North State Distilleries on the Rise
By Kayla Anderson
Story and Photos by Kayla Anderson
LIKE THE RISE IN BOUTIQUE WINERIES and craft breweries across the country, Northern California is experiencing a boom in small-batch specialty distilleries. Featuring handcrafted spirits made with local, organic ingredients and a whole lot of passion and love, here are a few North State spirits that stood out on a recent NorCal distilleries tour:
FIRST STOP: Hooker Oak Distillery, Chico
SPECIALTIES: Rum (pineapple, vanilla, apple pie and original)
NAMED AFTER: The Hooker Oak trees native to Chico
This rum-only distillery is the product of lifelong friends John Martin and Billy Ahumada, general contractors from Paradise who decided to start a new venture together.
Although successful in construction, the pair went off and built a still using a boiler made out of a 15-gallon Sierra Nevada keg bought off Craigslist and some parts from Ace Hardware. They toured distilleries across the United States, and found a location to build their new business, set in an old dilapidated building on the verge of being torn down. Martin and Ahumada renovated the building and started making their specialty rum.
“They took this on as a side project and chose rum because it’s the most free spirit available. It’s easy to make apple moonshine, so we added juice, more spices, and let it rest in French oak wine barrels,” says Tasting Room Manager Dylan Rowe.
In tasting the different flavored rums, the apple pie is so much like the actual dessert that the rum part is pretty subtle. The pineapple version is smooth and sweet, like a Disneyland Dole Whip with a strong hint of alcohol. Made with whole Madagascar vanilla bean, the vanilla rum tastes organic and pure.
HOOKER OAK DISTILLERY: APPLE PIE A LA MODE
1 part Hooker Oak Apple Pie Rum
2 parts cream soda
Combine in a shaker with ice and shake for 30 seconds. Strain into a glass over ice until two-thirds full. Top with cream soda and enjoy.
“If you haven’t had an Apple Pie and Cream Soda, then you haven’t lived,” says former Hooker Oak Intern Reed Omohundro.
SECOND STOP: Jewell Distillery, Blue Lake
SPECIALTIES: Gin, Big Buddha Citron, Pacific Moonshine
NAMED AFTER: Michael and Barbara Jewell
Michael and Barbara Jewell have owned and operated several kinds of businesses over the last few years, but opened this distillery together in June 2016 after friends gave them rave reviews on their homemade experiments.
“We leapt off this cliff, but going from a hobby to a commercial endeavor was a big challenge,” Barbara says. An acquaintance gave Michael a still used during Prohibition and he procured unused fruit from friends’ crops. He started making fruit brandies and moonshine, then searched for the perfect recipe for gin. The Jewells finally found it in a basket of 13 different botanicals and a proprietary juniper berry blend. “It’s got some intensity, but with a little ice it’s glorious to drink,” Michael says.
The Big Buddha Citron came soon after. “About 10 years ago, my friend showed me the Buddha’s hand. I didn’t think we could do anything with it because of its very unique taste,” Michael says. However, it turned out to be one of Jewell Distillery’s exceptional offerings.
Barbara says “the proof is in the pudding” in what they’ve created and the couple won’t sell anything that they don’t drink themselves. “It’s our name and reputation right on the bottle, so it has to be the best.”
JEWELL DISTILLERY: BIG BUDDHA CITRON COCKTAIL
1 part Buddha’s hand simple syrup
1 part Big Buddha Citron
1 part soda water
Mix up some Buddha’s hand simple syrup, soda water, Big Buddha Citron and ice. Since it’s hard to get a hold of Buddha’s hand simple syrup, it’s best just to enjoy this at the Jewell tasting room or mix the Big Buddha with lemon-lime soda.
THIRD STOP: Alchemy Distillery, Arcata
SPECIALTIES: Boldt Clear Whiskey, Genever-style Gin
NAMED AFTER: Alchemy Construction Company
Located in the industrial part of Arcata, Alchemy has operated as a successful construction company for the past 20 years, but Amy and Steve Bohner also love bourbon and decided to pursue that passion out of their existing space. The couple took a year and a half to build out a distillery in their warehouse as a side project, while researching how to make spirits and finding a still, oak barrels and equipment.
“We were scared to death to do anything without a permit, so we did a training in Chicago and at Moonshine University (in Kentucky) and learned on this still that we use today,” she says. Starting their first whiskey batches in 2015 and opening to the public in early 2017, the Bohners are adamant about taking care of the Humboldt farmers and buying products as local as they can.
Alchemy pays extra for local grain so you can taste the Humboldt flavor come through in its gin and whiskey. While it’s odd to see a clear whiskey and a brown gin, Genever-style spirits are known to have a malt base, causing a darker color. As basic as it gets, there are only four ingredients in its whiskey: water, grain, yeast and liquid enzymes to help starch conversion.
“I’ve never worked this hard in my life and have never had this much fun,” Amy says.
ALCHEMY: BLUSHING BLONDE SATAN’S WHISKERS
3 oz. Boldt Genever-style gin
1½ oz. dry vermouth
½ oz. agave syrup
½ oz. fresh lemon juice
2-3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Place all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake, strain, pour into a glass and garnish with a lemon twist.
FOURTH STOP: Humboldt Distillery, Fortuna
SPECIALTIES: Vodka, spiced rum, and Humboldt’s Finest cannabis-infused vodka
NAMED AFTER: The county where the spirits are made
Humboldt Distillery is the brainchild of Abe Stevens, a Fortuna native who has had a variety of different careers before coming back to his hometown to open a distillery. As the first distillery open to the public in Humboldt County in 2013, Abe released an organic vodka widely recognizable by its unique labeling, yet now Humboldt’s Finest – a cannabis-infused vodka – is all the rage.
“Being from Humboldt, people hinted to put the ‘local flavor’ in our spirits,” Abe says. “We couldn’t ignore consumer demand, so we came up with Humboldt’s Finest, which won double gold in the San Francisco World Spirits competition. It has a subtle taste, mostly in its aroma,” he adds. Humboldt’s Finest is worth a taste to judge for yourself, and is THC-free, legal in all 50 states.
FIFTH STOP: Dutch & Dewey Distillery, Blue Lake
SPECIALTIES: Farm Horse Vodka, Limoncello di Pacifica, coffee liqueur, dry gin
NAMED AFTER: Jeff St. John’s grandfather’s horses, Dutch and Dewey
Spending his former life as a metallurgical engineer in the aerospace industry, Jeff St. John learned how to make equipment that could distill zinc and disc drive lubricants to keep a computer running smoothly. However, working in a clean, sterile environment was a direct contrast to his Pennsylvania farming heritage, and Jeff found himself itching to get back to his roots. Jeff and his wife migrated to Northern California, eventually settling in Blue Lake, which was best suited for making brandy.
“We moved to Blue Lake in 2005 and it took us a year to haul horses, farm equipment and repair the roads,” Jeff says. He ran his first batch of vodka out of a 17-foot-high stainless steel piece of equipment that he built himself, followed by his creation of a limoncello, coffee liqueur and gin using different methods.
Emitting a natural, organic, farm-to-table feel reminiscent of his grandfather’s success decades ago, Jeff has vivid memories of his grandfather giving him advice on how to maintain a sustainable farm. “In 1940, sustainability wasn’t a fashionable thing to do, but it was the only way to survive,” Jeff says.
DUTCH & DEWEY: LEMON DROP*
½ oz. Limoncello di Pacifica
1 ½ oz. Farm Horse vodka
Put the limoncello and vodka in a shaker glass along with some lemon juice and zest, shake it up with some ice, pour it into a glass and enjoy.
DUTCH & DEWEY: GIN MARTINI*
DUTCH & DEWEY DRY GIN
Muddle the cucumber and add it to a shaker with gin, lemon zest, lemon juice and ice. Shake it up and pour it into a glass. “It makes a frosty beverage-evanescence in the glass,” Jeff says. Then add tonic water and top with lime.
DUTCH & DEWEY: DIRTY MOCHA*
Dark chocolate bar
Pour a bit of coffee liqueur into a glass, drop in a couple of pieces of dark chocolate, top with whipped cream and enjoy.
*Not official names. Dutch & Dewey fine spirits are distributed in 90 places in Humboldt County as well as at Tops Market in Redding.
UP-AND-COMING NORCAL DISTILLERIES:
Denny Bar Company, Etna
SPECIALTIES: Boulder Peak Vodka, Laust Sparrow Gin
NAMED AFTER: One of the first retail chain stores built in California in 1880
Opening a distillery in their hometown of Etna is a dream come true for owners Sparrow Tang and Cole Laustalot. After graduating from Etna High School and going off and doing their own thing for a bit, the longtime friends reconnected and decided to pursue building a distillery together.
“They had all been experimenting with spirits over the last year and a half, and attended Moonshine University in Kentucky,” says Marketing Manager Lance Banks. Using a 300-gallon copper pot still, 4-plate whiskey column and 10-plate vodka columns bought from Idaho, the pair recently created the Boulder Peak Vodka and Laust Sparrow Gin and officially opened their doors in early 2018.
Almendra Winery and Distillery, Durham
SPECIALTIES: Monkey Face Gin and vodka
NAMED AFTER: Their line of spirits are named after the famous Monkey Face Rock in Bidwell Park
Located right outside of Chico on 9275 Midway, Almendra Winery and Distillery originally started in 2001 when the Bertagnas planted their first vineyards by their home in Chico. As the winery expanded, Berton Bertagna came upon an abandoned still in a nearby field that was originally shipped over from France before Prohibition.
Once in Bertagna’s possession, he and his team spent two years polishing and rebuilding it and eventually retrofitted the 500-gallon tank to create a more efficient heating process. After getting it functional, Almendra used it to make mandarin-infused brandy with fruit from Oroville, an almond brandy with nuts from Berton’s own crops, and a java brandy made with Chico’s Cal Java roasted beans.
In November 2017, Almendra released its Monkey Face gin, vodka, and a barrel-aged brandy. Almendra’s vodka is rumored to be super smooth and its gin is full of flavor, made with local almonds, lavender, mandarins, rosemary and juniper. •