by Chelsea Harlan
A beverage with its roots sunk deep in American history is making its way to the forefront of the cocktail scene. You may know it as sipping vinegar, but it also goes by drinking vinegar, switchel, haymaker’s punch, and fruit shrub. A concentrated blend of fruit, sugar, and vinegar, sipping vinegar has been a part of the country’s landscape since Colonial times. Brought from Southeast Asia by sailors in the late 17th century, the concoction became a popular summer drink in the American South; by the 19th century, thirsty farmers drank it at harvest time as a healthful tonic. Herman Melville and Laura Ingalls Wilder even mention “switchel” in their novels.
In our current era, in a city known for its love of all things spirit-related, it’s surprising that sipping vinegar has flown under the radar for as long as it has—particularly as it makes the perfect cocktail companion. Slightly sweet, slightly tart, and rich with seasonal fruits or herbs, its combinations with liquor, seltzer, and juices are limitless. It’s an ingredient with exciting creative potential, and Sage and Sea Farms is at the vanguard of its resurgence in popularity.
One of only three producers of sipping vinegars in the country (Tait Family Farms in Pennsylvania and Portland’s own Andy Ricker of Pok Pok and Whiskey Soda Lounge fame are the others), Sage and Sea Farms entered the scene three years ago. Its gregarious proprietress is Deb Tabor, real estate agent by day and switchel alchemist around the clock. The name of Deb’s business is an homage to her family: “Sage” is connected with her relatives who live in the deserts of eastern Oregon, in Lake County. She’s spent countless summers there, visiting her great-uncle Steve and great-aunt Lette, who taught her to make raspberry sipping vinegar as a young girl. “Sea” is for the family she has on Camano Island in Washington state. A family staple for generations, Deb didn’t really consider taking her sipping vinegars to market until friends encouraged her, raving about her recipes. The first season was a test run, with Deb selling her vinegars at a select few holiday markets. When she sold out at every fair, she realized there was a largely-untapped market for her vinegars.
It’s essential for Deb that Sage and Sea uses locally-grown produce as much as possible, usually finding fruit at various farmers markets and local farms. Keeping it local means the flavors are very seasonal. She says, “It’s the only way to make the flavor real, to have it taste like you just bit into a ripe peach. To have it taste like July in a bottle when you’re drinking the raspberry vinegar.” Deb gets her mint from Gales Meadow Farm near Forest Grove, her fennel from Big Fork Farms in Washington, and her berries from Unger Farms in Cornelius, among others. She also picks her own ingredients when she can. There’s a certain cherry tree out on Sauvie’s Island that Deb keeps her eye on; when the tree is overflowing, she’ll climb right up on the surrounding picnic tables to harvest its fruit.
Sage and Sea’s best-seller is ginger (for its “spicy warmth”), but ginger, along with citrus, is one of the more difficult ingredients to procure. Deb has been searching for a good local ginger grower; rumor has it there’s one in Washington, where her treasure hunt will likely lead her. In the tricky winter months, when locally-sourced produce is hard to find, Deb turns to the Sheridan Fruit Company, a local outfit that she’s forged a symbiotic relationship with. They let her sample their citrus first, to make sure the flavor is right. There’s no set list of flavors for Deb to produce every season; she goes with the flexibility of only making vinegars with whatever produce tastes best in a particular season. This past summer, grapefruit was the tastiest, and last winter, the season of citrus, it was tangelo. In years past, you could find such flavors as Brooks cherry, strawberry, fennel, Valencia orange, mango, and pirate lemon (apple cider vinegar, honey, brown sugar, and lemons—my personal favorite).
The grassroots operation has its occasional hit-and-miss moments, as Deb tries out new produce and flavor combinations. That’s part of the fun, though. One odd success story is the golden raspberry, whose champagne-hued berries became an unappetizing, opaque grayish-purple-brown color once the heat processing and straining were done (“Almost like an opal!”). Deb decided to forge ahead, and set these out at one of her holiday markets next to the regular raspberry vinegar; customers could try both at once, side-by-side, and tended to buy more of the golden raspberry vinegars after sampling. It’s now one of her most popular flavors.
This summer, Deb spent a weekend at the NW Spirit and Mixology show, where her grapefruit and pirate lemon vinegars were part of the feature bar. She plans to attend the show again, enjoying the opportunity to talk with people in the industry who are on the cutting edge of Portland’s cocktail scene: what’s new, what works, and what bars will be serving in the coming months. After all, Sage and Sea’s biggest fans are largely a younger demographic, people in their 20s and 30s who are deeply embedded in Portland’s food and cocktail culture. Deb will also make her presence known at the Seventh Annual Great American Distiller’s Festival this October, and is talking with various bars around town about serving her vinegars in cocktails—keep your eyes open!
As I was researching this article, I excitedly told my dad about this new frontier for cocktails, and he replied that he had no idea what I was talking about; he’d never heard of sipping vinegars before. I brought over a bottle of Sage and Sea’s pirate lemon as an educational gift for him, and before the weekend was over, the entire family was mixing the sipping vinegar with club soda and Old Overholt rye whiskey for tart, fizzy nightcaps, and stirring it into blended heirloom tomatoes and vodka for lemony, garden-fresh bloody marys. We found a new family favorite for future gatherings.
During the spring and summer, you can find Sage and Sea Farms at the OHSU, Interstate, and Hollywood Farmers Markets. The vinegars are also available at the Red Hills Market in Dundee and the Sheridan Fruit Company in SE Portland, by the bottle, and at The Pint Shack in Hood River and the Symposium Café in Sherwood by the glass. Currently, Sage and Sea is debuting some of its fall flavors, among them peach ginger, pear, cranberry, and golden raspberry at the Hollywood Farmers Market. A few bottles remain of the peach, strawberry, and raspberry of this summer. Sage and Sea will also be at various holiday fairs in the coming months, including Seven Dee’s (the landscaping and gardening center), Overlook House, and at the Bancorp building (aka The Big Pink). Deb is introducing gift boxes this year, giving customers a fun mix of flavors in smaller sizes. While the regular bottles are twelve ounces, the gift box will contain three five-ounce bottles in three different flavors: one herb (perhaps mint, fennel, or ginger), one citrus (whatever tastes best!), and one fruit (most likely huckleberry or marionberry). The vinegars will come already boxed and wrapped for a sweet, tasty surprise.
At the heart of all this, trendiness aside, is a woman carrying on a family tradition. Deb thinks that the coldest, wettest, worst day at a farmers’ market is still more interesting than a day in a cubicle. She loves to get out and meet people, to introduce them to something new. She says, “I love being passionate about what I do.” It’s a sentiment I would gladly raise my glass to.