The first time I met Mike Sherwood, the mastermind behind Sub Rosa Spirits, he handed me two mix CDs of mash-ups.
"You know what they are?" he asked. I told him that I was familiar with mash-ups—the art of layering elements of different songs to create a new track.
"Yeah," he responded. "A lot of my friends hear this music and say, 'Man, that's ruining a great song.' But for me, I think some of these are better than the original. You might as well just toss the original out."
The soft-spoken 54-year-old who has a constant look of wonder and excitement is not a DJ or a producer; he is an alcohol alchemist. But his love of the mash-up goes a long way toward understanding his spirits. His tarragon and saffron vodkas taste as if they've been painstakingly layered with flavor, and like any good mash-up, these 90-proof elixirs are about balance and blend. They have a body-rocking dynamic on their own, but in a cocktail they really swing.
Sherwood has always been around alcohol. Growing up in Roseburg in the '60s, his parents owned a beer and wine distribution company. Sometimes he'd get into the stock and sample the wares. When he wasn't doing that, he'd go to Oregon's first commercial winery, run by Richard Summers.
"My cheeks were still rosy red," Sherwood laughs. "I would go out and buy alcohol from him. He would take you though the wine room and the production. I'd be thinking, 'This is kinda cool.'"
Sherwood was inspired, but as a young man he found himself working in Seattle's high-tech industry. When he returned to Oregon, he married his high school sweetheart and became executive director for the Oregon Brewers Guild. He also helped develop Rogue Ales' line of spirits, along with Kieran Sienkiewicz, master distiller for Integrity Spirits.
Sherwood has pretty much given up tech work, choosing instead to work at a winery in Yamhill County. In his spare time, he continues to develop the eight-month-old Sub Rosa label with an eye on opening his own distillery.
Sub Rosa's vodka does not taste like a part-time endeavor. The saffron vodka is a masterly concoction of eight spices with notes of cumin and coriander as well as fragrant overtones of saffron. It's quite spicy, inspired by curry, and when stirred with mango nectar it develops on the palate like a hard mango lassi.
The tarragon is another story. Here, there are hints of citrus and anise along with a clean tarragon wash. It is perfect on its own, stirred with ice, accompanied by a twist of lemon and sipped from a pre-chilled martini glass.
The mixability of Sherwood's spirits has caught the eye of some of Portland's best restaurants. Wildwood is using Sub Rosa's saffron in a cocktail called the Indian Summer, which includes Patrón orange liqueur and nectarine puree. Another highly regarded eatery, Carafe, is using Sub Rosa's tarragon vodka in a featured cocktail and as an ingredient in one of their soups.
Sherwood is especially excited about restaurants that are using his spirits both in the kitchen and at the bar. "Anytime you can marry the bar and the kitchen together," he explains, "it speaks volumes for that restaurant."
This is a big concern for Sherwood, who learned to love the finer points of cuisine through his wife, Linda Lausmann, with whom he identifies as a foodie. And Sub Rosa's spirits are an epicurean's brand of booze. "I want them to be culinary inspired. I want them to work with food," he says. "It should excite your mouth."
And the fact is, it does just that. Much like a good mash-up might convince you to never listen to the original again, Sub Rosa's craft spirits could certainly change the way you drink vodka.
Sub Rosa's tarragon vodka is good on its own, but it also makes a delightful cocktail. Mike Sherwood developed this recipe as homage to Portland's mojito scene. "Portland has long been a huge mojito town," he says. "This drink is a nod to that space where mojitos meet juleps."
Tarragon Mojito Julep
1 1/2 oz. Sub Rosa tarragon vodka
1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz. simple syrup
Fresh mint leaves
Fresh tarragon leaves/sprig
Squirt brand soft drink
Lemon twist and mint sprig garnish
In a rocks glass, muddle a pinch of fresh torn-up mint leaves and a dozen fresh tarragon leaves with the lemon juice and simple syrup. Fill the glass with lightly crushed ice. Add tarragon vodka, top off with Squirt, and stir. Garnish with a lemon peel twist.