The annual Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery Mixoff proves cocktails can taste "grape" with the right combination of spirits, liqueurs and wine.
Taking their inspiration from the fall harvest, beloved classics and even local winemakers, the Okanagan Valley’s top bartenders showed off their talent—and the region’s spirits, liqueurs and wines—in early November at the Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery Mixoff. “We poured our blood, sweat and tears into this cocktail,” said Wes Hunter, general manager for RauDZ Regional Kitchen, while serving glasses of the Pinot Libra cocktail at the Laurel Packinghouse in downtown Kelowna. “We were inspired by the Pinot Noir in the valley. We took two months to deconstruct the taste and build it back up in cocktail form.” The team’s extraordinary effort paid off. RauDZ bartender Ben Hefford’s brainchild—a combination of Okanagan Spirits’ vodka, blackberry and black currant liqueurs, plus house-made beet syrup, all aged in an oak barrel rinsed with Pinot Noir from 50th Parallel Estate Winery—won the Judge’s Choice award. The annual event sees regional mixologists compete to make original cocktails using at least two Okanagan Spirits products and one local wine. The entries are assessed by a panel of judges that determines the Judge’s Choice winner, and then sampled by hundreds of locals who cast their votes for the People’s Choice award during an evening of tippling and tasting. Each cocktail is paired with a bite prepared by the restaurant’s chef, to round out the culinary experience. With winter in the air, many bartenders opted for a bourbon base. And with wine being such a concentrated taste, a majority of mixologists chose to work around the bossy flavour of grapes by reducing them into a syrup, or infusing them to approximate vermouth. The Get Kitsch or Die Tryin’ cocktail from BNA Brewing, for example, combined Okanagan Spirits’ BRBN (a corn-based spirit) with the distillery’s Laird Fintry single malt whisky, cherry liqueur and blood oranges imported from Australia. Bartender Mark Veriker then shook in Kitsch Wines’ dry riesling with an orange blossom infusion, to act as the aromatized wine in this delicious riff on a Blood and Sand cocktail. Stephanie Bobey from Oak and Cru turned 2015 Rollingdale pinot gris into a shrub (a vinegar-based syrup) spiced with valley apples that she mixed with Okanagan Spirits family reserve gin and unfermented pinot gris juice from this year’s Rollingdale grape harvest. Bobey actually helped pick grapes at Rollingdale earlier this fall so she could be part of the whole process. It was neat to see—and taste—that kind of cocktail dedication. My favourite drink, Corpse in the Vineyard (get the recipe here), was an inventive twist on a Corpse Reviver. Krafty Kitchen and Bar general manager and wine director Mia Papadopoulos shook together Okanagan Spirits family reserve gin with lemon juice, orange juice and a syrup made from Mt. Boucherie riesling, wormwood and spices that substituted for Lillet, a fortified white wine from France. A Taboo absinthe glass spritz and a pickled grape garnish completed it perfectly. “A Corpse Reviver is one of my favourite cocktails to drink in the morning, especially after a night of too many cocktails,” said Papadopoulos, adding, “Cocktails are my passion.” Evidently, Corpse in the Vineyard was everyone else’s passion, too—it handily won the People’s Choice award.