California has always been a hub for wine connoisseurs the world over with Napa Valley. Kingdoms of vineyards scrambling through Northern California, elbowing it with Sacramento, just cooing to the world with names like Ahnfeldt and Alta Napa. But, California certainly is no slacker in its liquors as well. Albeit, they lacked the charm of the Napa Valley tours and shenanigans. For a long while, distillery tours were very “look, but don’t touch”, but as of 2016 a new provision was introduced into the state legislature that allowed ours to include tasting rooms to not only major distilleries, but small independent ones as well. So we’ve looked into some places to go and get into some tasting shenanigans.
With a motto like “We don’t distill to meet your expectations, we distill to exceed your imagination” you come to expect a little something something from the Alameda-based distillery. But, somehow, you look at their selection of spirits and try it and you think to yourself, “well, would you look at that.” From a robust single malt scotch to coffee liquors and then back to the tropical and airy agricole rhums, this is a distillery that doesn’t seem to play favorites with the type of beverages it produces, nor does it seem to slack on any single concept, concocting success after success of flavor.
The operation started back in 1982 with a barebones facility jerry rigging sawhorses into tasting tables in a eau de vie distillery under the vision of Jorg Rupf. In the last 35 years, though, this small David has become a Goliath in the distillery world with a 65,000 sq foot hangar complete with state of the art laboratories, tasting rooms and some of the best distilleries in the state who are simultaneously trying to please both the hedonists and the experimenting bartenders alike.
2601 Monarch Street Alameda, CA 94501 // 510.769.1601
The webpage opens up with a quote from the Huffington Post; it reads “For any other rum maker, Lost Spirit’s rums would be a career pinnacle”. The man in charge, Bryan Davis, a man with an art degree, has a TedTalk on the spirit of innovation where he talks about this Lost Spirits. There are awards listed and many of them, and it goes on and on. There is a feeling to Lost Spirits that is akin more to a postmodern performance art piece enmeshed with multimedia obfuscation and plans to have a gallery at the Whitney that’s just a tasting room. So, what is Lost Spirits? It is a distillery, yes, found in Salinas, Monterey County, the arts district of LA. They make an absurd amount of rum and whiskey of all styles and they are held to be very good, liquors that require barrels. But, it is also a new way, a chemistry experiment in the world of spirits, to create the booze we all love without those barrels. Lost Spirits is heralded as a game changer in the industry and, really, makes some pretty choice pleated whiskey.
Lost Spirits, 92 Espinosa Rd, Salinas, CA, USA // +1 831 235 9400
Located in Sabastopol, CA. Spirit Works is the passion project of husband-wife british duo Timo and Ashby Marshall, and their Boston Terrier, Bandit. One is from rural England and the other is right at home there in the West Coast. Together, with Lauren Patz as lead distiller, they have given us a unique craft gin, their Barrel Reserve Sloe Gin, with its strong sweet taste and velvety mouth-feel, as they describe it. A sloe gin is a form of distillation that is widely popular in the UK, as it is made with a steeping sloe berry, which is more a tiny plum, but gives it a slight tart to the sweetness. There are also other spirits to rave for: their wheat whiskey, vodkas, and barrel gins. Although they’ve only been active for a few years, their West coast twist to a British classic is making them widely popular as well as their “grain to grass” philosophy of owning every point of the distillation process. They do offer tours with reservations.
6790 McKinley Street #100 Sebastopol, CA 95472 // 707-634-4793
For those of us who are part of the several million people concentrated in the greater LA area and the millions more who visit and don’t have the time to travel the rest of this enormous state but still want to visit an amazing distillery, have I got news for you; Greenbar Craft Distillery is located right in downtown LA. It is the first California distillery since Prohibition era and boasts perhaps one of the largest repertoires of spirits from organic bitters to tequila back to rum and then to liqueurs, all homemade with hand-processed produce. Something special about this husband-wife duo, Melkan and Litty, is that they plant a tree for every bottle purchased to lower CO2 emissions, they use 100% recycled bottles and lightweight boxes. The facility itself features tours, a skybox and even cocktail classes so that you can make something more delicious and interesting than their already stellar spirits.
2459 E 8th St, Los Angeles, CA 90021 // 213.375.3668
Our exploration is taking an unexpected detour back to Napa Valley, Helena to be precise, where we find a distillery in bed with a winery at Charbay’s Winery and Distillery. Opening their doors in 1983, Charbay is a family owned enterprise started by Miles and Susan Karakasevic that had their first success with an Alambic Pot Still Brandy, an amber goodness gracing California with its European heritage. With a family steeped in generation after generation of fermenting and distilling, it is no curiousity how this distillery is a welcome exception to the region, known as “The Still on the Hill” and a proud maker of spirits to the region. They also share the attention of their whiskeys and brandies and vodkas with ports and aperitifs as well, boasting a small, yet excellent, selection of wines.
4001 Spring Mountain Road St. Helena, Napa Valley, California 94574 // (707) 963-9327
Founded in San Diego in 2011 as the first licensed distillery since Prohibition, this distillery specializes on the growing movement towards two things: making moonshine and innovate distillation processes. The company uses chemistry and environmental conscientiousness to make themselves “grain to glass” self sufficient, emboldened by a handmade production process. In doing this they have made several award winning spirits, such as their Valor West Coast Gin that is made with in-house gin botanicals, Ph balanced alkaline water from a local well, chinook hops, and in-state grapefruit. Their moonshines include the “Ugly Morning Rise and Shine” which is a partnership with Dark Horse Coffee Roasters to introduce to an unsuspecting world a 90 Proof caffeinated pick-me up in a way no roast can do you.
455 54th St., STE 102 San Diego, CA 92114
Many distilleries frame their history in the context of the Prohibition era, and cap it there at the 1920s, but Dry Diggings, found in El Dorado Hills in Northern California, captures and imbues the spirit of the 1840s Gold Rush. It was incorporated in 2012 but was built amongst a historic downtown site and utilizes the effort of local distillers, local crops and fruits, and is actually a part of the California Artisanal Distillers Guild which is a nonprofit organization that seeks to spread awareness through the public of the California Spirits Industry.
Some of the choice selections you can find here are their Rubicon Rye Whiskey or Diamond Springs Vodka. There is something classic, vintage even, in the former, as with their other whiskeys, so as can capture something traditional in a rapid growing world with the clear haunting of oak casks in its smoothness.The vodka speaks more with the accent of its wine country locale as it is made with wine grapes to give it a soft sweetness and smooth wine finish. This location happily gives tastings and tours that also give glimpse to not only the spirits, but the world around the distillery and into a part of California’s history itself.
5050 Robert J. Mathews Parkway, El Dorado Hills, CA 95762 // 916-542-1700