PHOTO: Michael Ernsting Photography
I've somehow managed to get a negroni recipe I came up with (with some heavy duty help) onto the March menu at Nostrana in Portland as part of their monthly Pro Series. I'm sandwiched between Jeff Morgenthaler (Clyde Common, Pépe le Moko) and Kenta Goto (Pegu Club, and his own soon-to-open spot), two bartenders whose palates and sensibilities I really admire, so it's pretty heady company. And Nostrana chef's Cathey Whims' gorgeous Italian cuisine and superior, seamless service team has always been pretty damn enchanting the few times I've gotten to dine there. That Negroni Week started with them also adds to the luster.
When I wrote about Nostrana's annual Negroni Social and the accompanying booklet with the recipes that had been featured throughout the year I got to know Peter Carpenter, bar manager, first by email and then later at Portland Cocktail Week, and somehow I made a good enough impressions that he asked me to contribute. Which was flattering. And scary. What did I have to bring to the negroni party that all the other heavy hitter chefs and bartenders perhaps hadn't? I kept coming back to the fact that I grew up in the area and had a strong affinity for the terroir.
Having spent most of my childhood in the foothills of the Cascades, 60 miles south of Portland, I'm quite intimate with the forest and the aromas and the generally pine-y, evergreen pitch-rich atmosphere of Oregon. I think the juniper of gin always felt familiar to me. That very first time I got drunk at a park in downtown Portland (that I now pass constantly during PDXCW) on smuggled gin & tonics in a thermos, missed buses and my exclaiming that "drunk is fun", words I've lived by, for sometimes worse but mostly for better, ever since. That illicit G & T tasted like a walk in the woods up the creek next to the cabin I where I grew up in Dickie Prairie, a very, very small town populated with loggers, stray hippie bohemian types like my parents, 60s burnouts and just some serious farming community rednecks. It was a tight community and sparsely populated--there were 8 kids in my graduating class at the end of 8th grade. Our cabin was built where the Molalla River and the much smaller Trout Creek met, and the largest swimming hole on the river was situated. It was called The Punchbowl, due to its nearly perfectly circular shape. The landscape of the steep hills-beginnings of mountains, really-was moss covered and shady, with sturdy evergreens growing along the slopes. We got a narrow swath of unobstructed sky and sunshine where the river and the creek carved a winding hole in the dense, Shire-esque canopy that filtered out sunlight on that mossy fecund floor.
I played in those woods, and chopped wood there, and wandered for a decade. When musing over what a Negroni in Portland, in the Pacific Northwest, could be, I connected that smell of those towering Doug Firs that lined the river and the creek with that pine-y, gin aspect that is in a way totally amplified in a Negroni--it felt like same-same. And the Clear Creek Douglas Fir Eau de Vie has always struck me as one of the most successful of the far flung Eau de Vies out there, a pure distillation of a tree's essence. And Stephen McCarthy is just a pioneer in West Coast distilling and a real gentleman. The Clear Creek Distillery is located in Industrial Northwest, a formerly desolate part of town I used to roam in the early 90s, with very Repo Man/Outsiders stylings. It was such an obvious and simple fit and so appropriate all around. It wrote itself, as they say.
PHOTO: Michael Enrsting Photography
I must give credit and thanks to a high-powered little tasting panel that took me through part of the R & D. I brought a bottle of the Doug Fir Eau de Vie over to Jacob Briars of Bacardi's apartment on his birthday, on a night when New York was blanketed by big, cinematic snowflakes-Hollywood snow. The other guests were Charlotte Voisey of William Grant & Sons and and bartender/chef/writer Naren Young. After dinner I pulled the Doug Fir Eau de Vie out and shared my negroni concept. Bottles came down from the wall and we ran through several iterations of the ratios and ingredients. In the end I followed the formulation we'd arrived at pretty closely. 1 oz Gordon's, 1 oz Noilly Pratt Rouge, 1 oz Campari, 1/2 oz Clear Creek Eau de Vie, on the rocks, with a Douglas Fir sprig as a garnish.
Procuring the actual Doug Fir sprigs for the garnish I'd imagined proved a bit of a challenge--I'd tried to bribe a friend to drive out to Trout Creek and cut some tips from the many trees around the property, but a back injury got him out of the task. I then went to my go-to cocktail guys in Portland (possibly the world) from the Teardop Lounge (Sean Hoard of The Commissary being a permanent honored alma mater Teardropper) and Tyler Stevens referred me to Jeanine Racht of--wait for it--Clear Creek Distillery. Through a stroke of luck she was going to their property on Hood River the very next day (March 1, the day the drink was set to debut). I was reminded of the moment in Almost Famous when Frances McDormand is talking to Billy Crudup on the phone and tells him, "Aspire to greatness and great forces will come to your aid. Goethe said that." I certainly could not have realized this drink so fully without serious aid from all mentioned. I am glad to have been able to put together this homage to the forest of my childhood in this small way.
Special thanks to Nancy Klingener for her always reliable copy editing.