Drinking Hard Liquor in Wine Country

Northern California’s distillers are rebelling against the entrenched vinocracy.

Prior to Prohibition, many of Sonoma’s wineries produced brandies and grappa. After the 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st, the wineries quickly recovered and multiplied. But hard liquor took nearly a century to find its way back to California’s pleasure valleys. Now it’s back and worth seeking out.

The first post-Prohibition distillery in the county was Hello Cello, which opened in 2009 after Denver native Fred Groth visited and was struck by the Mediterranean climate and how perfectly suited it was for producing limoncello. “If it was going to happen anywhere,” he says five years later, “it was going to happen here.”

Groth is no longer on his own. Hanson of Sonoma now takes advantage of local crops to make organic grape-based vodka, and Adam Spiegel, the owner of Sonoma County Distilling Co., ages whiskey in barrels that imbue grain liquor with a bit of extra punch thanks to the hot days and cold nights that have them perpetually expanding and contracting.  “Sonoma County has been known for great wine, great beer, great food, and now great whiskey,” says Spiegel. “We are building a new legacy among the vines.”

There are now nine distilleries operating in Sonoma, most of which opened in the last four years. Even more, like Healdsburg’s Alley 6 (whose first whiskeys will be ready in 2016) are coming soon.  According to Ashby Marshall of Spirit Work Distillery, “The last few years have seen a lot of changes for the local spirits scene. We’ve seen more people become interested in distillation and producing their own products and more consumers take note of where their products are coming from.”

While locals are eager to attribute the growth in craft spirits to the region’s history of producing artisanal products, the boom really began when a local liquor law changed. Prior to January of 2014, distilleries were prohibited from offering paid tastings. With the change in law, these craft distillers have thrown open their doors and invited visitors to come taste their products. It’s a different sort of boozy trip to NorCal.

Here’s your itinerary: 

Spirit Works Distillery

UK nativeTimo Marshall comes from a family of sloe gin distillers, so when he moved to the Northern California home of his wife, Ashby, the two decided to carry on the family tradition together. The Marshalls perfected their craft in various workshops and through stints working at other small distilleries then opened Spirit Works Distillery in the town of Sebastopol. The duo use 100% organic Red Winter wheat from northern California to grind and brew the mash that becomes the gin, which is then infused with whole sloe berries to create sloe gin, a liquor similar to port or cassis.  This year Spirit Works is also releasing its first barrel-aged gin and whiskey, which, like the sloe gin will be made entirely onsite, a distinction very important to the Marshalls. “The grain to glass process is something we really value and what we consider to be a requirement for creating a premium product,” says Ashby, “Handmade. No corners cut.”

Tours and Tastings: Spirit Works is open for walk-in tastings ($5) Thursday through Sunday from 11am – 4pm. Hour-long tours are offered by appointment Friday through Sunday at 4pm; the cost is $15

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Sonoma County Distilling Co.

Opened in 2010 as 1512 Spirits and rebranded in 2013, Sonoma Country Distilling Co. offers three products: Sonoma Rye Whiskey, 2nd Chance Wheat Whiskey, and West of Kentucky Bourbon No. 1. The distillery manages every level of production in-house, from the mashing and fermentation of grains to the distillation and small-barrel aging to the final packaging.  

Despite quadrupling production in the last year – to 500-600 gallons per month – the distillery still uses a 125-gallon, direct-fired copper alembic still, which distiller Adam Spiegel describes as an “archaic still design” but which creates a unique product. Says Adam, “We present a process similar to how it was done in the 16th century, valuing high flavor over ultra-high alcohol. The fire we use to heat our stills and mash tuns provides unique carmelization that you can only get with direct-fired equipment. No fillers, colors or flavorings, no bullshit, just quality whiskey.”

Tours and Tastings: Tours of the Rohnert Park facility walk visitors through the whiskey-production process and include tasting and a souvenir whisky glass. The hour-long tours are offered Monday through Saturday, by appointment only, and cost $20 per person.

Hello Cello and Prohibition Spirits

In a small industrial park just outside of downtown Sonoma, Fred Groth and his wife, Amy, create several spirits under the Hello Cello and Prohibition Spirits labels. The Hooker’s House double-barrel aged bourbon and rye are named for Sonoma legend and Civil War vet General Joseph Hooker, and the Bourbon-barrel-aged Sugar Daddy rums honor local sugar tycoon Adolf Spreckels. Solano Vodka, named for the Mission San Francisco Solano in downtown Sonoma, is made from Sonoma spring water and local wheat and is filtered through lava rocks from the nearby Mayacamas mountains.

Tours and Tastings: Forty-five-minute tours and tastings are offered by appointment only; the cost is $20 per person.

Photo Courtesy of Hanson of Sonoma

Hanson of Sonoma

Scott Hanson got into the spirits trade at the behest of his two sons, Chris and Brandon (son Darren joined the family business later). They saw a unique opportunity to make grape-based vodka in Sonoma wine country using the same high-quality grapes used to make wine. After consulting with distributors to ensure they’d have a market for their product, the family spent the next year developing their certified Organic, certified Gluten Free, and certified Non-GMO spirit, Hanson of Sonoma Organic Vodka.

Their meticulous approach paid off; since launching their vodka in 2013, it has been named Best Vodka at the Spirit International Prestige Awards 2013 and it won two Gold medals at the London Vodka Masters 2013 and two Double Gold and two Gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2014.

Tours and Tastings: Hanson is currently relocating to a new distillery building on Highway 121 between Sonoma and Napa. Tours and tastings will be offered when it opens in October of 2014.

Photo Courtesy of The Lodge at Sonoma

Bean and Bottle at the Lodge at Sonoma

While Bean and Bottle is not a distillery, it is one of the best places to sample a variety of local spirits without spending the day driving (and crashing) the car. Look out for the Charbay Distillery label. The small-batch operation has been making vodka, whiskey, port, brandy, and grappa in the neighboring Napa Valley since 1983, but, because it is licensed as a winery, cannot offer tastings onsite.

Bean and Bottle is located inside the Lodge at Sonoma, a short walk from the historic Sonoma Plaza. The bar offers a weekly education series that often focuses on spirits and it stocks an extensive collection of local products, available on their own or in specialty cocktails. Along with Charbay and Prohibition Spirits, other local distilleries represented are Moylan’s Distillery’s from nearby Petaluma (also in Sonoma County) and distilleries from elsewhere in the Bay Area such Anchor Distilling, St. George Spirits, and Falcon Spirits.

Tours and Tastings: Normal business hours.

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