Portland's wonderful beer is old hat if only in the sense that we've all heard about it: a powerful, gustatory collective of individual glories. (Portland has at least 50 breweries and God knows how many different brews.) Not so Stumptown's spirits world, a wild, amazing, ambitious amalgam of many of the world's of classics, from single-malt to akvavit, vodka to New World calvados and grappa. Most of these bubble away on Distillery Row in decidedly happening Southeast, close by the Willamette River, where light industry, residences, art and sensory pleasures happily commingle.
Spontaneously generated in 2005 by small investors and willing refugees from the beer wars wanting to turn their talents to artisanal booze, Distillery Row rose as a very loose collective of like-minded souls determined to re-imagine the still - New Deal, Eastside, Rolling River, Stone Barn Brandyworks, Vinn and, finally, House Spirits Distillery, the object of today's lesson in imaginative refinement.
What you thought was a spirit with perhaps the best-known provenance and world-girdling notoriety, gin, here has been given a new, bracing profile and distinct personality amidst the national profusion of experimental, artful whiskeys. Aviation gin beautifully brings to the fore what is to my mind the crucial element: juniper. But this "American" version adds a rare, subtle, fate-sealing second tenor to the antiphonal chorus of flavors, which is burnt orange peel, a hint of good, rough-cut, smokey marmalade barely detectable over the coriander, cardamom, lavender, Indian sarsaparilla, and anise.
I know, it sounds like herb-fruit-flower salad and is anything but. Clean, dry, paradoxically mouth-watering, powerfully suggestive of your fondest gin associations, whether that be straight-up Bogey martinis with ice shards and a glaze of lemon peel oil, dark-paneled bars of the pukka British Raj, or all-American tonic-drowned kitchen-table elbow-bending, that's Aviation.
It could provide scholars a perfect contrast with another gin with a vaunted "botanicals" program, Bombay Sapphire, which comes close to obliterating juniper altogether. Sapphire's a gin-eric designed for people who don't much like the taste of the stuff. Even though Sapphire's well made it has none of the life or the challenges associated with gin's power and colorful history (go to: http://cjonwine.blogspot.com/2012/03/dr-silviuss-revenge.htm)
For $30 you get with Aviation a striking, Art Nouveau-ish bottle with vertical lines leading the eye up, up to a prop and wings coming straight at you out of the RAF's officer's digs or Howard Hughes's Hollywood, take your pick.
(Later I'll take a look at Distillery Row's impressive oaked whiskeys, including House Spirits's.)
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