California has opened so many craft distilleries in recent years that some say the state is developing its own style of whiskey, much as it did with wine some decades ago. The jury’s still out on that, but in the meantime, here are six contenders—ranging from around $30 to $80 a bottle—to consider.
Given the similarities between whiskey and beer making, it’s not surprising that many brewers are moving into distilling. This is true of Brendan Moylan, owner of Moylan’s Brewery in Novato. In 2004, he teamed with Stillwater Spirits in Petaluma, and he’s been making award-winning whiskey ever since. The American Single-Malt Whisky is made from 100 percent barley malt, aged in American white oak, and then finished in orange brandy barrels. It’s full of bright citrus, nutmeg, and maple flavors, with a spicy finish. Another tasty option is finished in a port barrel.
If artisanal distilleries are your jam, small-batch operation Alley 6 in Healdsburg has a product line worth savoring. Head distiller Jason Jorgensen and his wife, Krystle Jorgensen, run a tasting room and distillery in a warehouse near the downtown wine hub, where they produce gin, brandy, and whiskey. Every part of the process, from milling to mashing to bottling, is done on-site. You can’t go wrong with Alley 6’s single malt or its rye whiskey, which is aged for a minimum of 18 months in oak barrels, resulting in a peppery, oaky flavor, hints of vanilla, and a fiery kick.
Redwood Empire in Sonoma County is committed to protecting the environment as well as making good-quality liquor. Its Lost Monarch whiskey is named after a 320-foot-tall redwood, one of the biggest trees in the world. The blend of aged bourbon and rye has notes of maple, vanilla, and cloves and a peppery finish. And the company plants a tree for every bottle sold (617,554 at the time of writing).
Howard and Marni Witkin, the husband-and-wife team behind Cali Distillery in Los Angeles County, are reimagining U.S. sipping whiskey to reflect the Southern California lifestyle. This mix of corn-mash bourbon and spicy rye is “relaxed, but sophisticated, with a rugged edge,” according to Wine Enthusiast. It’s smooth and slightly sweet, with hints of vanilla and cinnamon. At 42.5 percent alcohol and around $30 a bottle, it’s made for a casual night with friends or chilling on the couch.
In 1993, following the success of Anchor Brewing, owner Fritz Maytag turned his attention to pot-distilled whiskeys, which weren’t made in the United States at the time—at least legally. Maytag wanted to re-create the original U.S. methods using historically accurate small copper pot stills. The result was Old Potrero, named after the hillside neighborhood in San Francisco where the whiskey is distilled. It’s made from rye mash and has a balanced texture, with a touch of spice.
St. George Spirits in Alameda seems to do little wrong when it comes to distilling, whether it’s gin or fruit brandy or Japanese-style whiskey. Made with 100 percent malted barley, Baller is aged in a series of wood casks, including one that used to hold umeshu, a Japanese plum liqueur. The result is crisp, with sharp plum and mineral notes and a lingering smokiness. It’s a surprising take on Japanese whiskey, similar to scotch and yet, like so many California whiskeys, uniquely itself.