While wine will always be king in the North Bay, suddenly, distilleries are popping up all over, crafting artisanal spirits. No, not moonshine, but hand-blended drinkable delicacies with tasting notes to rival the best Napa Valley Cab or Sonoma Pinot Noir. In a salute to Wine Country, some quaffs are made with grapes, too. Here’s where to go when the spirit moves you.
Hanson of Sonoma Organic Vodka, Sonoma
This family owned company has been crafting small batch vodka from certified organic grapes since 2012, and will open a new distillery in Sonoma this fall. How small batch? Each bottle is hand-stamped and signed. The 80-proof delights come in original, or naturally infused with ginger, mandarin, cucumber, boysenberry, or espresso. While we wait for the new distillery to debut, the resulting crisp, smooth, and crystal clean vodkas can be found at top Bay area bars and restaurants, or retail at shops like Local Cellar or Cask in SF, and Ludwig’s Fine Wines in San Anselmo.
Napa Valley Distillery, Napa
At this chic new tasting and retail salon in Oxbow Public Market, owner Arthur Hartunian explains how to properly taste the small-batch spirits he produces, including single estate Napa Sauvignon Blanc Vodka, Meyer lemon liqueur, plum brandy, and Old Hollywood Ginn. Take a deep breath, exhale, hold your breath, then sip, allowing the liquid to glide across your tongue as you exhale (yes, it takes a little practice). The science of “why” is complicated, but trust us, it dispels the burn and enhances the flavor. The grape brandy gin is distilled with nine different botanicals, and sipped properly, you can discern all the different, magical layers.
Spirit Works Distillery, Sebastopol
No, sloe gin doesn’t involve making the spirit un-quickly. It is the delicious addition of sloe (blackthorn) drupes, which are a small fruit relative of the plum, that makes it unique. You can learn this and more by watching the process in the tasting salon at this new Barlow flagship destination, where giant copper and steel stills work their magic right next to the bar. The grain to glass micro-distillery handcrafts gin, sloe gin, vodka, and wheat and rye whiskeys, with husband and wife team Timo and Ashby Marshall using Timo’s British heritage recipes along with Ashby’s west coast-born palate. The grains are milled on-site, then mixed with flour and hot water to create mash. Yeast is added to the mash to ferment and, after a few days, distilling begins.
Charbay Distillery & Winery, St. Helena
It’s a treacherous drive up skinny, winding Spring Mountain Road in St. Helena, and you have to wonder how they ever got the giant still equipment up the even skinnier, steeper driveway to the rustic winery/still house. It looks like a place you’d expect to find bloodhounds and banjos, but the Karakasevic family has been distilling exquisite, elegant spirits here since 1983. The range is equally impressive, as you taste through vodkas flavored with whole fresh fruit, small-batch whiskey, pure agave tequilas, or port, in concoctions like seasonal blood orange and ruby red grapefruit vodkas, a green tea aperitif, Alambic Pot Still Brandy, grappa, Charbay R5 Whiskey made with Racer 5 Beer, and port-style dessert wine fashioned with California grown pomegranates. Even though California state law limits the mountaintop tasting room pours to the wine-based beverages, it’s worth a visit to see where the spirit fantasy begins, too.
The artisanal company is best known for its Limoncello di Sonoma, made with local lemons soaked in high proof distilled grain alcohol and agave sugar. Yet another dreamy drink is the FigCello, made of black Mission fruit blended with citrus, 14 secret botanicals, and a brandy of distilled Wine Country grapes for 30 percent alcohol. It’s delightful, a bit like port, and not overly sweet with beguiling notes of anise (Lady Gaga savored it on a visit to the girl & the fig in downtown Sonoma in 2012). A tour of the downtown Sonoma distillery unveils how it all comes together, and tempts with extras like brandy, grappa, Sugar Daddy rums, or eau di vie.