Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Liquid: A swig of fig

Spend time working at a magazine, and you'll be amazed at some of the bizarre schwag people send to the office (seriously, food-coloring samples, boxes full of hay, and plastic severed fingers have all passed through our mailboxes in recent months). Much of it is promptly filed right into the dumpster. But products with the potential to get us drunk are more likely to get noticed. Still, when a publicist gave the STUFF staff a bottle of the newly launched, locally produced Black Fig Vodka to try, everyone was skeptical. Oh great . . . another vodka . . . with a little fig thing on it? How cute. "We were really skeptical and thought it would most likely taste horrible," editorial director Erica Corsano recalls.

After a while, the bottle's siren-like call worked its magic on the collective staff brain. "We gathered round and poured servings in paper cups and toasted each other as we giggled about the silver fig-leaf charm that was part of the packaging," Corsano says. And then, silence. No one wanted to be the first to say it was good. "Holy crap . . . this stuff is awesome. We each sipped it slowly in amazement. It was smooth, sweet, and really tasty. We were totally wrong."

She's mostly right. My first impression was that it's astringent but smooth, with a naturally sweet viscosity. It's not cloying, but it edges toward a sticky-syrup mouthfeel. Nonetheless, I found it totally drinkable as an aperitif-style liqueur, preferably un-chilled. Did local mixologists feel the same way?
Figs are a common ingredient in Italian cooking, so I thought I'd bring a bottle to some Italian restaurants and see what they make of the stuff. Turns out, some already have it in stock. At Prezza (24 Fleet Street, Boston, 617.227.1577), one of the most popular dishes is the roasted figs stuffed with gorgonzola, so the Black Fig Vodka "seemed like such a natural fit, especially because of the true taste and high quality of the vodka," says Prezza GM David Petrilli. Prezza plans on using it in a Black Fig Martini. Since Petrilli finds it a little sweet, he'll balance it with half normal vodka, then garnish it with a blue-cheese-stuffed dried baby plum.

Bar manager Adam Kischel at Davio's (75 Arlington Street, Boston, 617.357.4810) had just got the bottle in when I visited. He thinks it's a good product with a nice flavor, but says it might be a little too pricey to feasibly work into a cocktail. Whereas their Ketel One martinis sell for $11, using the Black Fig Vodka might push the price up to $15-$17. He agrees it's well-suited for sipping on its own, however. I put him on the spot and asked him to come up with a cocktail anyway. The result was a mix of the Black Fig Vodka, his house-made ginger-infused vodka, brown-sugar simple syrup, lemon juice, Bittermens chocolate bitters, and egg white with a brown sugar rim; it was approachable and smooth, if not exactly the type of thing I'd normally order. The egg white froth and brown sugar sweetness edged it into wintery dessert drink territory, but with everything else going on, the dark, dried-fruit flavor got a bit lost.

The reason for the high price - it will retail for $59-$66 a bottle - is the quality of the Calimyrna figs, two pounds of which go into each bottle of the hand-distilled stuff, says co-creator Randy Nason. Along with his partner, Mitchell Maxwell, he's been infusing vodka with figs for years at their restaurant, Maxwells 148 (148 East Central Street, Natick, 508.907.6262). They'd serve the vodka to guests after dinner, and people would instantly take to it. When they decided to take the product to the commercial level, they wanted to stay true to its home-made nature. "We didn't want to do what everyone does and add flavor," he says. They also wanted to keep the color, which comes directly from the figs, so no additional ingredients are added.

Sounds promising, right? But it still might not be an instant sell for many. A lot of people don't even realize they like figs, Nason says. "I don't know if that comes from not liking Fig Newtons or what. They have this notion they don't like it, but then they try it and it's delicious." For proof, just look in the STUFF office; the bottle is pretty much empty already.

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