That’s the spirit

Is it possible to compare a delicious, small batch, craft-distilled liquor to fried chicken? At some point during my sampling of Cardinal, North Carolina's only small-batch gin, I decide I want to give it a shot. Gin, after all, has always given me a little extra taste for the absurd.

Here's the exact line of (slightly liquor-fueled) reasoning: Cardinal American Dry Gin, distilled by Southern Artisan Spirits in King’s Mountain NC, owes its complex flavor to 11 total herbs and spices, just like the Colonel claims. There's juniper berry, coriander, spearmint, clove, orris root, angelica root, apricot kernels, grains of paradise and orange peel to start, and it all gives Cardinal a bright botanical flavor.

Then there's the matter of the two secret ingredients that distiller Alex Mauney simply won't identify. That, of course, is exactly what makes them secret, but I simply can't let it go. I ask nicely, then I try to trick him into slipping up (and fail). My brain's not really geared toward trickery to begin with, and it's becoming slightly muddled by the delicious herbal gin that keeps turning up in various mixes — and once, completely unadulterated — in front of me. It's not happening, Mauney assures firmly. "My brother would kill me," he says, referring to his twin, Charlie, with whom he owns the distillery.

We're seated at the bar inside Posana Café, and owner Peter Pollay decides to stop tinkering with hand-squeezed juice and house-made agave-based syrups and get down to the business of simplicity. Though he's working on a special menu dedicated specifically to Cardinal Gin (a product he just recently started carrying), he decides to pour a simple gin and tonic. It's a personal favorite, and a drink for which Mauney says his gin is specifically engineered.

And the result of that engineering comes through in the flavor. With a squeeze of lime, the simple cocktail displays the gin's qualities well, showcasing a unique flavor that simply isn't present in any other gin I've sampled — and I'm a rather big fan of the oft-juniper-heavy liquor. Cardinal, however, is light on the piney berry.

Mauney says that the less juniper-heavy flavor is by design. It's a "Western-style" gin, he explains, meaning more floral than what he refers to as “the flavor of Pine Sol.” Well, that’s good — no one in their right mind wants to sip cleaning products. Mauney points to a bottle of Hendrick's Gin behind the bar, which he says is also a Western-style gin. What's more, Cardinal is actually comparable in price — if not cheaper — than Hendrick's, he says.

Also, Cardinal's flavor is more complex and layered than that of Hendrick's, which tends to linger a bit heavily on cucumber notes. With Cardinal, nothing dominates the palate: The clove comes through a touch; the spearmint is barely there; and there's something vaguely “green,” yet citrusy, about it. In short, it's dangerously delicious.

Isn't there a sort of addictive quality to fried chicken? With that, I decide to drop the not-so-clever metaphor and focus solely on the gin and its very gin-like qualities. There's no comparing Cardinal to anything mass-produced. It is to Sapphire what Rocky's Hot Chicken Shack was to KFC. That is, when Mauney says his gin is a small-batch product, he’s not kidding; Southern Artisan Spirits only turns out about 180 bottles of carefully monitored liquor a batch.

On the other side of the bar, Cardinal finds its way into a martini glass with a little mint and some lime juice for a twist on a classic gimlet. It’s a bit summery, in conflict with the unseasonably cold temperatures outside. Regardless, it can’t compete with that gin and tonic.

Pollay and his bar staff can tell, and they start over on a new drink. I've never been so happy to be a guinea pig. Pollay seems to be enjoying himself as well. He pushes another potion across the bar. This one has a little pouch of lavender and herbs sunk into it. It’s also slowly changing color.

"I get excited about local things and cool, new, unique things," Pollay says. That's evident in the menu at Posana. It's not often that a restaurant has a separate list for all-organic cocktails, after all.

And although Cardinal Gin isn't certified organic, it belongs on that list. It's actually made with mostly organic ingredients but some, because of the way they are harvested, cannot be certified. The wild-gathered grains of paradise, for example, are culled from the forests of Africa.

As Southern Artisan Spirits is located about 100 miles away from central Asheville — and thus technically local (as defined by ASAP) —Pollay says that stocking his bar with Cardinal Gin is a no-brainer. "It's technically a local product, and (Southern Artisan is) unique as the only distillery in North Carolina." Pollay nods across the bar toward Mauney, who's swirling his gin and tonic in his glass. Mauney’s father, the night's designated driver, is seated next to him, sipping Posana's house-made ginger ale. "And now, just like the local farmers we use, we can put a face to it and really see their enthusiasm and love for the product that they make and the time and effort that they put into it. It's also obviously handcrafted."

That it is. Mauney describes how the botanicals are put in a muslin bag and macerated in alcohol for 45 hours. Once the botanicals are pulled out of the alcohol, Mauney says, "It looks almost like tea. It's brown, but when we re-distill it, it comes back clear." There's much more to it, and Mauney launches into a description of the process that's both technical and bordering on the scientific — we are, after all, talking about chemical changes here. It reminds me much of talking to a baker.

The similarity, it turns out, is no coincidence. Mauney says he started making bread with his brother before venturing into the distillery project. "There is, of course, a correlation between yeast and alcohol," he says.

Of course, bread-making may have been an easier venture to dive into, though maybe not as lucrative. With liquor distilling in North Carolina, where everything is state regulated, there's an amazing amount of paperwork to do, laws to obey, officials to deal with. Everything must be permitted and scrutinized — from the licensing of the distillery, to the label on the bottle. And Mauney says he is well-prepared for that. He partially credits his law-school education for helping him get his distillery open in record time.

Cardinal Gin has only been on the market for two months, says Mauney. Already two Asheville restaurants serve his product — Posana is one, the Flying Frog the other. It's also available in most ABC stores in Asheville, Black Mountain and Woodfin. Should Cardinal be successful, Mauney says, Southern Artisan may delve into bourbon and other spirits.

"Hopefully the gin will pave the way for that," he says. "I hope the local bars and restaurants get behind and support craft distilling in North Carolina. It's kind of a new thing."

For more information about Cardinal Dry Gin, visit southernartisanspirits.com. For more about Posana, visit posanacafe.com.

— Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at food@mountainx.com.

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