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North Hills Monthly

“Spirited” Ways to Get Your Merry On

Dec 01, 2016 07:39AM ● By Jennifer Monahan

Church Brew Works Assistant Brewer Matt Higgins and Head Brewer Dan Yarnall.

When it comes to celebrating the tastes of the holidays, figgy pudding has nothing on Boyd & Blair’s cranberry sage and citrus liqueur or the Christmas Ale at Church Brew Works. Seasonal libations are a big draw for holiday revelers.

“People love seasonal items,” said Barry Young, president and master distiller of Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries and crafter of Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka. Beverages featuring seasonal flavors are fun, Young said, and people enjoy the way they signal the change of seasons.

Boyd’s Pumpkin Liqueur was a huge hit for the distillery this fall, which created a limited run of the beverage and sold 90 cases over four weekends at Soergel Orchard’s farm market. Young said the liqueur tastes like pumpkin pie, without being quite as sweet as the dessert.

Such specialty items are labor-intensive. The distillery uses only fresh ingredients and buys locally when possible. The pumpkin liqueur utilized Soergel Orchard’s pumpkins, which Young roasted in small batches. 

Young is currently getting ready to release a cranberry sage and citrus liqueur as well as a nut liqueur for the winter. The distillery provides an extensive list of recipes on its website, with cocktails that highlight and complement the flavors of the season.

Wigle Whiskey, which crafts its whiskey, rum and gin in-house and from scratch, also provides limited-release seasonal beverages. Two perennial winter favorites are Wigle’s Landlocked Spiced distilled honey spirit and its hot cider, said Jill Steiner, director of events and public relations for the distillery.

Wigle plans to release a number of new spirits in time for the holidays, Steiner said. The Peach “Fuzz” Brandy came out just before Thanksgiving and was concocted with peaches grown in western Pennsylvania. Wigle’s first Pommeau, a spirit made from a combination of apple brandy and apple cider and due out in December, is made from apples foraged from within Pittsburgh’s city limits by 412 Food Rescue. Steiner is also excited about the winter release of an “old-school grappa” distilled from Niagara grape pomace left over after pressing wine;  the product is hard to find, locally made and is highly coveted by connoisseurs.

Wigle Whiskey hosts frequent events at its distillery and barrelhouse, including tours, tastings and a free Wednesday holiday demo series. Steiner is planning release parties for both the grappa and the peach brandy, which will highlight additional seasonal cocktails. 

If beer is more your taste, Church Brew Works offers a Christmas Ale featuring fresh ginger, orange peel and cloves, and it tastes like a Christmas cookie, according to Head Brewer Dan Yarnall. While customers clamor for the Christmas Ale, the brewery’s Oktoberfest beer remains its most popular seasonal beverage.

Crafting original brews requires an understanding of both the science and the art of making beer. 

“I try to incorporate the flavors of the season, but I also come up with a base beer that I can use to make sure it can support those flavors,” said Yarnall, giving the example of the Church Brew pumpkin stout which needs a solid malt base that will not be overwhelmed by the pumpkin, cinnamon and nutmeg.

Another winter brew due out in December is Church Brew’s Himmelgeist, a helles bock beer that Yarnall described as a light, beefy lager with over 7 percent alcohol. He added that people tend to gravitate toward beers with higher alcohol content during the winter because they are seeking drinks to warm them up.

Mazzotta Winery in Gibsonia offers the same wine selection year-round but sees an uptick in sales for specialty wines during particular seasons, said owner Frank Mazzotta. During the holidays, Mazzotta’s cranberry wine is a big seller. Blueberry and blackberry wines are also popular during the fall and winter, while strawberry and raspberry wines tend to sell better in spring.

Mazzotta said that his 12 varieties of fruit wine do well because his methods are different than most winemakers in the area. The typical approach to making fruit wines is for wineries to produce a basic chardonnay and then flavor it with a fruit and sweeten it with sucrose (table sugar).

“I don’t do that,” Mazzotta said. “For my raspberry wine, I make the wine out of raspberries.” 

Mazzotta aims for an alcohol content between 9 and 11 percent for his fruit wines, and once the alcohol and sugar content are right, he adds the natural fruit juice back in. The result is a unique product that is smooth and easy to drink.

“It tastes like wine as you know it, but also like you are eating a piece of fruit,” Mazzotta said. He contends that the most important element is flavor, although he also pays careful attention to the aroma and viscosity or “mouth feel” of the wine.

Whatever flavors suit your bacchanalian desires, local purveyors of wine, brews and spirits have a fitting seasonal libation to make holiday celebrations merrier.