Spices. Throughout history spices have played a major role in the development of the new world. During the Middle Ages and on through the 19th century spices were one of the most valued commodities in the world and led travelers around the Earth in search of the highest quality spices and herbs to bring back to their relative countries to sell at a premium.
Now, most people don’t even give spices a second thought. If we run out of pepper, cinnamon, cumin, thyme, or any spice at all we just run down to Kroger or Meijer and grab a red-capped bottle filled to the brim, ready to use at the crack of a plastic seal. But for Lior Lev Sercarz, spices like these are, while accessible and inexpensive, not doing justice to the wonderful flavors and aromas that can be found in this world.
Lior is to the spice world what Jiro Ono is to the sushi world, or what Mozart is to the world of music. His Brooklyn-based spice shop La Boîte is legendary and his spices are found in some of the most highly-praised restaurants in the world. Eric Ripert, the James Beard Award-winning, three Michelin star holding, chef of Le Bernardin in New York City refuses to use any spices other than Lior’s. And surprisingly enough, Lior’s spices show up in only one liquor in the world and that is Terra botanical gin, made by Cardinal Spirits in Bloomington.
“When I was just thinking of starting the distillery, let’s see, this was maybe four years ago or so, I had read a New York Times letter that sort of profiled him and the way he thinks about flavors, scents and spices,” says Adam Quirk, one of the co-founders of Cardinal Spirits. “It just really intrigued me and I was sort of in the early stages of developing our recipes here, so I reached out to him.”
This initial cold call quickly turned into a working relationship and the creation of an incredibly interesting sprit. Adam says of the development of Terra, “[Lior] would send us a spice blend, we would put it into some of our vodka, infuse it and distill it. We tried it that way, we did vapor-infusion, we did a few different ways. And then we’d sample it and send him back the samples and then have anohter phone conversation to decide what was good and what wasn’t.
“And that’s the way we worked on that project and we came to this really, pretty amazing botanical blend that has this wild mint that grows in Israel, this Indonesian berry with this really interesting grapefruit bitterness, a little bit of juniper and lemongrass, all sorts of fun stuff.”
Now, four years later, Lior is coming to Bloomington for a series of special spice-based events. On March 1, Lior’s spices will be used in a dinner by Cardinal Spirits. The event is taking place at the DeVault Alumni Center and begins at 7 p.m. with tickets available at Cardinal Spirits' website. The meal is being prepared by James Beard nominated chef David Tallent, who closed his popular Restaurant Tallent last year. Adam says he is, “pretty excited about it, it’s been a long time since I’ve eaten anything that [David] has cooked. Just because the restaurant is not there anymore, I think that’s why the tickets have started going so fast, because people are just craving his food. Lior has sent Dave some spice blends based on a couple of conversations that they’ve had, and Dave is going to start playing around with them.”
The food won’t be the only aspect of the dinner that utilizes Lior’s spices. As Adam explains, “We are going to be pairing our cocktails with the menu using a couple of spice blends from Lior as well. And then one of the courses is going to be served with Lior’s Brooklyn Brewery collaboration. This year it was called Tripel Burner, which is like a Belgian Tripel.”
It is sure to be a delicious night and a unique experience for people who make the trek to Bloomington. But, in case it sells out before you get a chance to get tickets, there’s also an event the following day on March 2 — once again at 7 p.m. and this time at Cardinal Spirits — which will highlight Lior’s mindset on spices and teach you how to better make your own blends.
Adam describes for me his first time meeting Lior at La Boîte, and in doing so he shares a little insight into how this spice workshop will run. “As soon as you walk in it’s just this amazing smell like nothing you’ve ever really smelled before — all these incredible, fresh spices from all over the world. It kind of overwhelms your nose. I just sat down with him, just pulled a couple of chairs out in the middle of the shop and just started talking about all sorts of stuff, but mostly about where we both came from as far as why we were getting into what we were doing.
“And for him, he grew up on his father’s olive tree orchard —I guess is what you call it —in Israel. And he remembers all of these different scents and smells on the farm and that sort of was the first memory he had of being really interested in flavors and scents. And then he went on to France and developed a cooking career and was a chef, and worked under Daniel Boulud and all of these amazing things.
“And I kind of had a similar experience in Southern Indiana, I kinda grew up outside and some of my earliest memories are walking along the train tracks and smelling cornfields on one side and forest on the other and having all of these amazing scent memories come to life.”
From these scent memories, which Lior is able to help people bring to the forefronts of their minds, he crafts blends that are reminiscent of these memories. From these initial talks, and further conversations about the flavors of gin, Lior and Adam were able to come up with the spice blend that became Terra. “The concept for the gin,” says Adam, “was just to make something that was, what we think would be a representation of the future of gin — where gin might be going — with a sort of an ode to the main ingredients that make gin what it is: juniper and some of those sort of resinous, piney notes.”
This is what people attending the spice workshop can expect, Lior will begin with a basic and thorough explanation of blending spices. Adam describes the next part, “And then he will open it up to an event, what he calls the spice bar. He brings people up and talks to them about what they’re interested in and maybe some scent memories they might have and then walks them through some ideas he has to help recall some of those memories.” And then guests will make their own personalized spices.
If you’re unable to make the events, this doesn’t mean you can’t get a taste of the impact Lior’s spices have on cuisine, you can always get a bottle of Terra. And on the horizon, a new collaboration liqueur is coming, “When he’s here next month we’re going to be working together on an amaro, which is a traditional Italian liqueur,” Adam says, excitedly. “That’s something he’s been wanting to do for a long time and so that one he is kind of leading the charge on.”
For those who do get the opportunity to go to either one, or both of the events, this truly is a unique experience. Event-goers will walk away with a greater appreciation for quality spices, a greater knowledge of spice-blending and a signed copy of Lior’s newest book The Spice Companion which features a guide to over 100 spices.
For Adam his initial interest in Lior drew from the idea of scent memory and Lior’s ability to bring those out in people and to craft spices from them. “That’s the kind of stuff that got me really excited about his process, that was what was so well-documented in that New York Times article, and I’m excited to let people in Bloomington experience that.”