The Hidden Treasure of Wine Country: Craft Spirits
Sonoma County isn’t just about wine. A new crop of distillers is bringing spirits to California.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Pass on the pinot and sip some whiskey.
Swirling a glass of pinot noir against a backdrop of lush Sonoma vineyards … the California dream, right? Sure, wine is pretty damn fabulous, but sometimes, perhaps, you’d rather be sipping on fine spirits. Turns out, you can do that in wine country. According to the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, Sonoma County has experienced a surge of new craft distilleries within the past several years — reaching 13 by 2015. Not all of them are open to the public, but here are a few to wet your whistle.
Spirit Works Distillery
If you’re into cocktail joints, you’ve likely noticed Spirit Works’ sloe gin on the backbar. A highly aromatic red liqueur made with gin and sloe (blackthorn) berries, this traditional U.K. spirit is distilled by owners Timo and Ashby Marshall, who opened the distillery in 2013. Located at the Barlow outdoor market in Sebastopol, Spirit Works offers distillery tours to educate patrons on how the spirits are produced, from grain to glass. Back in the tasting room, sample their vodka, gin, whiskey and sloe gin — most of which begin with California-grown, organic red winter wheat. Interesting fact: Spirit Works is run by mostly women. “It is important for women in the spirits industry to remain visible so that any woman interested in entering it knows there is a place for her,” says head distiller Lauren Patz.
Open: Wednesday through Sunday, 11–5. Tours offered at 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Tasting Fee: $5–$20
Address: Spirit Works Distillery, 6790 McKinley St. #100, Sebastopol, California
Fred and Amy Groth got into the spirits business in 2008, after falling for limoncello while traveling in Italy. Back in the U.S., the couple relocated to California and began making their very own, award-winning limoncello di Sonoma, which balances ripe lemon characters and refreshing acidity. Prohibition Spirits also produces three types of gin, both unaged and aged brandies distilled from local fruit, Italian-style liqueurs like figcello and nocino, and other spirits. Their new tasting room at Cornerstone Sonoma has the rustic-glam factor common to wine country these days: charcoal-gray walls and chandeliers juxtaposed with bright metal barstools in an industrial space. In addition to being a tasting room and retail shop, the airy space is an entrance to Sunset Test Gardens, where you can wander the maze-like trail of fresh herbs, flowers and abstract art fixtures.
Open: Daily, 10–5
Tasting Fee: $10 for 6 spirits
Address: Prohibition Spirits, 23570 Arnold Dr., Sonoma, California
Sonoma County Distilling
Fancy yourself a whiskey connoisseur? Since 2010, Sonoma County Distilling’s proprietor, Adam Spiegel, has been using direct-fire copper pot stills to produce his six small-batch whiskeys: a wheat whiskey, two rye whiskeys and three “West of Kentucky” bourbons. Mentored by master distiller Hubert Germain-Robin, Spiegel employs traditional distilling methods used in Kentucky houses, and creates spirits with non-GMO and organic California grains and spring water from the Sierra Nevada. While tasting the whiskeys, you’ll also pick up on the coastal influences of western Sonoma County. Tours take you through each stage of the whiskey-making process, from mashing to barrel aging. And if you’re the lucky one nominated as designated driver for your crew, your tour is free. “Being a distiller among a world-famous wine region is humbling and motivating,” Spiegel says.
Open: Wednesday through Sunday, 11–5. Tours by appointment Thursday through Sunday.
Tasting Fee: $10 for six spirits, $20 for tour, tasting and souvenir whiskey glass
Address: Sonoma County Distilling, 5625 State Farm Dr., Unit 18, Rohnert Park, California
Sonoma Brothers Distilling
Sometimes, the best things come in twos. Twin brothers and Sonoma natives Chris and Brandon Matthies welcome guests to their tasting room in Windsor to sample flagship spirits, including vodka, gin, bourbon and rye whiskey. You may also have a chance to taste their apple brandy, a limited-production spirit made from local fruit; white whiskey (unaged whiskey, aka moonshine); and their soon-to-be-released grape brandy — all using non-GMO grains. “Even if we had millions of dollars to market our spirits, we believe that our spirits should be made from grain to glass in our facility,” says Chris. If you’re lucky, you might get to meet the adorable distillery dogs, Max and Bailey, during your visit.
Open: Monday through Thursday by appointment, Fridays and Saturdays, 10–5
Tasting Fee: $5 for 6 spirits (waived with bottle purchase)
Address: Sonoma Brothers Distilling, 7759 Bell Rd., Windsor, California
Hanson of Sonoma
If you’d rather stick to white spirits, small-batch vodka distillery Hanson of Sonoma plans to open a new tasting room in the town of Sonoma this summer, where they’ll offer a range of organic vodkas, including ginger, mandarin, cucumber, boysenberry and espresso.
If you’re up for some power-tasting, it’s possible to fit a visit to all of these distilleries in one day. But if you prefer sampling at a more leisurely pace, spend the night in either Santa Rosa or Petaluma and continue your tasting tour the following day.