Thursday, May 28, 2015

Willoughby and Barr Hill Gin

Let me tell you a little story...

I've been starting to flirt with the idea of pairing spirits and cheese. I know it's not a brand new idea, but it's taken a hold of me and I want to run with it. I knew that I couldn't start doing this with mass-produced factory spirits just like I couldn't start my cheese pairing/passion/business with American slices...

Because I don't have a large amount of money, I usually reserve my alcohol purchases to a reasonable 22oz bottle of beer or a 750ml of wine. I've found some gems and I've found some stinkers, but they're at least within my price range. The only "spirits" that I could find in my price range really cannot be rightfully be placed in the same category as artisan spirits. I think of them more like kerosene... Once my palette for cheese, beer and wine really began to blossom and I could recognize the subtle nuances of each type, I knew I was ready to attempt the "spirit-world" (pun absolutely intended).

(I promise I'm getting to the cheese soon!)

Firstly, I have to give all credit to Mary Guiver for teaching me how to properly enjoy spirits. It's not just there for a shot - forgive me, this was my college experience - it's there for the enjoyment, just like any other beverage. Working with her for the short period that I did allowed me to start really trying and enjoying different spirits. I could easily point to which ones I cared for and which ones I would rather light on fire. Then, moving on to the Los Altos location gave me even more opportunity to try artisan spirits. We can't sample alcohol on the clock, but my schedule just so happens to fall into place where I get to participate in the active samplings done in my store once my shift is over. I've tried myriad amazing spirits and can't wait to experience more.

This is where I met Sarah Bryant, our incredibly passionate and fun Bay Area brand ambassador for Caledonia Spirits.

Sarah introduced me to the Caledonia Spirits company in Vermont that works very closely with the Vermont, Hardwick and Caledonia Country and the farmers/cheesemakers/dairy producers therein. Todd D. Hardie, the founder of Caledonia Spirits, actually started off as a beekeeper for 49 years! Sarah even brought in a tub of Caledonia Spirits Raw Honey they produce. He hired Ryan Christiansen as head distiller and Andrew Pinault as production manager.

They've created a beekeepers co-op, with small farmers from New York, North Dakota and Michigan in order to source the best possible product and keep up with our demand for the highest quality raw honey that go into their spirits.  Todd was keeping 2000 hives and decided to give them to our bee-keeping friends, to support as many family farms as possible with our distillery.  Caledonia Spirits is buying honey in 55 gal drums and processing (filtering, jarring, labeling) in house in Hardwick, VT to keep the cost of production for the beekeepers as low as possible.  This allows us to sell over $100 of honey for ~ $60 as Vodka - and create many jobs in the process!! Todd Hardie is a visionary Founder/Beekeeper and as a farmer he knows that value-added products keep the farm sustainable. His wife and partner Tanya is actually the aunt of Mateo Kehler from Jasper Hill Creamery

This is where the cheese comes in.. after talking to Sarah about how the cheeses produced at Jasper Hill Creamery were produced in the exact same area as the honey and spirits produced at Caledonia Spirits. I took this nugget and ran with it... I bought the Harbison and the Willoughby once I was able to procure some of the Barr Hill Gin and immediately went home to try...

*That's a sexy picture right there... I do have to say that I will only be speaking of the Willoughby today as I thought it was the best pairing and Harbison has made an appearance on my blog several times...*

Cheese: Willoughby
Original Producer: Marisa Mauro of Ploughgate Creamery
Current Producer: Jasper Hill Farm
Location: Greensboro Bend, VT
Milk: Pasteurized cow's milk
Rennet: Traditional (animal)

As mentioned above, the Willoughby was originally created/produced by Marisa Mauro of Ploughgate Creamery. In 2010, there was a creamery fire that resulted in a stop in production of this cheese. Jasper Hill Creamery, with Marisa's blessing, has resurrected this fantastic cheese and is continuously developing the recipe.

The Willoughby is a delicious washed rind cheese that is surprisingly small, yet maintains a relatively firm paste - and by firm, I mean it doesn't immediately ooze all over the plate. You can actually cut and portion this cheese up until about 9 weeks after its production. What I find incredible about this cheese is how rich the paste is (buttery, fudgy, herbal) while having a very thin washed rind that adds the earth and the funk to the flavor of the cheese without completely overpowering everything else.

I literally could eat the Willoughby with a spoon on my couch without any accompaniment, but I was super eager to pair it with the Barr Hill Gin. The Barr Hill Gin from Caledonia Spirits is made with pure grain spirits with only juniper berry and raw northern honey - the honey being added just before bottling. By itself, the Barr Hill Gin is wonderfully flavorful and you really do get hints of the raw honey. I had it straight in the snifter when I first brought it home and was over the moon.

When I tried the Willoughby and the Barr Hill Gin together, well, I was speechless. I never knew there was such thing as terroir in spirits, but pairing those two items together from the exact same region in Vermont, it felt like I was transported to the Northeast Kingdom. Like I was standing in a field listening to the wind sway through the grass, the bees buzz and the cows moo in the distance. It was an incredible experience.

So incredible in that our dog, Joe, was looking at me longingly the entire time I ate the Willoughby and drank the Barr Hill Gin. I'm sure to a dog, the aromatics were wonderful....

Well, that was probably one of my longest blogs in a while and I apologize for being long-winded, but I think everyone should go out and try this pairing. Not every Whole Foods in our region carries spirits, so be sure to call and ask if they carry the Barr Hill Gin before visiting. If you see the Willoughby in any of our cheeses cases, don't hesitate to pick up a wheel (they're only 8 ounces).

If you happen to try this pairing, please let me know what you think! Feedback is welcome for all of my posts, but as I delve into a world less familiar, I'd love to hear your thoughts! You can comment below or email me at

Until next time, eat, drink and be happy!