North Okanagan Tasting Tour, Part 3: Okanagan Spirits

IMG_0886If you’ve been to Vernon at all in the past 10 years, then you’ll know why there was no way that I was going to be there and NOT try a tasting at this place. Okanagan Spirits has been going strong for about 10 years now and they are really just hitting their stride. I’ve had them on my radar for a while but have never had the time to stop in, even at their other new shop in Kelowna. Since I was in Vernon (and the kids were behaving), I figured I would take in their tour in their original facility before they moved to a new, much bigger facility very soon.

Along with a newer and bigger tasting room space, the new facility will be able to accommodate significantly bigger stills and allow them to use steam to heat the stills rather than burning wood. It’s going to boost their production and allow them to produce larger, single batches, creating a more consistent product.

But that’s for all you to discover when you go to visit them later this summer – which I highly recommend that you do. For this visit, my co-taster and I were thrilled to try many of their special offerings.

IMG_0883Like at Planet Bee and Olive Us, we were told that there was no real particular tasting order, although our host did recommend finishing with the Taboo Absinthe because it was the “big finish”. I started out with the gin while my wife tried out the Raspberry Liqueur. Their portfolio of liqueurs is astounding and have an extremely natural taste that is hard to find in other similar products from around the world. Most liqueurs I remember tasting have a kind of synthetic quality to them, as if they had been flavoured with ‘natural and artificial flavours’ like a cheap fruit juice in the supermarket. That was absolutely not the case with these liqueurs. Perhaps because we are familiar with Okanagan cherries, it was easy for us to taste them in the Cherry Liqueur and it was beautifully smooth. Whichever ones we tried, there was absolutely no synthetic taste to any of the liqueurs and they were all marvellous.

IMG_0884I moved on to try the Gewürztraminer Marc which is grappa made from Gewürztraminer grapes before trying the Aquavitus, an aromatic spirit that is infused with herbs and spices. Dill and coriander are the dominant aromas in this particular version. I found it extremely interesting because it was almost deceptively delicate for such a strong spirit. If you’ve never tried it, I would describe it as “a little like gin, but with more attitude.” It seems to me like the same idea, but the combination of spices is different. Having not yet tried another similar product from elsewhere in the world, I have no point of reference yet. I will promise I will work on that and get back to you.

Overall, it was an educational and absolutely wonderful experience that I highly recommend. Craft distilleries are becoming more common throughout the Okanagan and and are a great way to cleanse and reset the palate at the midpoint of a winery tour.Or if you are going to be in Vernon, make it the climax of your trip like I did. You will not be disappointed.

So ends my series on the Tasting Tour of the North Okanagan. It’s a beautiful part of the Okanagan Valley to explore and there is a lot of history there to check out as well. Be sure to check out the other places I’ve visited and let me know if you  find any other places that I should get to on my next trip.

Cheers from wine (and booze) country!

~Luke

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North Okanagan Tasting Tour, Part 2: Planet Bee Honey Farm

Someone should really start a honey blog. It’s not going to be me but if you are reading and decide to take on honey as a topic, please let me know because I will totally read it religiously.

I’ve written about honey before and have a bit of a history with it. A neighbour of mine where I grew up had bees and made his own honey and I remember going there to get some with my dad. I learned early on that it was a very natural product but most importantly for at the time was that it was sweet and yummy and I loved it.

Fast forward a few years and I’d moved to the big city (no, not Vancouver – a big city) and honey became something that was served in little plastic bottles shaped like bears or in tiny clear plastic dipping packs with McNuggets. The honey that was available (and affordable) to me was only the highly processed stuff and I never paid it any attention at all. Until one sunny day in Port Coquitlam one fall when we were visiting a farm that sold pumpkins. They offered us a tasting of different honeys made from different flowers and that was it – I was hooked. I had no idea that different flowers produced different flavours in the honey or even that honey’s flavours could vary by so much.

IMG_0875Planet Bee Honey Farm is a short drive west of Vernon on Bella Vista Road. Even if you don’t like honey, the view is worth the trip, hence the appropriate road name. If you do like honey, or honey-derived products (candles, mead, skin care products, etc) then this place is a metaphorical Disneyland. It was a slow time of year and we were able to take our time. We were guided around the displays and told about the bees that live in the two indoor demonstration hives. There was all kinds of information about bees and how honey is made. We learned the difference between honey bees, bumblebees, yellow jackets, and hornets along with the life cycle and hierarchy of the bees in the hives.

IMG_0876Then we got to taste the honey. There were a lot of them. There was no way to get through all of them but by tag-teaming the task with the family, we were able to cover a lot of ground. There was no sequential order to the tasting in the same way that wines are tasted as none of the flavours tended to overpower any other particular flavour. That tendency seems to only exist in the wine world for some reason as I didn’t experience any flavour masking at Olive Us the previous day either. Tasting order just did not matter.

Some of the honeys were infused but most of them were made from different flowers. Pollens on different species of flowers taste different and will yield honey with distinctly different tastes. I found that the flavours of those honeys differed not by a way that is familiar to me as a wine taster. All of the honeys were equally sweet, equally textured, and similarly intense. The only difference that I found was in the retro-nasal, mid-palate flavours that weren’t always immediately apparent. Sometimes it would take a couple of seconds to really get the full effect and on the most complex honeys, they would change slightly as the flavour progressed. This was an equally amazing experience to tasting wine.

And then there was the mead. Planet Bee also makes a big selection of mead and most of it is available for tasting. While I confess that mead has never really drawn me in the way that wine has, it was at least familiar to be standing there with a wine glass chatting about some of the flavours.

Just like grape wine, they ranged in sweetness from relatively dry to very sweet. Of course the discussion turned to which was actually the oldest beverage in the world. Of course mead has a very long history and presumed archaeological evidence puts it in a dead heat with wine in some respects. However I contend that wine is the older beverage since making it requires less intervention. A vessel of grapes will turn into wine naturally and of its own accord without human intervention over time since it already contains all of the necessary ingredients – sugar and water are in the grapes, tannins in the skins and seeds to preserve it, and yeast cells on the bloom (skin) to ferment it. It’s all right there. It only needs some cave man to forget a batch of grapes for a while and then it’s party time. Mead requires obtaining the honey, deliberately mixing it with water, and adding other flavourings. All things that require deliberate human intervention and would not be able to happen naturally.

Of course, we will never know the real story of either beverage’s provenance but I still maintain my position that wine is the eldest of the two. Regardless, the mead was very good – balanced and with lots of interesting flavours. But when it comes to figuring out how those tastes and flavours fit into my family’s culinary world, I was at a bit of a loss. What would I drink it with? Does it benefit from ageing? I have made it a goal to be able to study the world of mead this year and I know that I will write more about it over the coming years.

Our purchases made, we said good-bye to the staff at Planet Bee and kept going on our drive. We were glad to have been able to take out time and see the store at our own pace as it was solidly in the off-season. Being there in the summer with many more visitors and their children running around with access to that much sugar, it’s pretty obvious that the bees wouldn’t be the only thing buzzing around the place.

Planet Bee Honey Farm is well worth the visit and it promises a taste adventure like no other. Do not miss it when travelling through Vernon. They were in the middle of a renovation while I was there so it will likely look a little different over the summer. I absolutely plan on returning to see how it will look.

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North Okanagan Tasting Tour Part 1 – Olive Us and Tita’s

Perhaps there is more to savour than just wine tasting?

This is a shocking statement on a wine blog but it’s true. While I’ve written about other tasting experiences involving things like honey before, whenever I take a trip anywhere I’ve always taken a lot of pleasure from trying local things: cool restaurants, unique stores, and of course wineries. Challenging my taste buds with things that aren’t wine is good because I like to think that it makes me better at tasting wine. It also makes be appreciate wine even more because it reminds me that when all is said and done, wine is still the most complex, nuanced, varied, and debate-inducing thing that humans can consume. However, tasting new things is also just fun.

IMG_0878I recently went on a family trip to explore the North Okanagan, staying 4 days in Vernon, BC. After seven and a half years living in the south, it’s almost shocking that I’ve only managed to come here once before. Like most places in the Okanagan though, this place is a destination in and of itself, meaning that you have actually want to come here in order to appreciate it. While I have travelled through Vernon in 2009 on my way home from a drive across Canada, I never got a chance to stop and try out some local shops and restaurants on that trip. And I haven’t really had a reason to go back since then. There are no wineries in the immediate Vernon area and little in the way of wine culture at most of the restaurants that I was able to visit (with one notable exception – see below).

We really lucked out after we arrived. Within 5 hours we had managed to find two amazing places to challenge our taste buds.

Olive Us is an “olive oil and vinegar tasting room” on 30th Avenue in downtown Vernon. My wife discovered it listed on the Tourism Vernon website as we were planning the trip. We knew we wanted to get there at some point but with our kids in tow, making fast plans was not something that we could count on. However, it happened to be close to where we’d parked so we stopped in.

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Many flavoured salts at the Salt Bar

Refreshingly, the kids were welcomed and had a small chalkboard-painted fun room and games ready for them. My wife and I were told about the amazing selection of olive oils (fused and infused) and vinegars (white and dark or balsamic), shown the sampling spoons, and then let loose in the store to freely taste both. It was a refreshing experience and challenging at the same time. I’m used to explaining bizarre complexities of wine to people and here I was on the other side learning about the bizarre complexities of olive oils and balsamic vinegars. It was an informative and humbling at the same time. There is so much to know about it and I wanted to remember as much of it as I could.

Thankfully, there was no quiz afterwards. Spoon in hand, I tasted my way through an amazing assortment of olive oils infused with ingredients like basil, toasted almond, and tuscan herbs. One of my favourites was an oil that was fused with mandarin oranges. Fused oils, I learned that day, are created by co-pressing flavouring ingredients with the olives, in this case whole mandarin oranges, so that the flavours develop and integrate together right from the beginning. It’s hard to describe the difference between fused and infused but if I had to try, I’d say that the fused flavours are blurred together; they aren’t two distinct flavours that are joined (like infusions) but are rather a unique flavour of its own that has elements of both. I found it harder to pick out the distinct elements of the fused oils. The only exception was the distinctive tang of the mandarin rind that floated over the whole experience for that particular oil.

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Premium pasta selection

The vinegars were equally interesting. There were white vinegar infusions including coconut, peach, and cranberry pear. Dark vinegars had a list of slightly more robust infusion flavours but were equally well balanced, something that I noticed with all of the products in the store that I was able to sample. The Strawberry balsamic got my attention right away (I love spinach salad) and the flavour was pristine. The dark chocolate balsamic was unbelievable, rich as would be expected but not cloyingly so.

Interestingly, they also had the base balsamic (not infused) available for tasting, as well as the base olive oil. I think that this is the strongest testament to the high quality of their products. They are not just simply flavouring sub-standard oils and vinegars so they can synthetically increase its value (or “polishing a turd” as a winery manager I used to work with once called it, referring to wines that had been unduly processed and sold for a much higher price). These are quality products from the get-go and you can buy them in their base elements if you want. They are delicious.

The big kicker for me though was the single-variety olive oils – an amazing opportunity to try unblended oils to find out what the differences are between the varieties. This is commonplace in the wine world and occasionally you can find specialty apple juices in the Okanagan that are made from a single variety of apples, but otherwise this is a rare opportunity. Olive varieties can vary enormously based on polyphenol content (just like red wines) and other elements that make each one unique.

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Olive Us co-owner Ray Morin with the selection of single-variety olive oils.

Since Vernon is not very convenient for me to just go and pick up another bottle of olive oil when my stock runs out, this will really only be a special trip for me. But for you residents of the North Okanagan, and maybe even Kelowna, this place is an absolute gem to frequent. Even occasional purchases here will result in a small collection of amazing products that will enhance any special dinner.

Speaking of a special dinner – We happened upon a small bistro called Tita’s Italian Bistro on 41st Avenue, just off Highway 97. Even the parking lot was cosy. (The parking spaces were perfect for Italian sports cars. Less so for Toyota minivans.) We walked inside and were welcomed like long-lost family. Just getting this far was a victory for my wife and I as our kids are solidly in that picky-eater phase. Once we sat down and saw the menu, things didn’t pick up for them since there was a lot of Italian words that they didn’t recognize. With help from our server and a little bribing with Italian sodas, we found two dishes that the kids would enjoy.

**I should interrupt this ‘restaurant review’ by pointing out that I don’t think I’ve ever done a restaurant review on this site at all, nor am I seeking to make this a regular feature. While I will be the first to point out that absolutely nothing qualifies me to judge restaurants, food, and / or service quality, this place was probably the best dining experience I’ve ever had with my whole family and for that reason alone, I will shout about Tita’s as loud as I can and plan my next trip to Vernon based on their business hours.**

My wife had the special of the day while I had the Filletto di Maiale Pisa. Before the kids had time to complain about anything, the sodas were on the table and there was warm focaccia and dishes of olive oil and balsamic. Soon after that, two unexpected salads with house made balsamic reduction dressing was placed in front of my wife and I. Once the salads were done, the main showed up shortly after that and they were amazing.

71416_TitasItalianBistroSo amazing in fact that my daughter proclaimed that her Fettuccini Alfredo was the best pasta that she’d ever had. She then ate 3/4 of a small adult portion of it, which is far more than the 3, possibly 4, noodles that she’ll eat at home before giving up. (I like to think that this says more about the quality of Tita’s pasta dishes than it does about our home cooking but only she knows for sure.) My son, though being less adventurous in his choice of main, was also enthusiastic about his Spaghetti Bolognese.

As for wine, Tita’s had a small but varied list of quality wines at many price points, including Larch Hills in Salmon Arm. The wines were priced fairly and nothing seemed out of place for the style of cuisine. It was also not populated only by wines from one particular corporation or supplier (e.g. Peller, Constellation, or Mission Hill) that I’ve seen often at restaurants. (Maybe I’ll write more on that subject in another post…)

Essentially, Tita’s over-delivered. We expected nothing more than a plate of food each. Instead we were treated to amazing bread, amazing salads, and amazing food. Based on that, we quickly decided to stay for dessert and guess what? It was amazing as well – Tiramisu for my wife, limoncello for me. I have no photos because I was too busy actually tasting the food and enjoying the experience and I’m glad I did because this kind of thing can’t be tweeted. (I’m not into instagramming my food although I’ve been known to tweet photos of empty plates and pizza boxes.)

So far, it was two amazing tasting experiences in one day and all within hours of arriving in Vernon. This was shaping up to be a great trip.

Part 2 will be coming soon…