Sub Rosa vodkas quietly making their mark

Mike Sherwood admits to creating "kind of a tease" with his artisan vodkas.

His two expressions of Sub Rosa vodka -- one saffron, the other tarragon -- are head and shoulders above most assembly line infused vodkas, many of which use extracts and chemicals for their flavorings. But the fact that he makes them only one 50-case lot at a time in rented quarters is both their blessing and their curse.

The blessing: "These infusions are made from fresh herbs and spices, hence the true flavors and natural colors. I don't use extracts or a flavor house to obtain the delicate flavors in my tarragon. Each of eight spices are infused separately for the saffron, then blended."

The curse: Because manufacturing is severely limited, the two vodkas are available only on the West Coast or through vendors located there. Last month, California joined Oregon, Sherwood's home state, and Washington as his market. Luckily for consumers, he's in talks with a Washington, D.C., distributor to break into the East Coast.

Sherwood's day job is at the small Sineann winery in Newberg, Ore. He makes his vodkas at House Spirits Distillery -- which allows outsider to use its equipment on a shared basis -- in nearby Portland, working with partner Linda Lausmann.

Sub Rosa Spirits isn't just a lark for Sherwood. His much-traveled background includes time as a logger, fisherman, software developer, wine and food writer, and craft beer expert after growing up in a family that had a beer and wine distributorship. He was the founding executive director of the Oregon Brewers Guild in the 1990s and is co-founder and vice president of the newly-formed Oregon Distillers Guild.

"Small-batch distilling is quite popular here in Oregon," Sherwood told me. "There are 17 distilleries right now, and plans are in the works to create several more."

It was as manager of Rogue Ale's rum distillery in 2004 that Sherwood became interested in this facet of the adult beverage world. He and distiller Kieran Sienkiewicz teamed up there to create spiced rums, wasabi vodka, spruce gin and absinthe.

The idea of picking tarragon and saffron for his first two products is "clearly part of the movement towards culinary-inspired cocktails," Sherwood said. "I have no doubt that adventurous bartenders will come up with inventive uses for these new flavors. At 90 proof, they were made to mix."

Each bottle of Sub Rosa -- the Latin phrase for secret or confidential -- is identified by batch number and the year produced. The suggested retail price is $29.95 for a 750ml bottle. Your local spirits purveyor should be able to order it from Sub Rosa in Dundee, Ore. 97115.

"The tarragon style is made with fresh-grown tarragon leaves and a hint of mint. The pale green color is natural, the flavor is refreshing," Sherwood explained. "The saffron-infused vodka is as complex as a gin with eight spices. These distillates use fresh ingredients, and darned expensive ones, too. Saffron is the most expensive spice on the planet. No essential oils were used for flavoring. What you taste is fresh herbs and spices suspended in alcohol."

Once Sherwood is able to get his own manufacturing space, he plans to "branch out into a spiced gin along the same lines as the saffron vodka, and maybe a liqueur with the same sort of Indian/Moroccan/Asian spices.

"I'm working on my next tarragon infusion as we speak. Peeling off the leaves one by one off of five pounds of fresh tarragon. I am going to boost the intensity of the tarragon a wee bit in my next batch, so it will stand up to more ingredients, but still keep the same flavor profile."

(Go here for my "Tasting Notes" entry on Sub Rosa.)

Here are several cocktail recipes Sherwood has supplied, featuring his two vodkas:


1/4 to 1/2 oz. St. Germaine Elderflower Liqueur
2 oz. Sub Rosa Tarragon Vodka
2 oz. soda water
Splash of fresh lemon juice

Combine all ingredients over ice in an Old Fashioned cocktail tumbler and serve.


2 oz. Sub Rosa Tarragon Vodka
2 oz. ginger ale
Splash of Cointreau
Orange slice

Add the vodka and Cointreau to a shaker full of ice.. Shake well. Pour into a highball glass and add ginger ale to taste. (Recipe ratio usually is 1-to-1.) Garnish with orange slice.


2 oz. Sub Rosa Saffron Vodka
3 oz. mango, orange or apricot nectar juice
2 grinds black pepper
1 oz. Riesling-based simple syrup

Pour each ingredient over ice, shake vigorously and serve in a frosted glass. Alternatively, build and serve on the rocks.

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