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Montana spirits spur exotic staycation
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Big Sky, Big Flavor

Montana spirits spur exotic staycation

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If you’d planned a trip to the UK, Ireland, Italy, Barbados, France, Mexico, South America or elsewhere this year, you’ve likely put your plans on hold. I’m sorry.

But here’s a tasty Montana twist to satisfy your international travel bug: Montana distilleries make a surprising number of spirits that are grounded in this state but draw inspiration from elsewhere. Take a trip to the local liquor store or distillery (mask-clad, of course) to see what’s in stock, pick one, and let your imagination fly. You’ll spend a lot less on the bottle (about $20-$35) than the actual trip.

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Splash the liqueur over local berries or fruit, pour over shortcake, mix up a cool summer cocktail, add to cookies, or pour over vanilla bean ice cream. Here are a few spirits to consider:

THE TRIP: Italy

THE SPIRIT: Amaretto

Amaretto is a delicious, versatile, well-loved Italian almond liqueur that is refreshing by itself, plain or over ice, or paired with dozens of flavors and mixers: ginger beer, lemon, lime, orange (a favorite), soda water, Aperol, pear, figs, coffee. Anything almonds might go on, Amaretto can go with.

Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits came up with its amaretto a while back because of a special request: Whitefish’s boutique Firebrand Hotel wanted a Montana version of amaretto to use in its bar and restaurant, which emphasize local drinks and food. WHS came to the rescue.

The name — Wood’s Rose Amaretto — comes from taking hikes around Whitefish, where pink Wood’s roses grow wild, said distillers and owners Tom and Danette Sefcak. They’ve added rose water to their amaretto, which gives a sweet lift to the almonds.

“It’s just a combination that works well together,” said Tom Sefcak, distiller. “We put our own little twist on it.

“In the fall and the winter, we do a twist on an Irish coffee: Instead of whiskey we’ll use the Wood’s Rose,” he said. “We also do an amaretto sour with it: lemon, which gives you the sour; egg whites, simple syrup and the amaretto.”

At home, mix your own version of WHS’ “Flower Child” — lavender lemonade with a float of amaretto on top. It works with regular lemonade, too.

Make the lemonade from scratch, advises Danette Sefcak, who runs the business end of the distillery and is the cook for its associated restaurant. “The key to any good drink is good alcohol but also — use real fruit. Don’t scrimp on the fruit,” she said. “Use real lemon, use honey or raw sugar to make your nice, rich lemonade.”

Wood’s Rose amaretto is also used to make the distillery’s Boozy Cherries, which garnish drinks and become toppings for desserts and shortcakes. They simmer Flathead cherries with rye whiskey, Wood’s Rose and spices — allspice, cinnamon, cloves, orange.

“Be creative,” Danette urged. “Make cocktails at home. … Play with what’s seasonal. There are so many products available now with all of craft distillers and people out there being creative. It’s really fun.”

THE TRIP: Scandinavia

THE SPIRIT: Aquavit

With Montana’s cherry season a few weeks away, I first went in search of Montgomery Distillery’s version of kirschwasser, a clear cherry brandy that hails from Germany, France and Switzerland that sounded refreshing for summer drinks. The Missoula distillery makes its with Flathead Bing and Lambert cherries, 10 pounds per bottle, according to the distillery’s website.

Alas, the store was out. So was the distillery.

Plan B: Montgomery’s aquavit, inspired by the traditional spirit from Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Although Montgomery’s is named Skadi, for a Norse god of winter, it works deliciously well for summer drinks, too.

Montgomery makes two different kinds: a clear one described as “bright but savory” with hints of caraway seed, bog myrtle, lemon peel and other ingredients; and a yellow-toned one (or “pale straw hue,” as the distillery says) that hints of cinnamon, oak, candied orange peel, honey, caramel, vanilla and savory spices.

What to make with this? The distillery’s website has some ideas: Under its fancier house cocktails, the “Leviathan” uses aquavit, allspice dram, blue curacao, lime, demerara and grapefruit (tough ingredients for home cocktail bars); its menu for classic cocktails mentions using aquavit in a Bloody Mary or gimlet.

Dozens of easy recipes pop up online: a Greyhound (2 ounces aquavit, 4 ounces grapefruit juice, rosemary garnish); aquavit with cranberry juice, lime, tonic water and mint; aquavit with ginger beer, lime and mint; or an aquavit spritzer, with berry preserves, a little sugar, club soda and lemon twists.

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THE TRIP: Brazil

THE SPIRIT: Coffee liqueur

Several Montana distilleries make a coffee liqueur (including Montgomery Distillery’s Night Owl, from Missoula, and Willie’s Coffee Cream Liqueur, from Ennis). I found one from the Whitefish-based Spotted Bear Spirits.

Coffee? In the summer? Why not?

Spotted Bear’s bottle comes with two recipes on a small card attached to the bottle’s neck: the Brown Bear (2 ounces of coffee liqueur, topped with vanilla cream soda and, for an extra kick, 1 ounce of vodka) and the Caucasian (1 ounce coffee liqueur, 2 ounces vodka, splash of cream).

Online ideas: Black Russian; White Russian; Brown Cow; Mudslide; a martini made with coffee liqueur, vodka, lemon and maybe a dash of cinnamon syrup; a spritzer with iced cold-brew coffee, coffee liqueur and sparkling water; a mix of Bailey’s Irish Cream and coffee liqueur over ice; or just pour the liqueur over vanilla ice cream for dessert.

THE TRIP: Argentina

THE SPIRIT: Fernet

I’d never heard of fernet, but apparently, it’s become a thing in Missoula, according to some of the sales people at Grizzly Liquor. Gulch Distillers in Helena make one, so I picked it up.

Fernet, according to histories, has its roots as a medicinal — it’s bitter, so makes sense — then as a spirit made in Italy that made a jump via immigration to Argentina, where the easy Fernet, Coke and lemon is loved by locals.

Gulch Distillers’ says its Burrone Fernet is made with Montana grains with a unique blend of herbs and spices including chamomile, myrrh, rhubarb, saffron and mint.

“Enjoy it neat, over ice, or mixed in a cocktail,” suggests Gulch Distillers’ website. Plain fernet might require a “refined palate” (meaning: newbies might not like) but Gulch’s website generously lists at least six mixed-drink recipes using fernet, including “The Herbalist” (gin, fernet and tonic with sage leaf or orange as garnish); the “Who Done It” (fernet, gin, lime juice, ginger syrup) and the easy “Radler Your Cage” (12 ounce lager, Pilsner or light beer, 2 ounces grapefruit juice, 1 ounce Burrone Fernet, added to a chilled glass and garnished with an orange slice).

THE TRIP: Caribbean

THE SPIRIT: Rum

Several Montana distilleries make a rum and I’m willing to try them all eventually. But for this moment I found Whistling Andy’s Hibiscus Coconut Rum, which just sounded like beachy warm weather, fresh fruit, barbecues and summer reading.

Whistling Andy’s website has a great selection of recipes using their spirits, including seven for the Hibiscus Coconut Rum. Most sound easy to make at home. Under the rum is the “Hibiscus Hemingway Daquiri”; a basil-cucumber mojito; the “Is It Summer Yet? Chai” (Hibiscus Coconut Run with hot chai tea made with milk); and this recipe for its wishing-we-could-travel-summer-appropriate “Caribbean Breeze”:

1.5 ounces of Hibiscus Coconut Rum

3 ounces pineapple juice

¾ ounces cranberry juice

Lime wedge

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake until the metal frosts. Strain into a Collins glass over fresh ice and garnish with a lemon wedge.

Bon voyage!

Mea Andrews, a retired Missoulian reporter and editor, had hoped to see an outdoor opera in Verona, Italy, this summer to relive a childhood memory but is extremely happy to be well in Montana, trying new cocktails. Reach her at meaandrews406@gmail.com.

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