiskey sour.” It’s not the price tag that earned Monroe’s enthusiasm. “If I wasn’t striving to make a really good whiskey sour that’s worth the money, they wouldn’t be doing that.”
For Monroe, his aim is to cultivate long-term customers. He’d much rather see them savor a pair of well-crafted drinks and keep coming back for years rather than load up and burn out early on the bar scene. Quality, sustainability and moderation go together.
When I shared my concept of transportation and immersion, Monroe mixed me a Kingston Club from their drink menu, one based on a recipe from Portland bartender and writer Jeffrey Morganthaler. Centered on Drambuie, with the spirit’s malt whiskey, spice and honey conjuring its Scottish roots (hailing from a region that also knows a thing or two about clouds), the drink offsets this heaviness with a hint of tropical fruit to let in a little sunshine. It’s a balancing act. More immersion and transportation at work.
I found that good cocktails do conjure a sense of place. The process is different from food, where it can take months to cultivate a kitchen garden to produce hyper-local produce, or wine, which requires an entire season to capture a year’s worth of weather to store in a barrel and then bottle.
With cocktails, you can even take a DIY approach. “Home mixology is at an all-time high. It’s amazing and it’s fun to be creative,” Tierce said. For those wanting to experiment, he suggests sticking to known recipes and then tweaking one ingredient at a time until you get a feel for what you want to accomplish. He also recommends Morganthaler’s “The Bar Book” as a starting point.
Tierce’s key advice? Use the best ingredients: “You can never fake fresh, ever.”
Emily Mistell, who mixes drinks at Portland, Oregon’s popular Rum Club, underscores the importance of freshness. “We change our menu at the club with the seasons, trying to utilize as many fresh local ingredients as we can,” she said.
As for Mistell’s recommendation for a drink that can send you somewhere else? “My all-time favorite cocktail year round might have to be a drink from Martinique (French Virgin Islands) called the Ti’ Punch.”
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It’s been said that the three key ingredients of terroir are weather, soil and people. With cocktails, the human factor is critical — a person creates a great drink right before your eyes. Cocktails are ephemeral, effervescent. They begin to change as soon as the ice begins to melt and the zest of orange dissipates. But your bartender remains, ready to mix the next drink. It’s all about good ingredients combined with performance art. The terroir isn’t a gravelly hillside or the black loam of Granny’s river bottom garden — it’s the flesh, bone and creativity of your resident mixologist.
Yield: one drink
1.5 ounces Ransom Sweet Vermouth
3/4 ounce oloroso sherry
1/2 ounce Ransom Old Tom Gin
1/2 ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/4 ounce rich demerara syrup
White of one egg
Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters
Dry shake, then add ice. Shake, strain and garnish with Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters dripped on top with a design.
New World Voyages
Yield: one drink
1 ounce Ransom Old Tom Gin
1 ounce Ransom Sweet Vermouth
1 ounce Pampero Aniversario Rum
2 dashes orange bitters
Zest and peel of 1 orange and 1 lemon
Stir over ice, strain into an old-fashioned glass with a big cube of ice. Add zest and peel of an orange and a lemon.
The Emerald, by Ransom
Yield: one drink
2 1/4 ounces Ransom 1865
3/4 ounce Ransom Sweet Vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters
Zest and peel of 1 orange
Stir, strain into a coupe, add zest and peel of an orange.
The Kingston Club
Yield: one drink
1 1/2ounces Drambuie
1 1/2 ounces pineapple juice
3/4 ounce lime juice
1 teaspoon Fernet Branca
3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 ounce soda water
Shake ingredients with ice and finish with 1 ounce soda water. Strain mix over fresh ice into a chilled Collins glass and garnish with an orange twist.
Yield: one drink
2 ounces Rhum agricole (my favorite is Clement Canne Bleue or Neisson)
Fresh sugar cane syrup
Experiment with your own lime and sugar ratios: everyone likes something different. Using ice is optional, but Mistell suggests one large cube.
Recipes: Empty Chamber, New World Voyages and The Emerald, by Ransom courtesy Art Tierce, Ransom Wines & Spirits; Kingston Club courtesy Jeffrey Morganthaler; Ti’Punch courtesy Emily Mistell of the Rum Club
Main photo: Art Tierce, assistant winemaker at Ransom Wine & Spirits, is also a mixologist who specializes in cocktails with rich, evocative flavors. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker