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Such Sweet Spirits

Local liqueurs are organic, artisanal, and highly evolved.

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When hard drinks taste like soft drinks but still mess you up, when they taste like coffee, chocolate, coconut, lavender, lychees, loganberries, saffron, cinnamon, hibiscus, prunes, violets, chili peppers, betel nuts, walnuts, peanuts, dulce de leche, lemongrass, caraway seed, rose, ginseng, passionfruit, and chai, it's nice to be over 21.

Made by steeping spices, fruit, or other flavorants in straight liquor — usually vodka or brandy — for a month, then adding sugar to the strained liquid, then aging this for three more months, liqueurs are intensely sweet and smooth distilled spirits whose sugar content is at least 2.5 percent. Turning cocktails into candy, they let you be a little kid while looking all grown up.

And when East Bay entrepreneurs try their hand at distilling it, the results are organic, artisanal, and even radical.

The FDA doesn't require distillers to list ingredients on liqueur labels, but Lisa Averbuch of Emeryville's Loft Liqueurs lists hers, because they make her proud. Based on the classic Italian vodka-lemon drink limoncello, Loft's lime cello, lemongrass cello, raspberry cello, spicy-ginger cello, and tangerine cello all have won medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition since Averbuch and best friend/business partner Sabrina Moreno-Dolan launched their company in 2007. Loft's lavender cello was ranked "exceptional" by the national Beverage Testing Institute. Brewed in small batches using farm-fresh fruit and herbs, Averbuch said Loft's were the nation's first commercially sold organic liqueurs.

Averbuch had been a vegetarian nearly all her life when, while working as an activities manager at Napa's now-defunct food-and-wine center Copia, she eagerly embraced its "whole organic and biodynamic sensibility." When she discovered limoncello and decided to go into business, that sensibility still held: Why should health concerns and environmental ethics end at the swizzle stick?

"Going into bars and seeing those bright blue drinks and bright green appletinis, I had no choice but to think: Those can't be good for you," she said. "There must be a better way to make this stuff." Averbuch resolved to use fresh produce, a true rarity in an industry dominated by extracts and cheap synthetics.

During what she laughingly calls "my R&D phase," she spent months making cellos from whatever caught her eye at Berkeley Bowl. This yielded such hits and misses as tomato liqueur (too watery), pomegranate liqueur (too labor-intensive), and fig liqueur (insufficiently versatile). Corn "didn't quite work," but she vows to try it again. These days, she buys tangerines from a Southern California orchard and lavender from a Washington State farm. Loft's berries are squeezed by hand "to get out every last drop of flavor. It makes all the difference."

Averbuch's personal favorite is the lavender cello.

"A lot of people don't realize that lavender doesn't just have a fragrance," she said. "It has a flavor, too."

And a lot of people don't realize that chamomile, while possessing both fragrance and flavor, serves any purpose besides settling sore stomachs and inducing sleep. Jill Witty wants to open their minds with her J Witty Spirits organic chamomile liqueur.

"It never occurred to me that this was a flavor that had never been done before in liqueurs until I did it," says the Yale University grad, who now lives in Albany. "I really enjoy herbal teas, I enjoy having something sweet after dinner, and I enjoy the digestive properties of drinking something a little harder, so a chamomile liqueur seemed very natural."

After earning an MBA, former caterer Witty was working in Uruguay when she met a friendly couple who made and sold their own liqueurs. They inspired her to experiment.

"I'd always had a sweet tooth," she said. "Before I was old enough to drink, I loved desserts — so I grew up making sweets. Once I started drinking, I was drawn to sweet drinks: ports, dessert wines, liqueurs.

"Because some people hear the word 'chamomile' and have a strong reaction," Witty said, she debated whether or not to call her product a chamomile liqueur: After all, it does also boast spicy and apple-y notes. But chamomile won out. Witty plans to introduce "one more herbal-style flavor and one fruit flavor" later this year, although she's keeping their exact identities a secret.

At St. George Spirits in Alameda, distiller Lance Winters doesn't mind if some folks hate his Aqua Perfecta raspberry and Williams pear liqueurs. Of course, he'd rather that they love it. But in his view, it's better that some hate it than simply think it's okay.

"We don't want to create a product that fits the mass market," he said. "We have respect for alcohol, and in the respect that we have respect for it, we're not playing it safe. We're not making products that are beige. I don't want anyone to be passive about what we make. Sure, some people's palates will find some things we make insulting. That's fine."

Lodged in a former military hangar, St. George Spirits also produces absinthe, eaux de vie, and award-winning organic Hangar One vodkas infused with citron, kaffir lime, orange blossom, and other flavors.

"We are blessed with amazing fruit in this country in general and in California in particular," he said. "Being able to work with that fruit lets us do amazing things. There are other raspberry liqueurs on the market, but we want ours to be like a raspberry." Trained by St. George's owner Jörg Rupf, who is descended from a long line of Black Forest distillers, former nuclear engineer Winters achieves this authenticity — "this full picture of what raspberries can do" — by distilling fresh raspberries and using the raspberry distillate to brew the liqueur.

"Raspberry eau de vie has a lot of raspberry in it. When you layer that with more raspberry, you've got raspberry on steroids." Perform similar magic with whole pears — which lend themselves remarkably well to liqueur-making — "and you've got this super-amped-up pear," Winters said.

"Most liqueurs are a sweet delivery vehicle for alcohol, but there's a lot of potential in this category to make things that are truly beautiful."

But what to do with it? The makers interviewed for this article all recommend sipping their products straight, or over ice. Paul Abercrombie, the author of Organic, Shaken and Stirred: Hip Highballs, Modern Martinis and Other Totally Green Cocktails, likes concocting fizzes from seltzer, vodka, and liqueurs.

"Liqueurs are great because they take care of two things at once: They give drinks an intense flavor and sweetness," said Abercrombie, who marvels at the success of a cocktail he devised comprising English peas, green grapes, brown sugar, gin, and elderflower liqueur.

"It sounds like some kind of horrifying alcoholic salad, but it works."

He also recommends using St. George Spirits' liqueur in his own personal pear sidecar recipe — which also includes agave nectar, lemon juice, and a red-wine reduction infused with orange peel, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and fresh pears.

"Anything goes when it comes to cooking or baking with liqueurs," offered Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto executive chef Devon Boisen, whose prix-fixe wine dinners often conclude with liqueur-spiked desserts, some of which he sets alight. "Liqueurs are very sweet, so make sure to balance the sugar with acidity and salinity. In baking, it pretty much acts just like vanilla. So just add a little Grand Marnier or Trader Vic's Macadamia Nut Liqueur to that next batch of sugar cookies."

He also cites "classics like oysters Rockefeller, which uses Pernod — or a really nice drinking sherry in Seafood Newberg or Coquille St. Jacques. In all of these cases, the liqueurs are used to deglaze the pan or finish the sauce. Another really good old-school liqueur is Cherry Heering. Not many people drink this anymore, but it is great liqueur for à la minute pan sauces for duck, venison, or wild boar." Crab cooked with lemon, toasted hazelnuts, brown butter, and Frangelico "is ridiculously good."

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