Walk into Salish Sea Organic Liqueurs’ tasting room, located just off Interstate 5 in Lacey, and you’re instantly faced with a very difficult choice. Which, of the many liqueurs it makes, to try first? The popular hibiscus? Classical limoncello? Floral chrysanthemum? Culinary-minded thyme-coriander? The newish nectarine?
Maybe the best idea is to take a step back and ask, what exactly is a liqueur? At heart, it’s simply a base spirit, a flavoring or a combination of flavoring agents and a sweetener. Liqueurs are sipped solo or used in cocktails or culinary dishes. But the distance between the basic definition and deliciousness can be a long journey.
For Salish Sea head distiller and mastermind Sam Desner, that journey started just weeks before he turned 21, when he graduated at the top of his class at the Bartending Academy of Tacoma in September 2010. Sporting long, wavy hair, a full beard, and metal-studded wristbands, Desner recalls in his thoughtful, soft-spoken manner his frustration with not finding the ideal craft bartending gig in his hometown of Olympia. Nor could he find the ingredients he desired to concoct his creations. He started handcrafting his own flavored syrups and liqueurs, and not long after that, he decided to open a distillery with his father, Sandy Desner.
Of course, opening a distillery isn’t easy: One must track down a suitable space, fill out reams of paperwork, come up with a name, design labels and source ingredients—something made especially difficult at Salish, since its liqueurs are USDA certified organic. With help from his dad and other family members (including Desner’s sister Tea, mom Laura and partner Alice) on bottling, labeling and general distillery matters, Desner opened Salish Seas last January.
Since then, the distillery has brought 18 liqueurs to market, and several more are on the way (including a series of absinthes).
That kind of variety is not unusual: Liqueur makers—both professionals like Desner and home crafters—get the experimenting bug and never stop at a single flavor. Once they try one, they want to make more. At Salish Sea, that experimenting led to Desner working hard to find “the very best-quality herbs from our suppliers, in order to ensure that the highest-quality liqueurs are made.” This devotion has resulted in chrysanthemum flowers from China, hibiscus flowers from Egypt, red raspberry leaves from Croatia, lavender flowers from France, and many other choice global resources.
All these ingredients bring us back to the initial question: Where do you begin tasting? And, what can you do with the liqueurs? I don’t think you can make a wrong choice. Unlike some big-company liqueurs, Salish Sea’s aren’t overly sugary, but instead are light on the tongue with bright flavors. Let your imagination run wild. As Desner says, each liqueur “has its own uses, whether using our sage liqueur as a marinade or glaze for burgers or using our hibiscus liqueur in frosting. If I had to suggest one thing to our customers, it would be to experiment and have fun.”
A.J.’S Five Favorite Salish Sea Liqueurs
With 18 liqueurs and more on the way, it’s hard to narrow it down to a few favorites. Not only are the following picks delicious, they also give an excellent idea of the lineup’s wide range of exotic flavors. All are $18.99 for a pint, and $31.99 for a fifth. Tasting room: Lacey, 2641 Willamette Drive NE, Suite D; 360.890.4927; salishseaorganicliqueurs.com
Made from the petals of Egyptian red hibiscus flowers, this liqueur has a tantalizing tartness as well as a deep red coloring. It pairs well with the tang of cranberry juice, and also makes a good addition to gin cocktails (as well as a gin and tonic) and Prosecco. Don’t forget it when making frosting or for other desserts and dessert sauces.
An intriguing and exotic elixir (made from a flower long thought to have health benefits), its aroma really draws you in with floral and herbal notes. The flavor is lightly floral and herbal, too, but is underlined by an attractive hint of bitterness. Sip this solo, with a little ice, either before or after dinner, or try it over ice with soda water and a twist of lemon.
Red Raspberry Liqueur
Unique in that it’s not a berry liqueur made from berries, this one is crafted from the leaves of the raspberry bush. And while you get a raspberry essence on the nose, the body is more like raspberry tea. I actually like to add it to peppermint tea, though it’s also nice over a little vanilla ice cream or mixed with vodka and lemonade.
One of what distiller Sam Desner calls his “culinary liqueurs,” this savory spice-and-herb drink is ideal for cooking. The caramelizing sugar and the rich layers of flavors make it a dandy marinade, and a good addition to sauces. It also is like a cousin to Italian amari, and as such, makes a nice digestif, and pairs well with a serious gin. See the recipe for The Bosun’s Garden here as an example.
There are a number of ginger liqueurs on the market, but none that has quite as much ginger zing and heat as this one. This is partly because it’s made with dried ginger, instead of the more moisture-filled fresh ginger. Use it with soda to make a memorable Moscow mule, or try a little of it with bourbon in The Mysterious Conclusion. Find the recipe here.