Tradition with a Twist

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Eugene’s Elixir distillery produces old-world spirits for a new-school market

STORY BY MARGARETT WATERBURY
IMAGES COURTESY OF ELIXIR DISTILLERY

Walk through the doors of Elixir distillery in Eugene, Oregon, and prepare for a surprise. Outside, it’s a modest industrial park; inside, it’s an Italian apothecary, fragrant with bitter herbs and warm spices and presided over by Andrea Loreto, the unlikely Florentine liqueur-maker of the Willamette Valley.

After his first career as an attorney in Italy, Andrea found himself searching for something a little more … fun. His wife had taken a job at the University of Oregon in Eugene, and he found himself teaching Italian cooking classes. “I always loved food and cooking,” he says, “so I started making liqueurs, too.”

Home liqueur-making is common in Italy. Most households have at least a couple of hand-labeled bottles socked away at the back of the pantry, filled with elixirs like nocino (green walnut liqueur), mirto (myrtle berry liqueur), or limoncello (lemon liqueur), depending on what’s available in the region.

One of the cookbooks Andrea inherited from his grandmother contained an appendix with several recipes for herbal liqueurs, so he started experimenting with recipes. “Some were horrible,” he says, but after three years of testing, one eventually became Calisaya Liqueur, Elixir’s very first product.

The primary flavoring in Calisaya is cinchona bark, an herb initially introduced to Europe from South America in the 1600s as a cure for malaria, thanks to cinchona’s high quinine content. Cinchona’s efficacy as a treatment was astounding. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes quinine as “a drug that has probably benefitted more people than any other in the combat of infectious disease.” Until the middle of the 20th century, cinchona remained the primary substance used to treat malaria in the Western world.

To extract that quinine (and other alkaloids), pharmacists used alcohol, essentially creating the predecessor to the popular class of bitter liqueurs we know as amaro. Even the Italian army produced cinchona liqueur to keep its troops healthy. Over time, malaria became less common on the Italian peninsula, but Italians’ taste for cinchona persisted. Today, cinchona liqueurs (called china, pronounced “kee-nah”) are popular throughout Italy and beyond.

So why would you want to drink a medicine for fun? Because it’s also delicious. Cinchona’s soft herbaceous flavor and cleansing bitterness is just right in cocktails, and Calisaya tempers that bitterness with an exceptional balance of citrus, herbs, and sweetness.

But Andrea didn’t stop there. “Usually, I fall in love with one ingredient,” he says. And after mastering cinchona, he turned his attention to the iris plant, and began to develop what would eventually become Elixir’s Iris Liqueur.

In North America, we think of irises as an ornamental flower, prized for their sword-like leaves and frilled, super-saturated blossoms. But underneath all that, the iris root — referred to as orris root when used for scent — has its own charms.

Loyal to his heritage, Andrea imports his orris root from Italy. But it’s not just loyalty — Italy produces some of the best orris root in the world. Florence is world-famous for growing the finest crop, a tradition that began when irises were planted in vineyards between grape rows in the hopes that they’d impart their special, dusky flavor to the wine itself. Today, most Florentine orris root is exported to French perfumers, who use it for its floral aroma as well as its fixative properties.

Andrea hands me two jars: one contains locally grown orris root, and another contains imported Italian orris root. The local root has a soft violet aroma and anonymous, mulch-like texture; the Italian stuff is dense and identifiably rooty, with a floral aroma almost truffle-like in its pungency. The difference is the olfactory equivalent of switching between black-and-white photography and full-color film.

Landing on the right recipe for Iris Liqueur took about 18 months. “It takes time to get the right equilibrium,” Andrea says, “and I am kind of a nerd.” In his office, a collection of antique Italian books about the liqueur trade provides inspiration. He takes one down from the shelf and starts flipping through its yellowed pages. “There are thousands of recipes,” he says. “But sometimes they say things like ‘filter with asbestos,’ so you have to take it with a bit of distance. So I start playing.”

He also maintains a reference library of hundreds of single-note alcohol extractions, with flavors ranging from chinotto (an Italian citrus) to gentian (the bitter mountain herb that flavors Angostura bitters and Underberg). Just like a perfumer, Andrea tinkers, combining a little of this with a little of that, testing ideas that might later become finished recipes. Although Andrea has lived in Eugene for years, he retains the kind of effortless rhetorical stylishness that seems unique to Italians — he calls the flavor library his “organ,” and it’s easy to imaging him sitting down to play, layering note after note in a kind of symphonic fugue of flavor.

Before bottling, each batch of Calisaya and Iris mellows for a few weeks in Hungarian oak casks, one for each product. There, essential oils that could make the liqueur cloudy are allowed to drop out of suspension, and the flavors begin to meld. “They are like old teapots,” Andrea says.

Much of craft distilling has a fundamentally experimental ethos, complete with a hearty dose of skepticism towards the status quo. And while Elixir tends to adhere to tradition, even when that means opting for imported ingredients, they’re not immune to the uniquely American temptation to tinker. Case in point: they’re ready release a fernet, slated to hit shelves in early 2017.

Milan’s Fernet Branca has been around for 150 years, but Andrea couldn’t shake the feeling that he could improve upon the old standard. “It’s so minty,” he says. “I never loved it.” So he developed his own recipe, keeping some of the classic Italian components while incorporating distinctly Northwest ingredients — although what, exactly, those Northwest ingredients are will remain a secret. “Some things I pick myself, from a tree,” he winks. “But I cannot tell you more.”

One taste reveals an earthy, bitter, almost chocolaty flavor with forest floor–like depth and a faint hint of sweetness. The bitterness is firm but not overwhelming, lacking that chalky, aspirin-like quality that plagues over-hopped beers. Tasted next to the Branca, Andrea’s fernet is distinctly more complex and also – somehow – more Oregonian, something to be enjoyed on a damp fall evening or savored around a summer campfire, mystery and all.

Margarett Waterbury is a food, drink, and travel writer living in Portland, Oregon. She is the managing editor of Edible Portland.

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