When the Bohemian reached out to North Bay spirits producers for samples of their whiskey, we were pleasantly surprised at the brown booze bounty that showed up at the door—happy, too, that they sent no more than 13 bottles of the stuff. It was more than enough for a stimulating Friday-afternoon tasting.
There might have been more, indeed, if not for one stipulation: we asked for their best "grain-to-glass" whiskeys.
Spirits haven't been this big in these parts since they were cooked up on the sly during Prohibition, and this recent raft of whiskey is an echo of the craft-spirits boomlet that got our attention with locally made gin and vodka in recent years. Since whiskey takes months and years longer to bring to market, most bright-eyed new distillers fire up their stills for the clear spirits first, if not only to get the cash flowing—most will profess their love for excellent gin—then, in part, to weather the capital-intensive, time-consuming path they've chosen by going grain to glass.
But when I asked Bohemian staffers what "grain to glass" meant to them, the answers I got were hardly warm.
Does it mean the whiskey is better quality? Might be, but it depends. Is it made with local ingredients? Well, some use organic California grains, and Griffo Distillery says they're just now getting locally grown rye from Open Field Farm of Petaluma, but no, that's not it, either. Does it pair better with food? While Alley 6 Craft Distillery recently paired up with Healdsburg's Brass Rabbit restaurant to serve maple-glazed pork sliders with barrel-aged Old Fashioneds, that's far from the mark, as well.
"The basic definition," explains Spirit Works Distillery co-founder Ashby Marshall, "is that we bring in whole grains and mill, mash and distill that entirely on site. It's a brewery and a distillery."
All whiskey is made from a grain mash, which is fermented either as a soupy "wash" similar to the way beer is made, or as a sort of boozy porridge, and then heated and distilled into a liquid of usually 80 percent alcohol by volume (abv) or less (while vodka can also be made from grain, whiskey is not vodka aged in oak—vodka must be distilled to 95 percent abv or higher). And it generally ends up in a glass—with the exception of your hardcore, swig-from-the-bottle moments. So why the fussy term that sounds so much like "farm to table," the foodie catch-phrase that's more watered-down than a cheap cocktail?
- THE NOSE KNOWS Alley 6 co-founder Jason Jorgensen samples his wares.
Because not all craft spirits are created equal. Many, in fact, are created in Indiana. Some purported California "craft" distilleries purchase bulk whiskey—much of it from a giant facility in Indiana that churns out a large proportion of the nation's whiskey—and only store and bottle it here.
Despite a 2015 settlement that stymied Iowa-based Templeton Rye's efforts to market a "small batch" product of said facility, statements like "handcrafted" have about as much substance as words like "natural" or "sustainable."
"Labeling in the spirits industry is, unfortunately, the least regulated aspect of the industry," Marshall laments, regarding the "craft" word. "The word can be tossed around without any implications at this point."
There is nothing wrong with blending outsourced whiskey, which is what respected brands like Bulleit do, while aging bourbon in wine barrels that held Zinfandel and Pinot Noir, like Sonoma's Prohibition Spirits does with its Hooker's House series (they call it "Sonoma-style").
And yet there's this: the top vote-getter in the Bohemian's whiskey tasting comes from a tiny Healdsburg outfit that was almost not included because I'd lumped it together, after a brief read of the label, with another critter-labeled craft whiskey from that same town, but which is not grain-to-glass.
Like most distillers I talked to, Alley 6 co-founder Jason Jorgensen is diplomatic when speaking about fellow craft entrepreneurs. "I don't think it affects us that much," Jorgensen says. "We're so damn boutiquey!"
It takes from 75 to 90 hours to produce 100 gallons of Alley 6 whiskey, from mashing through distilling, and then it's aged a minimum of nine months. "Then again, some people buy on the dollar value," Jorgensen allows, "and the bulk tends to be cheaper than the hand-crafted product."
When I first visited Griffo Distillery in Petaluma's light industrial "maker district," Jenny Griffo was hammering at a grain hopper to keep the mill going, while her husband, Mike, tinkered with the copper pot still. They're clearly making booze by hand, and they want their operation to be as transparent as the tasting room window that looks out into the cluttered production area, but they're concerned that their efforts could be lost on consumers amid the welter of craft brands.
- BARRELS OF FUN Spirit Works’ head distiller Lauren Patz helps the Sebastopol whiskey maker through each step: milling, mashing and distilling.
"Even if it looks like craft," says Jenny Griffo, "most of them are just marketing people."
It does a disservice to the category, her husband adds during a later visit, if there are a hundred bottles on the shelf but they're all from the same source. "It really does matter where it's produced," Mike Griffo asserts.
He cites a UC Davis study that analyzed chemical signatures in various whiskeys. The clusters of similarity, it turned out, had less to do with different styles, like bourbon or rye, than the specific distilleries they came from. It's a good, empirical argument for grain-to-glass, Griffo says.
"It's not necessarily the most economically intelligent route to go down," says Marshall of their approach at Spirit Works. "But for us, it's definitely worth it in the flavor and the quality of the spirit." It isn't just aging, or even distillation, but it's hands-on control of the fermentation itself that's crucial to the ultimate flavor of the spirit.
Distillation may seem like a radical removal process—only a tiny fraction of the original grain mash travels with the stiffly alcoholic vapors down the copper "swan's neck" of Spirit Works' hybrid whiskey still. Marshall says that, flavor-wise, it's just the opposite.
"You can say that a still is a magnifier. If you have a great fermentation, that will be magnified in the spirit. But if you have a funky fermentation, it will come through in the spirit."
How do you know a craft-spirits company is making its own, just by reading the label? It's confusing if you've got the same exercise down cold with wine: whereas "produced and bottled by" means that a wine is, indeed, fermented at the named winery, it isn't the same with spirits, where a whiskey that's "distilled and bottled by" the producer is the real deal. "Distilled" trumps "produced."
Some distillers are catholic on the issue, mixing purchased whiskey with their own spirit, as Brendan Moylan does with his bourbon at Moylan's Distilling in Petaluma. In Graton, Purple Wine & Spirits is quietly amassing both purchased and house-made hooch. Although Moylan's is among Sonoma County's oldest distilleries, it is also run a bit under the radar.
Not so Sonoma County Distilling Company of Rohnert Park, which is stepping out with a tasting set of its "West of Kentucky" bourbons in 200-milliliter bottles that boldly declares, "This is California's bourbon." Savvy marketing and making an appeal to both regional identity and small-batch, craft production? Check and check—and all true to their word. Cheers to that.