By Alisa Sloan, Foodable Contributor
Sometimes you don’t know what’s available in your own backyard, which is why TOAST: The Original Artisan Spirits Tasting, is such a great resource for anyone who likes to know who’s distilling what in the northwest. Unlike some of our local beer festivals, this isn’t a “load up and party” event. This is serious business, where you can sample small cocktails, smaller tastings of straight booze, and get so much information about where, how and why it’s made that your head will spin (even without a buzz).
Presented by the Oregon Distillers Guild, this year’s TOAST featured about 30 distilleries showcasing more than 130 spirits, from aquavit to whiskey. What we didn’t see? Scotch. What we did see? Many excellent vodkas (including my favorite, Portland Potato Vodka from Eastside Distilling); a strong showing of great gins (including the newly released Aria Portland Dry Gin; many excellent whiskeys, including my new favorite — thanks to a TOAST tasting — Henry DuYore’s Straight Bourbon Whiskey by Ransom Spirits; and a handful of artisan spirits that were completely unexpected. The standouts (for me) were RAFT Botanical Syrups and Hammer & Tongs Vermouth, which won me over not just because Hey! vermouth!, but because the packaging is quite splendid. Bonus: Cool name!
To be clear, you have to bump into a lot of people to get to the tables. Clearly, this town is clamoring for artisan liquor and that’s why the selections keep coming. With an impressive array of spirits from local distilleries to the creative ways people are packaging, marketing and even distilling their spirits (hello, rice vodka!), TOAST is a teetotaler’s paradise. As a seasoned cocktailer, that makes it even harder to choose a favorite, which is why RAFT Syrups and Hammer & Tongs stood out. Aside from the friendly people working the tables and happily doling out samples amidst the controlled chaos, their presentations were eye-catching. RAFT Syrups has a bold, graphic and simple package that lists the exotic botanicals right on the label — denoting that, no, this isn’t really a spirit at all — it’s a botanical syrup that you add to your drink, enabling you to concoct cocktails and freshen up sparkling water or juice with a flavor-hit of Hibiscus/Lavender, Lemon/Ginger or Smoked Tea/Vanilla. They’re dense, aromatic, and even if you just use them to jazz up iced tea, they’ll look stylish on the counter. But please do mix them with vodka, gin or bourbon, because that’s where they really shine. Considering their operation in Northeast Portland is just three months old, I’m guessing they’re poised to show up on grocery-store shelves and in bartenders’ repertoires any day now.
And the vermouth was pretty fabulous, too, aside from being remarkable just for having the cojones to serve up vermouth in a sea of standard spirits. Hammer & Tongs is producing two flavor profiles, a Rosso and a fine vermouth, using “original formulas” based on recipes “of antiquity,” so that alone makes them countertop-worthy (you can even cook with them!). In my mind, the “would you like a drink?” conversation goes something like, “Oh, would you like a drink? Vodka tonic, really? I could make you one, but I happen to have a bottle of vermouth with botanicals from West and North Africa, so…yeah. We’re doing that.” It might not be the smoothest way to get a martini in your friends, but they’ll thank you for it, trust.
The next TOAST is scheduled for 2015. Learn more about it here.