Cutting through the picturesque scenery of the premier wine regions on a short 2 hour drive from San Francisco, we finally arrived at one of California’s spirit havens; Spirit Works distillery.
Spirit Works (link) is a quaint distillery located in the Sonoma Valley that specializes in small batch, premium spirits where focusing on commitment to quality and the “grain to glass” concept is priority. Not many other distilleries choose to mill, mash, ferment and distill all of their spirits right on site.
Spirit Works run a hybrid pot-column still; basically a traditional alembic pot still attached to one or more columns of differing heights (Spirit Works have 2). This type of configuration has become very popular with the craft spirits industry because it provides the ability to distill both alembically (from the pot, across the still) and vertically up the column. This flexibility allows the distiller more freedom and creativity when distilling different forms of spirit and Spirit Works definitely take full advantage. Spirit works currently make vodka, gin, barrel gin, sloe gin, barrel reserve sloe gin, wheat whisky and rye whisky. An impressively extensive collection for such a young distillery. They’re actually the only US distiller to make real sloe gin (i.e. using actual sloe berries).
The team shared with me that they’re currently working on a selection of bourbons with different mash bills, which should be interesting.
Note: Don’t get this hybrid still confused with the continuous column still of huge bourbon, rum or vodka distilleries; these are batch stills. You run a batch, stop and then run another batch. You cannot run 24/7 and you still need to separate the foreshots (heads), hearts and feints (tail) of the spirit run.
For those interested in some details of Spirit Works distillation process:
- The stipping run is completed by running the still alembically where cuts are made and the hearts are collected (foreshots and feints are re-distilled)
- Vodka: made from a wheat mash, where the spirit run is completed up the long column; this gives a 95%ABV (190 proof) spirit.
- Gin: made by taking the vodka, adding juniper and selected herbs and then running the still alembically.
- Barrel Gin: made by aging the gin for several months in toasted new American Oak barrels
- Sloe Sin: made by steeping sloe berries in gin
- Barrel Reserve Sloe Gin: made by aging the sloe gin for several months in toasted new American Oak barrels
- Wheat Whisky: made from a 100% wheat mash; the hearts from the stripping run are sent up the shorter column for the spirit run; this gives a 80%ABV (160 proof) spirit. The spirit is aged in new American Oak barrels for a minimum of 2 years.
- Rye Whisky: made from a rye & barley mash; the hearts from the stripping run are sent up the shorter column for the spirit run; this gives a 80%ABV (160 proof) spirit. The spirit is aged in new American Oak barrels for a minimum of 2 years.
While we were taking the tour through the warehouse, we noticed one additional interesting thing that the distillery is doing to try to increase the maturation in the casks; using music. Yes music. The team have small amplifiers connected to the barrels in order to agitate the spirit and increase the interaction with the barrel. I’ve heard of distilleries shaking barrels (like a paint mixer of sorts) but I’d never seen this before. Clever. I am curious though to see if they start selling single cask editions called “rock”, “blues” or “metal”. It could become a thing.
The tour provided by the team was enjoyable and informative. Even my wife, who had never visited a distillery before, enjoyed the experience.
After the completion of the tour, we returned to the beautifully decorated bar area for our tasting (it made me feel like I was back in one of the trendy hipster bars of Melbourne). The tour included a tasting of each of the spirits (except for the barrel reserve sloe gin, which was not released at that time) and none disappointed. I usually only write about whisky, but I’ll make exception for Spirit Works:
Vodka: The vodka has deliciously balanced wheat-driven flavours reminding me of some of the premium Eastern European vodkas; it tastes fresh, smooth and quite earthy. It surprisingly has great moutfeel (not something normally mentioned of vodkas). Very enjoyable.
Gin: While I am not generally a big fan of gin; the wheat-driven flavours intermingled well with the juniper, herbs and spices. The gin is spicey, earthy, floral, dry yet fresh. I could see this making a badass martini.
Barrel Gin: This was something completely out of left field for me. I honestly had never heard of barrel-aged gin. I was pleasantly surprised. The ageing brought forward vanilla and caramel flavours that complement the spicey, floral and herbal flavours of the gin.
Sloe Gin: I don’t think I’d ever tasted real sloe gin before (made with sloe berries). The liquer has a nice balance of sweet and bitter thanks to citrus and berry flavours. While this is not really my type of drink, I could see this being a popular digestive or the base of some interesting cocktails.
Wheat Whisky: A nice whisky that while noticeably young, is definitely interesting. The nose is surprisingly hot; definitely need to let it breath. Aroma of oak, caramel and light feinty notes in the background. Nice medium body mouthfeel. Palate has lovely caramel, nuts and cereal notes. Long warm finish with vanilla at the forefront.
Rye Whisky: Another nice but noticeably young whisky. Aroma of oak and leather with feinty notes in the background. Nice oily mouthfeel. Palate has lots of oak and spice with some caramel notes. Nice long warm finish with light spice.
While I may be a Whisky Fiend in every sense, I can certainly appreciate a variety of beverages and for me the stand-out product from Spirit Works expressions was the Barrel Gin. I felt that it was something unique compared to the whiskies. So much so that I happily bought a bottle (tasting notes to come).
At the end of the day I enjoyed both whiskies, but they’re still very young. The new make spirit is of unquestionable high quality but the nose of both still show feinty new-make spirit notes. I hope to see Spirit Works continue to focus on their whisky products and provide longer maturations to try to further develop the character, but that of course takes time. While I liked that they have both wheat and rye whiskies, I hope to one day see a malt whisky expression.
I hope to see Spirit Works take advantage of their opportunity to market themselves as “Californian Whisky” and look to create whisky expressions with maturations in local Sonoma or Napa Valley wine casks. The wine is some of the best in the world and I think this could be a huge point of differentiation from all other whisky regions. While Pacific Northwest whisky is making big waves in the industry with great distilleries like Westland, Westward and Seattle Distilling, I could easily see Spirit Works becoming a template for other distillers to open up shop in the Northern Californian wine regions.
While I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting the head distiller Ashby Marshall; I did get the chance to meet her husband and co-founder Timo. He was very knowledgeable and struck me as a very down to earth man who is very passionate about and proud of their business… and well he should be. Surprisingly though, he is the only male in a company of 9 employees. That’s great to see and it’s definitely very Californian of them.
I highly recommend that anyone interested schedule a tour. You won’t be disappointed.