I was excited to hear that Sweetgrass Winery, of Union, Maine, was opening a tasting room in the Old Port this month. I've been a big fan of their Back River Gin for years, and have actually taken to calling it my favorite gin (but I'm often prone to hyperbole).
Sweetgrass Farm is a pretty amazing place, and they pump out a lot of product. Fruit wines, brandies, bitters, and lamb products. If you haven't checked out the farm, you should. And if you can't make it to Union, head to their new tasting room at 324 Fore Street in Portland.
The tasting room is just a couple of blocks from my office, so I dropped by last Friday for their grand opening. I enjoyed samples of some other great products, like their Cranberry Gin and Apple Brandy, but was most excited to try their vermouth, as I imagined it would play well with the original Back River Gin.
I will admit, I actually had no idea that this gin involved blueberries. Now that I know, I can pick the flavor out, and totally get where it fits in. It's not the artificial blueberry flavor you might imagine, like the strange bitter candy flavor of Cold River blueberry vodka. It's heavy on the tanniny tart flavor of the blueberry skin. You could compare it to the flavor that grapes give grappa—more bitter than sweet.
There are a couple of go-to gin drinks that Back River works really well for. The first is a Gibson. I was looking forward to trying this vermouth-heavy classic with the new Sweetgrass Vermouth, and it did not disappoint. The vermouth is very clean, with a warm, round presence. There's a little sweet apple flavor that comes through, and some very subtle spice on the finish. It pairs great with the gin, and made a really nice Gibson. The sharper notes of the gin are complemented well by the vermouth, and the addition of a single cocktail onion makes for a perfect showcase of these products together. (I like to make my own cocktail onions with small red or white pearl onions and a slightly sweet pickling mix).
Back River Gibson
2.5 ounces Back River Gin
1 ounce Sweetgrass Vermouth
Stir with ice and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with cocktail onion.
Trey got me started with a Martinez obsession a couple of years ago, and the drink remains a favorite. The high vermouth quotient makes this cocktail a fairly responsible one if you're reaching the end of your night, and the flavor is a familiar one with lots of room for play and experimentation. With that in mind, I tried a Bitter Back River Martinez.
The traditional vermouth used is a good sweet vermouth, but I like my drinks pretty bitter, so in this case I used Punt e Mes, a sweet vermouth with a distinctive Campari-like bitter note. To round out the bitterness a little, I swapped the traditional lemon twist for a nice oily swath of orange. I really enjoyed this drink, and was immediately aware that it's probably not for everyone. It smells orangey going in, and then hits you with a face full of pine tree. Then a bitter wave comes through, and it finally finishes with a nice round, sweet orange flavor. It's got some heat for a lower-alcohol cocktail, or at least a sense of warming.
Bitter Back River Martinez
1.75 ounces Back River Gin
2 ounces Punt e Mes
.25 ounce Maraschino Liqueur
1 dash Regan's Orange Bitters
Stir with ice, strain into chilled cocktail glass, and express oils of orange swath over drink, garnishing with the spent twist.
I'm hoping a lot of people make their way to the new tasting room, and Back River Gin and the rest of the Sweetgrass family make it to more bars in town soon.