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Spirits: Drink Fresh

Jenn Garbee

Beer, wine, spirits—you name it, Michael Sherwood can brew, ferment, or distill it. (He also knows how to clear a forest, catch salmon, and write computer code.) Sherwood, a 55-year-old former logger, fisherman, and software developer, was the founding executive director of the Oregon Brewers Guild in the 1990s. He now works in the cellar of the Sineann winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and when he’s not working the harvest or topping off barrels, he distills small batches of what he calls culinary vodkas for his Sub Rosa Spirits brand. "Most infused vodkas are sweet and fruity," says Sherwood. "But no one was making intensely flavored elixirs with a dry, crisp, and savory taste."

Sherwood, who is a cofounder and the vice president of the Oregon Distillers Guild, is one of at least 20 distillers—along with about 220 winemakers and 50 microbrewers—now operating in the Willamette Valley. "What happened in Willamette 30 years ago with the wineries, and 20 years ago with the microbreweries, we are now going through with the distilleries," he says. "We get the concept that a cocktail needs to be made from scratch and made with pure ingredients."

Priced at about $30 for a 750 ml bottle, Sub Rosa vodkas are pure. Sherwood runs a freshly distilled grain-neutral spirit through activated carbon for several days, a process that produces a clean, polished distillate. He then infuses the spirit with fresh herbs and spices, many of which (depending on the season) he grows in his organic garden.

"Our first spirit was the tarragon vodka," says Sherwood, who strips the leaves off the plant by hand, discarding the stems that would produce unwanted vegetal flavors. In addition to the tarragon, he blends mint and fennel into the spirit to enhance its taste and color. "The result is a subtle blend of French tarragon that is slightly licorice yet herbal, with a touch of fennel and a note of mint on the back palate," he says. "You would almost call it feminine if it were not 90 proof."

Since its inception in late 2007, Sub Rosa has produced three 600-bottle batches of the tarragon-infused vodka, using the equipment at House Spirits Distillery in Portland. (Sherwood plans to open his own facility eventually.) As they do with wine, weather conditions can affect the vodka’s flavor. "I produced the second batch in the winter," he explains, "so I had to buy my mint from the grocery store and had to use fennel seeds instead of fresh. So it has a stronger tarragon profile than the other two batches." Sherwood expects to release batch four by summer.

Sherwood’s second vodka—a golden-hued distillate he also made in three batches of 600—is infused with saffron and eight Indian and Moroccan spices. He grows the saffron in his garden and toasts some of the spices. For the saffron and tarragon vodkas, Sherwood lets each herb and spice steep in alcohol separately, and then he blends the components. "If you toss in everything at the same time, the ingredients infuse at different rates and you lose control of the flavor," he says. "It takes a lot of watching and experimenting to get it just right."

When asked for more details, Sherwood refers to the name of his company, Sub Rosa, Latin words that translate to "under the rose." The name, he explains, refers to the ancient tradition of suspending a rose from the ceiling of a meeting room to indicate that nothing said in the meeting should be repeated outside the room. "After The Da Vinci Code came along," he adds, "I came up with a name that would suggest something covert and mystical."

Sherwood is less guarded about the ingredients for Sub Rosa–based cocktails. The company’s web site lists numerous recipes. His favorites? "Shake the tarragon vodka into a martini with a lemon twist," he says, "and the saffron vodka in a spicy Bloody Mary."

Sub Rosa Spirits, 503.476.2808, www.subrosaspirits.com

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