by Allison Lamplugh
Tucked behind Arby’s off West 11th Ave. in Eugene, you will find a small, modest complex of industrial buildings. Within the unassuming lot is Crescendo Spirits. I found Kyle Akin, owner and cello maker, standing outside the warehouse-style door with a big smile and warm welcome.
Inside I was surprised to find a cozy and classy space, in which Akin has designed a lounge complete with couches and lamps, giving the feel of a living room. It also had a tasting table and small bar surrounded by bold, red walls. Akin wasted no time beginning to educate me on what exactly cello is.
“Cello,” he told me, “is defined as a homemade liqueur and is the name for an Italian liqueur.” He continued, “There’s always this mystery surrounding how it’s made and everyone is locked into their grandma’s recipe. But I don’t have that, my ancestry is German.”
So how, I wondered, does an American of German descent rise to the top of the Oregon cello market for making the highly coveted and secretive liqueur? The short answer is trial and error.
The long answer is on a visit to a Northern California winery a winemaker offered Akin a sip of his homemade Limoncello. Akin was intrigued by its robust, unique flavor and asked to take a small sample home. The winemaker obliged, and as an engineer by training, Akin began rigorous research to discover what exactly makes “grandma’s” traditional Limoncello, limoncello.
“The process is quite difficult to do,” he said. “It has to do with how you cut the rinds, the jar you use, and the duration of steeping.”
The details of how exactly that is done was off limits. It involved countless hours of learning curves, tracking down the equipment, and negotiating with Italians to get the equipment to the Willamette Valley.
His secrets are his key to success.
This past winter, their top-seller, Limoncello, was entered into two competitions: the 6th Annual Denver International Spirits Competition and the 4th Annual Berlin International Spirits Competition.
In Denver, it was given the top honor of a double gold medal by a double-blind panel of highly regarded beverage professionals. Competition was stiffer in Berlin with over 400 entries from 20 countries. Despite their underdog status, Crescendo earned a bronze medal.
“When we sent it across the pond to Europe no other fruit liqueur won but us,” he said. “The judges were definitely wanting a particular type of liqueur that took a significant more finesse. But, we still got the nod, we still got the bronze, no matter how they were feeling.”
He asked if I wanted to taste the award-winning cello, and I welcomed the opportunity.
“These are the primary colors of bartending—lemon, lime, and orange,” he said as he placed the bottles on the bar.
Traditionally cellos are sipped straight, but the engineer in Akin has had fun playing with flavors and textures mixing them with other spirits and juices. He lists some of his favorite recipes on their website.
First up to taste was the Limoncello. It was fresh on the palate, left no chemical taste and the flavor subtly disappeared, making it very easy to drink.
Next up was the Limecello. Again, it was smooth and pleasing on my palate and I couldn’t help but ooh and ahh as I sipped it.
Last, but certainly not least, was the Arancello, which tasted like drinking a creamsicle. It was flavor-packed and my personal favorite.
With these staple flavors used so often, my mind started to wander thinking of the possibilities of how the cellos could be used. They could be added to lager, to cider, to ice tea; poured over ice cream; drizzled on key lime pie or chocolate cake; used as a marinade. My mouth began to water.
Each of the cellos had clean, fresh flavors with no syrupy aftertaste. Akin explained that all their spirits are dye-free, GMO free, gluten free, and are organic with no artificial flavors.
On the heels of their award-winning season, Crescendo is now adding vodka to their handcrafted delectables. Expected to be ready for distribution by late summer, I was able to taste from a bottle Akin had on hand.
Vodka is not generally my first choice for hard alcohol, but the taste I had was delicious. It was pleasant, didn’t have a bite, was sweet, and easy to swallow. I didn’t even scrunch my nose and close my eyes as straight vodka often provokes.
Akin explained that their vodka is distilled five times. Gray Goose, for example, is distilled three times. With each round of distilling it further purifies, filters, and refines the essential characteristics of the vodka, making it more concentrated.
“The defining characteristic of a good vodka is that it does not taste like, or smell like, anything,” he told me.
With hopes to infuse botanicals in the future, Akin is already experimenting with fruits and flavors that may be contenders.
During my time at Crescendo Spirits, I was impressed by Akin’s enthusiasm, knowledge, and passion for making liqueur. If the chance presents itself to stop by, I recommend it. You may not leave with his secrets, but you will leave with a friend. And possibly a new favorite liqueur.