With wine country ever growing, brew culture thriving, and America’s fruit basket ripe and productive, it’s no surprise that California provides an ideal habitat for the craft distilling industry. Over the past few years, spirits makers across the state have been concocting ambitious gins, whiskeys, and other liquors that feature locally grown ingredients and evoke the state’s bold character. Here are some of our favorite liquid refreshments.
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In the face of wildfires or COVID-19, Sebastopol’s Spirit Works put out a stunning four-grain bourbon in 2020. Under the leadership of married cofounders Ashby and Timo Marshall as well as head distiller Krystal Goulart, the distilling team combined four organic ingredients—corn and wheat from the Sacramento Valley, Canadian rye, and midwestern barley—to produce a whiskey that’s sweet, spicy, and vibrant.
Newly launched Optimist Botanicals satisfies the growing demand for social libations that don’t contain alcohol. Each bottling takes inspiration from a place in California, like Smokey, which pays homage to the High Desert with a bittersweet mix of Lapsang souchong, oranges, baking spices, turmeric, and habanero, among other botanicals.
Brandy makers have long utilized the fruits of local vineyards, but Bertoux offers a modern, energetic alternative to the stuffy brandies of the past. A lively blend of three-to-seven-year-old brandies mostly from colombard grapes, and finished with a dosage of floral muscat brandy, Bertoux shines as the base of classic cocktails. Since its premiere in 2018, it’s become a staple at bars across the country.
As an avid home brewer, navy vet Sean Hallman developed enough nerdy expertise in malt, specialty grains, and yeast to create remarkable whiskeys. To fit distilling into a schedule full of civilian naval work, Hallman now partners with his wife, high school teacher Lisa Ireland, at Shadow Ridge to produce a handful of robust whiskeys, like this buzzy rye. The couple are a prime example of the entrepreneurial spirit and hustle that power California micro-distilleries.
Every place has a terroir, even the big city. Master distiller and cofounder Morgan McLachlan of Amass uses California bay leaf, cascara sagrada, mushrooms, and other botanicals to re-create the flavors of Los Angeles in her dry gin. It’s citrusy and verdant, with hints of cacao and cardamom.
It’s amazing that a state so overrun with grapes doesn’t produce more fortified wines. T.W. Hollister & Co. helped rectify that in 2019, creating two vermouths from plentiful resources around Santa Barbara, like artemisia and green coffee beans from nearby farms, hummingbird sage from Hollister Ranch, and Ojai blood oranges. Macerated into a blend of white wine from Santa Ynez and unaged California brandy, these elements help create a red vermouth that’s elegantly balanced between fruity and herbal.
At nearly 40, St. George is the elder statesman of the new generation, but the old dog keeps showing off new tricks, like the Baller Single Malt Whiskey, which earned cult fame when it dropped in 2016. The 100 percent American barley whiskey is aged in French-wine and bourbon casks, then finished in umeshu barrels (umeshu is a Japanese liqueur made from ume fruit, which St. George sources from local Japanese American farmers). The single malt has a nutty, sweet character, somewhere between sherry and stone fruit.•