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The Search for the Holy Grail 

Three Spokane-area drinks you need to try. Plus a lot of crap to avoid.

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For the past three weeks, I’ve been on the hunt for the perfect mixed drink in the Inland Northwest. A drink that’s inventive and cutting-edge but still tasty — crisp and refreshing. Something with a good story (see The Last Word, p. 54), or a connection to the past.

Something like the Di Vine, served at Parlor in San Francisco — a mix of gin, lemon juice, syrup, absinthe and a rare Italian spirit called Dimmi. Unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. Or the TMP, an experiment in pisco, Chartreuse, sugar, and lemon and pineapple juices — poured at the Modern Hotel in Boise.

In these cities and elsewhere in the country, bartenders are pushing the envelope of what a mixed drink — be it drop or cocktail, martini or Collins — can be. Surely the same is true in Spokane?

Here, it should be said, is what I was not looking for. Anything ending in –tini, unless it’s an actual martini (gin, vermouth, olive). Anything with a sugared rim. Or a whipped cream topping. Anything that dulls the appetite with its sweetness, or gives you momentary delusions of Carrie- or Samantha-ness.

That in mind, I hit the town. And although I never found the holy grail, I stumbled upon some damn good drinks — the cucumber cilantro at Stix, the classic Caipirinha at Clinkerdagger.

But while these were all good, the three drinks below — and the thought that went into them — really made my ganglia twitch.

THE HONEYDEW JALAPEÑO MARGARITA

A lot of people become tequila converts by the time they leave El Que, a tiny little hallway of a space opened by the guys who brought you the Elk, Moon Time and two other regional gastro-pubs. Tucked just behind the Elk, the menu here is Mexican and the drink list is tequila-centric.

While that may seem logical, it’s still a bold choice. A lot of people don’t touch the stuff outside of the occasional margarita, and even career drinkers will look at a bottle of tequila and say, “Ugh, I haven’t been able to drink that stuff since Ricky lost his fingers in Cabo.”

But experimentation is what Marshall Powell, who runs this place and the Elk, is all about.

“We’re straight-up just winging it,” says Powell, who for months has been filling one-gallon pepperoncini jugs with tequila (and some vodka) and anything he can get his hands on — strawberries, limes, beets, sage and raisins. “Anything that remotely sounds like it could be cool,” he says. “[One of my bartenders] just brought back a bunch of cacao beans from Costa Rica, so we tried that.”

The response from the health department, Powell says, has been one of cautious positivity (no one seems sure if there are laws that govern this kind of thing). But the response from patrons, he adds, has been phenomenal.

“I’ve been extremely surprised about how well it’s been received,” he says, with a slow shake of his head. “We’ve done some strange things, and it’s sold.”

He notes that customers have even been adventurous enough to sample a tequila infused with ghost pepper — perhaps the world’s hottest pepper — which soaks in the spirit for less than 24 hours. That’s all the time it needs. Above the bottle on the bar back is a hand-drawn skull-and-crossbones.

It’s fitting. This is strikingly, tear-inducingly hot. But here’s a tip: Half a shot of this stuff takes the bite out of the much tamer and more artful honeydew and jalapeño margarita.

Taken alone, this drink is a little daunting. After communing with the ghost pepper, though, you can really enjoy the flavors here. The nose full of pepper. The smooth subtlety of the melon, which cuts a lot of the usual fieriness of the tequila (they use Sauza Hornitos Reposado as their infusion base).

It’s fun, it’s nuanced, and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before.

THE WILD SAGE

When other bartenders talk about who’s doing interesting stuff in town, Wild Sage usually comes out in the first breath. Though the upscale Third Avenue restaurant is perhaps better known for its cuisine (and its inauspicious location), the bar is worth checking out, too.

As at El Que, Wild Sage is experimenting with infusions. But maybe more interestingly, it’s investing in its ingredients.

It’s all about the fruit, says bartender Adam Fromherz, as he heaves a plastic bucket of oranges out of the fridge and effortlessly bleeds one dry in the tall hand-juicer on the bar in front of him. Before coming to Wild Sage almost four years ago, he says, he worked at Cyrus O’Leary’s, where the sour that goes into a drink would come out of a bar gun. “Making it with that fresh fruit — you know, oranges, or lemons or limes — makes such a big difference.”

Wild Sage goes the extra mile with other ingredients, too. Where you might expect a splash of boring Triple Sec in your margarita, here they’ll swap in damiana liqueur — a sweet and beautifully floral syrup made from the South American damiana shrub.

For their trademark Wild Sage drink, they really live up to their own name. Fromherz pulls out a baggie of fresh sage leaves and muddles them into a pint glass, then mixes in gin, Cointreau, lime and sugar.

The result is a blissful concoction — perhaps slightly too sweet but with an exotic desert-y finish from the sage leaves.

Fromherz is quick to point out, though, that Wild Sage isn’t exactly breaking the mold. Most of their drinks, he says, are built from the lemon drop formula. That classic cocktail combines vodka, lemon juice and sugar. That is, a spirit, something sweet, and something sour.

But let’s say you swap out the vodka for rum and the lemon for grapefruit. Add a little mint and you have their Ruby Mojito.

“You can really use your imagination from there,” says Fromherz.

In that way, the Wild Sage bartenders push their art by drawing on the tested theories and lessons of the past.

THE HEAVY SMOKEY

This was one of the worst drinks I’ve ever tasted. My bartender at Bardenay in Coeur d’Alene shook together their house gin with Lillet Blanc (an obscure wine-based aperitif made semi-famous by James Bond in Casino Royale), a lemon twist and 16-year-old Lagavulin Scotch. The result was like sucking on a campfire log, burying your face in a shoebox, catching a whiff of a new appliance.

I loved it.

Granted, I’ll never order that drink again, but in a world where most bars stock their drink lists with stuff they know people will want — Cosmos, raspberry-tinis, chocolate bullshit — Bardenay, which is based in Boise, challenges you with a mouth full of soda ash. At least on an intellectual level, it’s a joy.

The company deserves kudos, too, for making its own gin, rum and vodka — in fact, in 2000 it became the first restaurant in the country to serve its own distilled spirits. It uses the stuff in a lot of its signature drinks, from the Basil Instinct to the Cantaloupe Cooler.

But there’s nothing like the Heavy Smokey — even if, on my next visit, I’ll be opting for the Light Smokey, which swaps Lagavulin for the decidedly gentler Usher’s Green Stripe.

For all the good stuff I came across on my weeks-long quest, I also came across a lot of crap and also a lot of cluelessness — on the parts of both customers and bartenders.

Take, for example, this exchange with a server at a popular north-side cocktail lounge:

Me: Do you have any Campari?
Bartender: What’s that?
Me: It’s a kind of Italian bitter.
Bartender: An Italian what?
Me: A bitter?
Bartender: (Looks around the bar absently.) No.
Me: Never mind, I’ll just take an old-fashioned.
Bartender: What’s in that?
Me: Whiskey, a sugar cube, some bitters… How about just a Tom Collins?
Bartender: Wait, what’s that?
Me: Uh…
Bartender: You’re asking me for things I’ve never been asked for, and I’ve been a bartender for four years.

It wouldn’t be surprising if some customers didn’t know what Campari or a Tom Collins are, or what’s in them. But your bartender shrugging at the mention of an old-fashioned — one of the oldest, most respected cocktails in existence — is like your mechanic asking you what spark plugs do.

“Yeah, Spokane is not too sophisticated a town, for the most part,” says David Klenda, a bartender at the Safari Room. He says his customers are sometimes reluctant to try things outside their comfort zones. Like gin, for example. “You say gin and people close their doors,” he notes. “I mean, people who like gin like gin. They may like a gin martini, or a gin and tonic, but they don’t venture too far beyond that.”

Asked what he thought the definitive Spokane drink would be, he shrugs, “I don’t know. I’ve heard that the Bull Blaster (Jagermeister and Red Bull) was invented here.”

Ryan Crow, who tends bar at Bistango (home of the infamous $30 martini) says that sometimes it’s “gin city” at his bar, but that, still, 85 percent of the drink orders he gets are for vodka-based beverages. Crow chalks this up to good marketing on the part of vodka manufacturers. When customers step to the bar, they see Grey Goose and say, “Give me one of those.”

But Brooklynd Johnson says it’s about supply, not demand.

“If they’re stocking four kinds of flavored vodka, of course it’s going to be 85-to-15 vodka [over everything else].”

Johnson tends bar at Mizuna for now, but her résumé over the last 10 years includes the Blue Spark, the B-Side, Cavallino Lounge and the Elk (among others). And she has a far more optimistic view of the Spokane boozer.

“Spokane’s not any different than anywhere else,” she says. “I speculate there are plenty of home bartenders in Spokane who make their own cocktails, do the research, know about the revolution that’s been going on since the ‘90s.”

She just doesn’t think there are enough bars supplying that demand — because ownership isn’t pushing for the good stuff and because bartenders get thrown in the deep end without any training.

Also, because of another supply-and-demand problem: There’s a limit to what ingredients bars can get in Spokane. Marshall Powell says he’s considered driving to Seattle to buy tequilas he can’t get here, but that would start a self-perpetuating cycle, because what happens when El Que runs out of the stuff? The damiana liqueur at Wild Sage, says Adam Fromherz, is such an oddity that the liquor store makes them buy a case of it at time. That doesn’t exactly encourage experimentation.

But Johnson hopes that as more bars demand this kind of stuff, the more common it will become here. Which will benefit all area bars, allow them to push Spokane’s taste buds further and accommodate the people already thirsty for big-city drinking.

Johnson is about to test her hypotheses, too. In about a month, she will take over as manager at Le Bon Bon, a new bar opening inside the historic Garland Theater on Spokane’s north side. Designed by Dan Spalding (who also designed Zola), the bar — Johnson says — will focus on making classic cocktails with an old-fashioned approach.

“We are adults now. These are adult beverages,” she says. “They shouldn’t taste like soda pop. You should be able to taste alcohol. There has to be some respect for the alcohol.”

Serious drinkers can look forward to around seven specialty drinks, which will rotate regularly. Johnson says she intends to put some elbow grease into the classics, using house-made grenadine and tonic water, even bitters made in-house from Dry Fly’s neutral grain spirit.

Could it be a cocktail revolution in Spokane? If so, we’re ready for it. Finally.

BAR GUIDE 2010

Downtown Spokane
South Hill
Spokane’s North Side
The Valley
Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls
Sandpoint
Pullman/Moscow


The Holy Grail
Looking for the perfect mixed drink in the Spokane area

Dive Bars
The best, worst taverns around

Hotel Bars
Seeking an echo of the old scene

Bar Royalty
Confessions from area bartenders

The Last Word
Seattle has its trademark drink. What’s Spokane’s?

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