Pioneering Craft Distilleries in Southern California are Creating Uniquely Regional Spirits
California has long been home to some of the nation’s best craft breweries including Sierra Nevada, Stone and Ballast Point among others. But recently, a crop of of spirited entrepreneurs are turning their attention to a new frontier: craft distilling.
Recent legal cases against Tito’s Vodka, Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam have brought the practice of labeling a spirit as “handmade” or “craft” under scrutiny. The question of what differentiates a craft spirit from crafty marketing may be something the courts are forced to answer. But two Southern California distilleries, Ventura Spirits and Greenbar Craft Distillery, are blazing a new trail that can be defined as nothing less than artisanal craftsmanship.
When he was just 13 years old, at the age when many young lads were sneaking sips of Dewars from dad’s liquor cabinet, Anthony Caspary built his first working still. Now of legal drinking age, he is one of four co-founders of Ventura Spirits, based in Ventura, California. The company is one of a handful of micro distilleries in California that is using local ingredients to create a line of truly unique, and decidedly California, libations.
The idea or terroir is more commonly associated with wine but Ventura Spirits is proving that even spirits can be true to the place where they are born. Founded in 2011, the four friends set out to start a distillery that “makes use of the stuff that grows here,” according to James Greenspun, the humble yet ebullient co-founder who serves as company spokesperson.
Every Ventura Spirits product features the nondescript line at the bottom of the front label: California Distilled. But that only hints at the lengths these partners go to create their uniquely regional spirits.
The company and its creations are made by hand, quite literally, from the ground-up. The founders pick the native botanicals used in their Wilder Gin from the hillsides that surround Ventura County. And they source the strawberries used in their one-of-a-kind California Vodka from the agricultural surplus of local farmers. All of which is artfully distilled in their 300-gallon hybrid pot still, designed and built from scratch by Anthony.
Since shipping their first case in July 2014, Ventura Spirits has attracted the attention of talented mixologists in Southern California seeking interesting and exotic spirits for their creations. Christiaan Rollich who heads the bar program at A.O.C., one of Los Angeles’ most lauded restaurants, was one of the early fans.
When asked what defines craft, the boys at Ventura Spirits effectively demurred. “The question of craft is a red herring,” says Henry Tarmy, one of Ventura’s co-founders and former land conservation professional. “It cuts both ways because when you say your spirit is so great because we touch it a lot and do it all by hand does not necessarily mean it is a superior product. That just makes it analog and unpredictable. There are a lot of great spirits using processes and ingredients that are not considered ‘craft’ by most people’s definitions.”
So instead of zeroing-in on whether a product is made by hand or in a state-of-the-art booze factory, Tarmy prefers to focus on artistry. In his view, a truly unique spirit is most often created by small, risk-taking distilleries unhindered by market research and focus groups. “They are the true artisans, which is more about honesty than about craft.
The guys at Ventura are also bringing their inventive ways to whiskey making. Rather than take the path well travelled with a typical mashbill of barley, corn or wheat, Ventura is experiementing with a new, environmentally friendly prairie grass known as Kernza. Developed at the Land Institute, Kernza is a perennial wheat alternative developed to thrive without the use of pesticides and can be maintained with minimal energy inputs. And since Kernza is in the ground year-round, it produces a greater lifetime yield than most other grains.
This potential game-changer for the worldwide food system may discover it has more fun on its wildside as a distilled spirit, something its inventors likely never imagined. But don’t expect Ventura Spirits to age this new eco-whiskey in the standard New American White Oak barrels. That would be too easy.
When it comes to label design, each of Ventura Spirits’ creations are as unique as the liquid inside. Rather than try to compete for shelf presence with faux-heritage looking bottles, the team worked with a few local artists to design playful packages that exude a relaxed West Coast vibe. Each bottle stopper is individually branded with one of three iconic California symbols, like the grizzly bear, using a custom heat press.
This unconventional gin tastes like the sweet dust that blossoms off the trail on a hike through the Santa Monica Mountains. Wilder Gin is made with a host of wild-harvested, native California botanicals like sagebrush, purple sage, yerba santa, pixie mandarin peel and chuchupate. The base spirit is infused with dry botanicals at room temperature then re-distilled with a few botanicals that get carried over to the boil for second distillation.
Opuntia Prickly Pear Spirit shares the latin name of the Nopal cactus from which it is made. Its flavor profile is similar to tequila though it is technically an un-aged Brandy. Chewy and full of earthy texture, Opuntia is uniquely rewrding spirit that is vaguely familiar like deja vu. The sun-ripened fresh fruit that forms the structure of the spirit bursts with flavor and reminds the drinker of a casual stroll through the local farmer’s market.
California Vodka is the only vodka in the world distilled from strawberries but it is definitely not one of those sugary, flavored quaffs popular at suburban Bunko parties. This is a real vodka. After the distilling process, the final product remains unfiltered, leaving behind a hint of its fruit origins—a sweet, vanilla-like nose coupled with a smooth velvety texture and faint strawberry essence.
Owners: Anthony Caspary, Andrew Caspary (not pictured above), James Greenspun and Henry Tarmy