Lifting Spirits

These artisanal infused vodkas are worth shaking for.

By Camas Davis May 19, 2009 Published in the January 2007 issue of Portland Monthly

The glory days of big cocktails (alcohol + liqueur + sweetener + juice or soda or mixer + more alcohol + bucket martini glass) are waning. In their place, the clarion call of mixologists–nostalgic for a purer time when rye whiskey and bitters constituted a cocktail and blueberry-flavored vodka was strictly for heretics–clinks resoundingly from bars across the nation.

The cocktail of the future, inspired by the pre-Prohibition past, is small, natural and virtually neat (alcohol + alcohol + sugar and/or garnish). As cocktails become more refined, so too do the spirits used to make them, which perhaps explains why we’ve witnessed a rise in hand-crafted gins, whiskeys and vodkas.

Pushing the revolution one step further, the California-based husband-and-wife team of Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Matthew have recently introduced their Modern Spirits infused vodkas ( Not only do they want cocktails to elevate their vodkas, but they also want their vodkas to elevate the cocktail. By hand-blending wheat and potato vodkas together, infusing them with premium ingredients–orchard fruit, say, as well as other secret herbs and spices–and not redistilling their vodkas afterward (which tends to result in a more concentrated vodka), they’ve essentially created a complicated version of the infusions Portlanders have grown used to swilling at bars like Saucebox or Mint. And while the latter hold their own, each of the seven Modern Spirits flavors–Oregon black truffle, candied ginger, celery peppercorn, chocolate orange, grapefruit honey, pear lavender and tea–comes across as much more nuanced, not to mention delicate and deeply natural-tasting.

Just this sort of regulated complexity has the capacity to improve even the simplest of cocktails. Take the grapefruit honey vodka, for instance. While the quinine in tonic often overwhelms the requisite vodka in a vodka tonic, the bitterness of the grapefruit and the sweetness of the honey actually balance out the alkalinity of the classic mixer.

Even when cocktails aren’t what the doctor ordered, Modern Spirits vodkas taste good enough to sip on their own or to pair with food, as Franz Popperl, executive chef at the Benson Hotel, did on an evening last October–pairing smoked duck breast and foie gras with the funky, alluring Oregon black truffle vodka, for instance.

"Most flavored alcohol is just made so that you can add other stuff to it," says Jamie MacBain, restaurant manager at the Benson. "But Modern Spirits vodkas are so good, you don’t want to take away from them by adding much else."

Nonetheless, while MacBain currently only serves them neat, he hopes to start serving them with food regularly–and stirring them into cocktails–early this year. It’s extremely rare that a vodka can shine in so many contexts–a sure sign that mixology’s fantasized future has finally arrived.

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