Embracing Nature with JAZ Spirits

“The richness I achieve comes from Nature, the source of my inspiration.” -Claude Monet

I first had the pleasure of meeting Faith Dionne, the owner of JAZ Spirits in Portland, OR in 2018 over a Sunday morning brunch, about 2 years after she founded her craft distillery in 2016. Faith shared her story of growing up as a young girl in Southeast Alaska and how her time in nature foraging with her Mother instilled a lifelong passion for days spent in the forest. Faith still enjoys the seasonal ritual of searching for mushrooms, fiddleheads, berries and spruce tips hidden in the forest, and now it has another purpose, some of these forest treasures are used to infuse her spirits.

Incorporating woodsy influences into her craft spirits is what drew me to ask Faith if she would like JAZ Spirits to be part of the cocktails and recipes for the June launch of The Drink In Life Book Club. Gin plays a part in the title we are reading, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and Faith’s wonderful Gin Spirits blend perfectly with the book’s character Isola and how she infused her gins with things found in nature and in the garden.

Faith Dionne seen on the left (Photo Credit: JAZ Spirits)

An Interview with Faith…..

Faith has a long career in the food industry, trained as a pastry chef at the Culinary Institute of America in New York she spend her early years in towns like Aspen, Jackson Hole and Park City working in the hotels. This was followed by working for fine dining restaurants in Atlanta and Portland and as she moved around the country she deepened her appreciation for each areas local ingredients, cuisine and culture. In Portland Faith fulfilled her goal of starting her own business by opening Bees & Beans, an award winning artisan candy bar company, where she used local ingredients in her candy creations. Although Bees & Beans gave Faith the creative outlet she desired, it did not allow for the time needed with her family.

“In the years before JAZ I was working too hard running Bees & Beans and our family’s restaurant. The businesses we had hoped would allow us freedom to enjoy life had become overwhelming and depleting. I was working more than 70 hours a week, my husband regularly worked 90 hours. Our kids basically lived at the restaurant and came along on delivery routes. JAZ spirits was created with a decision to make the most important things the most important thing. We lost years living out of balance, so as we sold our restaurant and I lovingly handed off Bees & Beans.”

-Faith Dionne

The Leap from creating artisan candy bars to crafting spirits is no small task. I asked Faith what her inspiration for JAZ Spirits was and she shared;

“Distilling is just flavor extraction and a preservation technique. It isn’t too different than the pastry
arts which also focus on flavor and texture. I was intrigued by the idea of a “winter gin” and couldn’t
find one that matched that profile. I started research and development on a batch and came up with a formula I loved. Folks asked to buy it, so I figured I should get legal! Cold Tree Gin was launched in 2016 as JAZ Spirits’ flagship product
.”

Photo credit: JAZ Spirits

Using Nature as a Partner

Being at home in the Pacific Northwest forests with their evergreens, wild berries and budding plants it is no surprise that Faith wanted to bring incorporate the beauty of the land into her spirits. Highlighting the regionally specific ingredients forged from the Pacific Northwest paired perfectly with her culinary expertise and enthusiasm for the art of storytelling with flavors. I asked Faith how living in Oregon and growing up in Alaska influences the style and focus of her spirits and her business, here’s what she told me;

“Oregon and Alaska both are blessed with gorgeous geography and abundant flora. A place-based product should reflect what makes that location special and unique and lovely. In southeast Alaska our seafood is world class and evokes pristine wilderness wherever it’s sold. In Oregon our soil yields amazing berries, fruit, and wine grapes. But before the land was claimed and cleared for farmland there is an older story about the provision of nature, partnership between people and the land, and the resilience of wild plants through storms, floods, drought, and fires.”

Faith went on to say, “I love the idea of bringing that story into more people’s view. The botanicals I forage with my family are abundant and the harvest doesn’t harm the original organism. Most Oregonians recognize the Sitka Spruce, Salal berry, Cottonwood and Douglas Fir I use, they just haven’t experienced them as food. It’s really fun to tap into the transporting sense memory of these aromas.”

Photo Credit: JAZ Spirits

Finding Assurance in the Lessons of Nature

When asked if she had a favorite season and place to forage for ingredients for your spirits Faith told me;

“We have really enjoyed the Siuslaw National Forest. It is unique because it comes all the way down to the ocean. It’s on the central part of the Oregon coast where the strong waves churn against basalt rocks, creating a salty mist that infuses the spruce tip and salal berries with a marine salinity. It’s also a great mushroom forest and surrounds some of the most charming towns in the state. We forage there in May for Spruce Tips and Oyster mushrooms and August for Salal berries and lobster mushrooms.”

Faith, her husband and their children Jack & Zoey (photo credit: JAZ Spirits)

Since launching JAZ Spirits Faith has made sure that her family always comes first, here’s what she said about how she does that. “I named Jaz Spirits after my kids, Jack and Zoey so that if I ever got too busy and forgot, they would be right there to remind me. There are certainly times that the balance feels off, but I remember that chasing perceived success really made me a failure at my most important role. It’s been affirming during the pandemic to watch person after person come to that same conclusion as the success they built dissolved, but the structure of their relationships remain. I hope we are all better for it.”

Navigating Through Challenges

Like any business there are always obstacles to get past and challenges that will be faced as both the creator and brand ambassador for JAZ Spirits I was curious what Faith felt her biggest challenge was in this industry?

“The biggest challenge for JAZ Spirits is being so different. Brand loyalty and tradition are very entrenched in spirits and my products usually require face to face storytelling and tasting before purchases. But liquor is due for a new wave spurred by the seekers. Coffee, chocolate, beer, and even wine have evolved and advanced in the United States and liquor is poised for change. My line of products are unique, delicious and useful and because of that I have confidence that they deserve their place on the shelf.”

Photo Credit: JAZ Spirits

As far as we have come in terms of gender stereotypes in the workplace, the assumption remains that distilleries are a man’s world. Yet, Women around the world are running distilleries and producing some of the finest spirits in the world. I asked Faith what about the movement of more women becoming distillers is most exciting to her right now.

Distilleries are indeed still male dominated. Coming up in kitchens in the 90’s and 2000’s I was already used to being the only girl in the room so that wasn’t too discouraging. I also don’t necessarily care to join the head table that the major distilleries are sitting at. My table is small, tucked away, lit by beeswax candles, set with antique silver, and loaded with tiers of delicacies and wonders. One thing about being a woman in distilling is that I’m already an outsider which gives me the freedom to do something totally different. Just as in film, music and literature, women have our own stories to tell, notice other things, and strike a different chord. Representation matters, and women are more than half the population. I’m delighted to be in the small cadre of women creating our own territory in a male, tradition-dominated industry.”

For Jaz Spirits before the pandemic, 2020 was lining up to be a big year. They had won two Good Food Awards for Cold Tree Gin and Verstovia Spruce Tip Vodka and their calendar was fully booked with events. Their newest spirit, Riverain Dry Gin made from cottonwood buds and Douglas fir was set for a big release as well. Like so many other business 2020 brought with it a painful halt to sales for JAZ Spirits as restaurants and bars closed and events were cancelled.

Since the start of the pandemic Faith has worked diligently on new ways to introduce people to her products and to get that product to them. Some help came in getting the spirits to the public when the state of Oregon cooperated by allowing local distillers to begin delivery within the state, opening a new revenue stream and the ability to create cocktail kits and gift boxes in time for the holidays last year.

When I asked Faith about her outlook for 2021 she replied; “2021 is harder in many ways. We are all tired and disillusioned. We’ve pivoted so many times we forgot where we were heading. There were so many losses, personal and professional. What I hope for 2021 is that the community we invested in during the pandemic will help us rebuild our industry in a more resilient and authentic way.”

Wanderful Spirits Introduction

“When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.” –John Muir

Riverain Dry Gin

From the beginning of time rivers have inspired us, from writers, to painters, photographers and everyday nature lovers, rivers evoke a sense of wonder. JAZ Spirit’s Riverain, embraces elements of the Cottonwoods and Douglas Fir found along these riverbank and delivers them to your glass. A classic dry gin with a twist of PNW ambiance this gin will elevate any cocktail.

Cold Tree Gin Old Tom Style

Spices and toasted juniper are layered throughout this intriguing Cold Tree Gin Old Tom Style. This was the first product that I tried from JAZ Spirits and it is still one of my favorites today. I enjoy how this gin can be sipped alone, adds a little something extra to cocktails or can be used to incorporated the flavors of the forest into food recipes. Definitely a gin to try!

Verstovia Spruce Tip Flavored Vodka

Verstovia Spruce Tip Flavored Vodka is distilled with the green tips of Sitka Spruce trees that can be found along the coastal forest of the Pacific Northwest. This expressive spirit is vibrant with notes of citrus and a bright smooth finish. Perfect in a Martini or as a delicious addition to a Moscow Mule.

JAZ Spirits are available online or at Oregon liquor stores.

I hope that you enjoyed this introduction to JAZ Spirits. Jill Sonlin and I will be sharing cocktail and recipe pairings with the Cold Tree Gin and the Riverain Dry Gin June 1st on the June Drink In Life Book Club post.

Images and content © Drink In Nature Photography and Drink In Life Blog.

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