By Michelle Railey
It was the best of tastings, it was the worst of tastings. It was the age of high-end, artisanal vinegars. It was the age of locally-crafted and distilled spirits. It was Front Street in Traverse City, Michigan and two food and drink adventures were lived, experienced, tasted, and fully embraced. But only one of these was pleasant.
Fustini’s (141 E. Front St.) is an emporium of beautiful, high-quality vinegars and olive oils, infused with a wide range of delicate flavors. They carry spreads, and salts, and jams. It’s a lovely shop, open and airy. The service is outstanding, making it clear that they are more than happy to converse or assist but otherwise letting the guest explore. Everything is easy to sample and to smell. For my own part, I’m not generally a fan of vinegars, but my traveling companion (GR) loves vinegar and would gladly put it on every edible thing he can find (and some inedible things). But we both enjoyed the sensory experience of wandering around and discussing the intricacies of the tastes of these so-carefully made and packaged vinegars. I was astonished by the richness and the lack of astringency of some of them: the unexpectedly full-bodied and warm maple-infused vinegar had very little bite and some of the bitterness of a really great cup of coffee. Had I been in charge, we would have exited with a bottle of that (can you imagine how outstanding that would be drizzled on a spice cake? Or, better, chicken and waffles?). But GR was ensorceled by so many of the flavors. We walked out with four little bitty bottles ($32.00): Cara Cara Cream Vanilla, Pomegranate, Cinnamon Pear, and the 18-Year Traditional. The vanilla is buttery with a hint of malt over the vinegar taste: sweet but not too and very rich. The pomegranate is a bit jammy but in the manner of a nice Merlot or Cabernet. Cinnamon Pear is a tiny miracle. And the 18-Year Traditional is, well, not your grocery story balsamic.
Fustini’s has locations in Harbor Springs, Petoskey, and Maui (that one is not in Michigan). They offer cooking classes as well. If you’re near one, go wander and taste. It’s a sort of an unexpectedly delightful experience.
Speaking of unexpectedly delightful experiences, a couple doors down from Fustini’s in Traverse City is the downtown tasting room for the Grand Traverse Distillery (215 E. Front Street). This tasting room provided an unexpectedly and decidedly un-delightful experience. It started out okay. Lots of beautiful bottles, and a lovely interior: Traverse City’s shops have mastered the art of visual appeal and the distillery’s tasting room is no exception. They had pineapple steeping in a large glass jar of vodka; glossy bottles prettily labeled of craft chocolate vodkas and locally made bourbon-style whiskeys; all things distilled and wonderful, in short. So GR and I began with a sample of the 100% straight Bourbon Whiskey. Well, don’t let the environment or the tasteful packaging fool you on this one. Rubbing alcohol has less fire. Wolves have less bite. And any one of the vinegars or oils at Fustini’s had more roundness on the tongue, more depth, more richness than this rather sad little whiskey. If Weller’s had me at hello (see here), Grand Traverse’s bourbon begged for good-bye.
Now, it was not the bourbon that made this tasting a poor experience: the act and scene and company made even the minor tragedy of that drink a pleasure. But the attendant hovered, hawkishly and obtrusively; her nose wrinkled unpleasantly when we didn’t immediately say how great it was. In fact, we had to wait until we left before we could even compare tasting notes. Because she was on top of us. So, GR ordered a sample of the Ole George 100% Rye Whiskey. I sipped a bit of his (if nothing else, it would presumably remove the lingering scald from the bourbon). The Rye was genuinely nice. Grand Traverse Distillery’s website for the Rye states that it has “notes of rye bread, spiciness, vanilla, and caramel.” True. The attendant didn’t tell us anything about it. Before we’d finished swallowing, she was asking which bottle we were going to buy (never mind that we’d only sampled two and that we weren’t even allowed to enjoy the experience or discuss trying more or how we felt about what we were tasting).
You could be forgiven for assuming that the attendant was busy, with vacationing couples falling over themselves trying to sample the delights of the local distillery. Nope. GR and I were the only two people in the place. And we left, rather quickly, after paying for our samples and experiencing the rudest, snootiest, judgiest bit of “well, it’s a dollar per sample” and “don’t let the door hit you in the ass.”
If Miss Grand Traverse Distillery had not been so very vile, GR and I might have purchased the Rye, or something else. In fact, we might have stopped back later in the day for a cocktail (and another possible purchase). Or, it being a two-day trip, we might have stopped in on the next day. Instead, Miss Grand Traverse Distillery made sure we did none of these things and, also, that in “A Tale of Two Tastings,” that tasting room on Front Street is, basically, the French Revolution. (Actually, maybe/definitely Miss Grand Traverse Distillery was Madame Defarge.)
At any rate, Fustini’s is an excellent experience, offering fantastic products. Don’t miss it. If we go back to Traverse City, we’ll visit the actual Distillery, but I can guarantee we’ll probably steer clear of the Front Street tasting room. Madame Defarge just wasn’t very nice.
And, while not a tasting, in between Fustini’s and Grand Traverse Distillery, there’s a little shop called the Spice Merchants (145 E. Front Street). While it’s not so much a tasting spot, it’s filled with millions of exotic bottles and pouches of beautiful teas, salts, and spices from all over the world. It’s a gorgeous shop and a fragrant, inspiring little room filled with warmth and invitation. So, if you’re in Traverse City, check that one out.
This article was originally published in June 2016. All these shops still exist and the editorial staff is going to guess that Fustini’s and Spice Merchants are still great and that, even if Defarge no longer works at the Distillery, well, we’re guessing the product is still, um, too astringent to be any damn good.