Tag Archives: gin

Vancouver Island Trip: Part Two

Ok, so where was I? Ah yes, lounging in my Victoria hotel room on a lazy Saturday. This was the view at one point inVIharbor the morning, typically Victoria: incoming float plane and a Black Ball ferry heading in from Port Angeles. Outgoing whale-watching trip (that bright orange boat center)  and a tugboat on some mission or another. It was late morning by the time I was done with that previous post and I was powerful hungry. We quickly headed off for lunch. (Breakfast consisted of hotel room coffee and the few lingering ginger snaps in the car-snack-supplies bag.)

A quick stroll to circumnavigate the harbor, and we were down on a pier joining others at a very popular lunch spot, Red Fish Blue Fish. This place is all about sustainability, down to the converted shipping container in which the tiny, efficient, friendly restaurant is housed. Sunny, a bit of a breeze, it was a good day to visit the no-frills spot with its outdoor-only seating. You can grab a stool at the bar-type seating toward the back of the pier, but we opted for the squat backless chairs along the pier’s edge, one doubling nicely as a table for two. It was a severe temptation to over-order, but we honed selections down to include the Pacific Rim Chowder (fish, coconut milk, redfishcorn, garlic, hints of chipotle), a 1-piece salmon and chips (huge portion! their hand-cut, twice-fried chips are outstanding, as is the homemade tartar sauce) and spicy Pacific fish sloppy joe (small pieces of fish in a light sauce, with aïoli and lemon pickled onions). Notice the wood utensils offered, definitely no effort spared to keep the environmental footprint to a minimum. Can’t wait to return to try the tacones, barbecued oysters and other selections.

A nice stroll back to the hotel to retrieve the car and we were off for the day’s explorations. Never too early to consider gin, one of my favorite subjects (I’m a big believer in the idea that it’s 5:00 somewhere!). So our first stop was Victoria Spirits, makers of Victoria Gin. They’re located out on the Saanich Peninsula to the north of town (where you also find Butchart Gardens and Sydney, with its busy ferry docks from US and mainland Canada). The drive, once we got off Highway 17, was really lovely, winding through the trees, lots of lovely old homes along the way, sometimes opening up to a field where horses graze. At the end of many of the driveways, we saw tables laden with garden fruit, fresh-cut flowers, garlic,VIgin eggs — with honor-system prices noted. So charming!

Victoria Spirits‘ tasting room is housed on the Winchester Cellars property, a very pretty setting surrounded by trees and garden. Ken Winchester added the gin to the business’ portfolio last year, but he has moved on to new things. The new owners, Brian and Valerie Murray (with a fun-loving bunch of colleagues), carry on the gin tradition, also making a pinot noir eau de vie (loved it! smooth and flavorful). They’ll start work on whiskey later this year, though product won’t be debuted for at least a few years, since it will take an element of aging. And bitters are on the agenda as well! Will look forward to checking in with them again as the months go by.

After a couple judicious sips at Victoria Spirits (while my non-drinking hubby took in the garden surroundings), the next stop was Sea Cider. Just a bit further up the peninsula, almost an apple’s throw from the water, this is one lovely setting for whiling away a good hour of a lovely Saturday afternoon. It’s a new-construction building that looks to have been here for years, though the youthfulness of the apple orchard that spills down toward the water is a give-away that the property’s been in place for just a few years. VIsea2Those trees are able to produce, now, about 30% of the cider-making needs, the rest coming from other sources in British Columbia. Over the years, as the trees mature, the goal will be that Sea Cider will become an “estate” cidery, with all their apple needs coming from this property.

This isn’t a tasting room, per se, where you belly up to the bar and sip little samples of selected products. Instead, the scenario is table-service. Of course, as a first-time visitor looking to take it all in, I couldn’t not order “the long flight,” a generous pour of all nine ciders currently available. My favorites of the ciders were Kings & Spies (made with Kings and Northern Spies apples, brought a bottle home) and Pippins. For an afternoon nibble, we chose the platter for two, a delicious array of things to snack on, including locally made sausages, cured salmon, eggplant salad, and some Moonstruck cheese from Salt Spring Island. Such a pretty, enjoyable setting.VIfox Little surprise they were shooing customers out a bit early that afternoon to get ready for a wedding, a lovely spot to tie the knot.

Sunday morning, and I wanted to venture beyond the hotel for breakfast. A little sleuthing quickly turned up Blue Fox Cafe as a locals’ favorite at this hour of the day, confirmed by the front desk gal who helped us verify where it was on the map. It wasn’t too hard to find Blue Fox, thanks to the small group of folks clustered on the sidewalk in front. It’s a bustling, cozy, colorful little no-reservations place; and they don’t take names on a list, so you just hang out and wait your turn as a pretty regular stream of folks vacate their tables. Our wait was only about 20 minutes; when we left, after noon, the line was at least twice as long.

Bob opted for the lunch side of the menu, a great club sandwich with a generous and flavorful salad alongside.  Huevos Rancheros always jumps out at me from breakfast menus, I went with that for morning sustenance that day. Great staff, friendly and efficient. And they get major gold stars from me for brining a small pitcher of frothed hot milk when I simply asked for milk for my coffee. I can see why this is a Victoria favorite; we’ll surely return on another trip.

VIfeast1Our time on Vancouver Island was capped off in grand style with a Sunday  afternoon at Feast of Fields. I’d been hearing about this annual local-foods indulgence for a number of years, from my friend Mara Jernigan who helped found the event. The fundraiser–in its 12th year–is put on by FarmFolk/CityFolk each September, held on a different Island farm (this year was the only repeat, the event returned to Providence Farm where it had been held in 2003). Check out the cool wine-glass-friendly “plates” on sale for a mere $5: planks of local cedar. Brilliant. And aromatic!

It was one of those perfect mid-September Northwest days: sunny, blue skies, light breeze, warm. About thirty restaurants from various spots in the area were on tap, not to mention a few dozen or more wineries fromVIfeast2 throughout BC. And Victoria Spirits with their gin, some local breweries and a teamonger. No trouble sating ourself with (sometimes return visits for) late summer gazpacho with vodka-pickled Manila clams (Marina Restaurant); blackberry-walnut baklava (Providence Farm); local Red Fife wheat blinis with Cowichan Bay smoked duck (Fairburn Farm); grain fed beef burgers with ale-braised onions (Spinnaker’s Brewpub); pastry cones with wild mushrooms and smoked goats milk crème fraîche (Sooke Harbour House) and even lovely little mini gluten-free wedding cakes (VinCoco Patisserie). Man alive, it was a lovely afternoon of grazing on the farm. So pleased to finally make it to that celebrated event; I highly recommend trying to plan a mid-September trip to the Island to partake.

After the Feast, we settled in at Fairburn Farm for a last night of the trip. Powerhouse Mara was busy at the event for a couple more hours, we sat out on the big porch with another couple from Seattle, shooting the breeze, talking about life and travels and food. Dinner was simple and delicious, family-style pasta with a perfect bolognese-style sauce. And sleep was blissfully sound. Breakfast the next morning was temporarily interrupted by VIbuff2the chance to watch the farm’s herd of water buffalo parading from the field up to the milking barn. We walked up later to visit with some of the young’uns who are still housed in the barn until old enough to join the others. Before long, we were off, heading back to Nanaimo for the ferry trip back to the “real world” on the mainland.

This trip to Vancouver Island had been a long time in coming, more than a few years had slipped by since our last visit–and countless short-lived efforts to work it into the schedule. It was a full and wonderful time. We packed a lot into those five days, maybe a bit too much. For such a relaxing, unwind-inducing place, we didn’t do a whole lot of relaxing and unwinding. But next time. It won’t be five or six more year. And we’ve already got a list going of things to do that trip that didn’t fit into this itinerary.

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Homemade Gin — an experiment

And no, to answer your first question: a bathtub was not involved.

Having written and spoken as much as I have about gin in recent years, it seems somewhat sacrilegious to suggest that I “made” gin. I’ve been to too many distilleries, sampled too many quality gins, and studied too much the art and science of gin-making to believe what I have in this bottle is truly gin.

But, an oft-repeated characteristic of gin is that–at its core–it is essentially gin1infused vodka. By definition, gin begins with a neutral spirit (which vodka is) into which botanicals are infused. Juniper is the only “must” on that list of flavorings, other elements include citrus, flowers, herbs, seeds, spices, roots. And techniques for melding the aromatics with the spirit vary. It’s why I think of gin as the most culinary of all spirits, the distiller has lots of room to follow creative impulses and come up with a distinctive product with a signature blend of botanicals.

What spurred this recent exercise was a posting  at Gourmet magazine’s online outlet by food editor Ian Knauer. At first I scoffed, quick to discount such a simplified version of gin’s process. But there I was at the liquor store gin2buying a bottle of Smirnoff vodka. Everything else I had on hand at home. I didn’t follow Knauer’s recipe to the letter. I used orange peel in place of lemon or lime, a generous teaspoon of dried lavender blossoms in place of fresh and omitted fresh rosemary, adding star anise instead. I also just threw everything in at once, rather than pre-infusing with juniper.

Oh, that jar of cumin you see in the photo? Mentally omit that. I thought better of adding any to this concoction, afraid it would have an overpowering effect on the balance of things. Maybe if I take up homemade aquavit one of these days; cumin seems more suited to that spice-imbued spirit.

It was interesting to see how much color the vodka took on overnight. After a good 24 hours or so of infusing, I strained the “gin” and poured it back into the bottle. I also picked out most of the juniper berries from the strainer and popped them back in the bottle as well, wishing I’d used more in the first place. All in all, it’s a pretty darn well balanced, flavorful, aromatic spirit to sip. I was surprisingly pleased with the results. It will be a fun idea to play around with more over the months. Interestingly, this bottle came to the rescue when we got snowed in last week. I’d polished off the last of the No. 209  gin I had on the gin3shelf and failed to restock before the snowflakes started falling. So my homemade version tided me over until we made the chilly 2½ mile trek as far as our nearest liquor store a few days later.

So, about that bathtub gin of yore. I do have a recipe that Seattle barman Michael Vezzoni, at the elegant Fairmont Olympic Hotel downtown, shared, which he’d come up with after a good deal of research. A few years back, the hotel celebrated its 80th anniversary, the festivities for which included an “Eight Decades of Cocktails” list created by Vezzoni, with the Harvey Wallbanger in honor of the 1960s, the Singapore Sling for the 1920s and the ubiquitous Cosmopolitan for this decade. Count back 80 years and you find yourself in the early years of prohibition. In honor of the hotel’s day-of anniversary celebration in 2004, Vezzoni went so far as to put together a big batch of bathtub gin—with over a dozen botanicals (including juniper, coriander, orange zest, cassia bark and caraway)—for the night’s martinis. It was a unique taste of history, adding perspective to the distinct story of gin.

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Gin Dandy

One of the best monikers that’s ever been given to me is that of “gin connoisseur.” I wrote a review of a really engaging, informative little book called The Joy of Drinking by Barbara Holland, which appears in the current spring issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. My friend and joy of drinkingcolleague, Darra Goldstein, is the founder and editor of the journal, and that’s the title she added to my byline for the review: Cynthia Nims, gin connoisseur. She and her husband are a couple of the converts I’ve helped turn on to the world of top-quality gins in the past couple of years. They became particularly enamored of Hendricks and are apparently now never without one of the distinctive stubby brown bottles on their liquor shelf.

While I was preparing to moderate a panel on gin for the conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals last year, I made a diligent effort to collect as many gins as I could for sampling, amassing as many as 9 or 10. One evening, a half dozen colleagues joined me around our back patio table for a blind tasting, one of the most fascinating spirits exercises I’ve ever been through. I was honored to have none other than Robert Hess on hand to help orchestrate the proceedings (check out his great cocktail videos here). We first sipped the gins straight, as is, then again with a small drizzle of water added. Scotch drinkers know that a small drizzle of water into the pure spirit really opens up the character and aroma of the drink without diluting its flavor. Even if you just try two different gins side by side in this way, you’ll start to appreciate the nuances that separate one brand from the next.

What I found so inspiring in my research was the aviationnumber of small-batch gin producers there are in this country, from Chicago’s North Shore Gin No. 6 to the wonderful Aviation gin distilled in Portland, my friend Ryan Magarian one of the collaborators on that tasty product. There’s really a wonderful renaissance of gin going on. I think the most salient reason is that people are increasingly seeking out flavor, variety and craftsmanship in their bar selections the way they have been in their food choices for so long.

I consider gin to easily be the most “culinary” of all spirits. The distiller, like a chef, has choices to make about which ingredients to use and what technique to employ in the distillation process. Juniper is a required base ingredient, but countless spices, herbs, flowers, roots, zests and other aromatics can embellish the spirit. For gin lovers, it’s a joy because there are plenty of different styles of gin to choose from, with broadly different flavor profiles, so you can pick a specific gin to suit a particular mood or cocktail. I love Plymouth for a smooth martini, classic Bombay for a gimlet and Hendricks or Martin Millers simply on ice with a dash or two of Fee Brother’s Grapefruit Bitters.

I’ve just gotten a press notice about the launch of a new gin distillery on Vancouver Island, Victoria Gin produced at Winchester Cellars. And there’s a victoria ginnew gin distillery in the works for my own backyard: Woodinville. Claiming a little spot of real estate among all the winery tasting rooms is Pacific Distillery; the copper  still is en route and they may be bottling their first gin later this year.

Heavens, once I get started on gin, I just can’t seem to stop. (Writing about it, I meant, but I guess the same is sometimes true of sipping it.) I’ll surely revisit the subject again soon. Especially after I get a sample of those new Northwest gins coming on the scene. I’m off now to add “gin connoisseur” to my resume. And maybe my business cards.

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