Northern California is heralded for its wines, but a growing number of craft distilleries are giving the world's most famous spirits-makers a run for their money.
When it comes to whiskeys, Scotland and Kentucky may corner the market, but there are some damn fine bourbons and ryes coming out of this region—and, no surprise, with a uniquely Californian twist. Leave it to makers in the Bay Area and Wine Country to focus on small-batch, handmade techniques, coastal terroir, and sustainability in order to produce original Californian whiskies that are raking in awards and gaining a devoted following.
Check out eight distilleries in Northern California that are making waves in the whiskey world.
Jettywave Bourbon: Coastal Spirit From Half Moon Bay
(Courtesy of @jettywavehmb)
The newest distillery of the bunch, Jettywave opened its Half Moon Bay location in May 2021 with an emphasis on its botanical Coastal Gin, which quickly racked up high honors from Sunset magazine, who named it "Best of the Best" in 2022. Today, Jettywave also puts out a small-batch bourbon.
Made with 80 percent sweet corn and 20 percent malted barley, both organic and sourced in Northern California, this bourbon is also the product of a sustainable ethos. The team uses water from the Little Yosemite Valley; the distillery was built with reclaimed wood; and like many of the distillers on this list, Jettywave sends it leftover grains to farmers to be used for feed.
Jettywave also embraces is location a block from the beach near Pillar Point Harbor, fermenting the grains in redwood tanks for over a week in a process they call “fog fermentation,” allowing the coastal climate to influence the whiskey. If you want to get the taste of the bourbon before it’s aged, their Half Moon Shine is smooth and light.
Jettywave whiskey is currently only available on its website and at the distillery, which is well worth a visit for its sunny beach town vibes, nautical-themed bar, and a robust menu of food, cocktails, beer, and wine. // Open Friday through Sunday and first Thursday nights; 155 Broadway (Half Moon Bay),jettywave.com
Spirit Works Distillery: Grain to Glass Whiskies in Sebastopol
Making whiskey is often a long game: Spirit Works Distillery's latest batch of whiskey, made this spring with heritage corn, won’t be ready for at least a couple of years. But the Sebastopol distiller, which was named Distillery of Year in 2020 by the American Distilling Institute, has plenty of whiskey to enjoy in the meantime.
Founded in 2012 by husband-and-wife Timo and Ashby Marshall, Spirit Works embraces a grain to glass philosophy. They mill, mash, ferment, distill, age, and bottle everything onsite at The Barlow. (Timo hails from a family of gin distillers in England.) Since rolling out their original Straight Wheat Whiskey made with organic red winter wheat from the Sacramento Valley, the team has expanded with several new varieties including the Straight Rye and a Four Grain Bourbon that’s best enjoyed neat.
Spirit Works also releases limited bottlings quarterly, and offers cocktail kits with enough ingredients to make 12-15 drinks. Try their San Francisco Summer (rye whiskey, sloe gin, and aromatic bitters) for a play on a Manhattan. // Open Wednesday through Sunday; The Barlow, 6790 McKinley St #100 (Sebastopol),spiritworksdistillery.com
St. George Spirits: The Bay Area's OG Craft Distiller
(Courtesy of @stgeorgespirits)
We all know it and love it: When this Northern California distillery was founded in the Bay Area in 1982, it was one of less than two dozen craft distilleries in the entire United States. While the distiller's iconic tasting room in an Alameda Naval airplane hangar has not reopened to the public since Covid (head distiller Dave Smith says reopening is in the works), St. George's diverse portfolio of spirits is widely available for partaking.
St. George released its debut whiskey in 2000 after three years of aging; today the distiller has four whiskeys in its offering. Their Lot Series single malt is different each year with Lot 23 set to be released this fall. One of his "favorite things in the universe," Smith says “each release should be akin to visiting an old friend who has a few new stories to share.” Even more limited was the release of St. George's 40th anniversary single malt; only 1,982 bottles were made.
The distiller's Baller Single Malt Whiskey is easier to find in stores. It’s a bold and smoky whiskey made with 100 percent American barley and finished in casks previously used to hold umeshu, a Japanese stone fruit liquor. It was designed to be enjoyed in a highball. Their Breaking & Entering American Whiskey is a blend of rye, barley, wheat, and corn that has notes of dark chocolate, nuts, and spice. // 2601 Monarch St (Alameda),stgeorgespirits.com
Griffo Distillery: A Couple' Labor of Love in Petaluma
If you sign up for the $30 Griffo Distillery tour and tasting, you’ll get to see Betty at work: This 320-gallon copper pot still is where much of the booze-making magic happens. Michael and Jenny Griffo opened the distillery in Petaluma in 2015. Behind the scenes, they attribute Michael’s background in physics to driving the quality of their whiskeys—that, and the local grains they source whenever possible, which are later recycled to area pig farmers.
Griffo offers a range of whiskies. The Stony Point Whiskey is a best seller, but you can also sample unique offerings like a white whiskey, which is just barely touched by oak before being bottled; a stout barreled whiskey with flavors of coffee and chocolate; and a limited-edition rye whiskey with a rich flavor that’s great in a Manhattan.
Try a flight, cocktail, or artisanal chocolate pairing in the barrel room, then take a popular cocktail kit home. // Tasting bar is open Thursday through Sunday; 1320 Scott St Suite A (Petaluma), griffodistillery.com
Venus Spirits: Wayward Whiskies in Santa Cruz
A Wayward Whiskey flight with chocolate torte pairing.
(Courtesy of @venusspirits)
In Santa Cruz, Venus Spirits' coastal location plays a vital role in developing the flavors in the whiskey. Aged in a steel building, the whiskeys heat up throughout the day, drawing the liquor into the wood of new charred American Oak barrels. At night, the cool coastal air pulls it back out. The whiskey is fermented onsite and double distilled via hand-pounded copper alembic stills. Venus Spirits has three varieties in its Wayward Whiskey lineup: rye, bourbon, and single malt, plus limited edition releases available once or twice a year.
Founder Sean Venus says the bourbon is the brand's most approachable for drinkers looking to develop a palate. He recommends sipping the single malt neat or paired with some chocolate. Lindsay Eshleman, who runs the Venus cocktail classes, likes putting the Wayward Single Malt or special release peat whiskey in coffee with brown sugar and whipped cream.
You can watch the distillery in action through windows in the restaurant, or take a distillery tour with a guided tasting for $25 on weekends. // Tasting room closed Mondays;200 High Road (Santa Cruz),venusspirits.com
Alley 6: An Experimental, Family-Owned Distillery in Healdsburg
When Krystle and Jason Jorgensen founded their small-batch distiller in Healdsburg in 2012, they started with a rye whiskey that has gone on to win more than half a dozen awards. But we like this craft producer for its adventurous spirit: Now in their seventh iteration of an experimental single malt whiskey, they've hit the sweet spot with what head distiller Jason describes as if “a Highland whiskey and Irish whiskey had a baby.” Made with 100 percent malted barley from Heidelberg, Germany, it’s distilled in copper alembic pot stills and aged at least 18 months in charred American white oak barrels.
In addition to whiskeys, Alley 6 offers peach brandy, barrel aged gin, and coffee liqueur. And inspired by Jason's love of foraging, they even make locally foraged candy cap mushroom bitters, whose unique maple-y, umami flavor is great in an Old Fashioned.
Do take a closer look at the bottles' labels: Each one is illustrated by Jason’s mom and includes a fanciful story about the inspiration behind the booze. // Tastings are $15, Thursday through Sunday;1401 Grove St., Unit D (Healdsburg),alley6.com
10th Street Distillery: Easy-Drinking California Whiskies
(Courtesy of @10thstreetdistillery)
While some distilleries diversify with other spirits, San Jose's 10th Street Distillery has a one-track mind for crafting great American single malt whiskey. Cofounders Virag Saksena and Vishal Gauri are making whiskies that reflect a California vibe. For Saksena, this means making an easy drinker with a lot of character.
Despite the name (a nod to the distillery's original location), the barrels, custom copper pot stills, and tasting room are now housed at an address on Fourth Street. Tastings include a half-dozen whiskies. On offer here is STR Single Malt made with non-peated malt barley; the Distiller’s Cut and peated whiskeys; and a California Coast blended whiskey brings together 10th Street's Distiller’s Cut and STR with light whiskies from Indiana to make an extra-easy drinking, refreshing whiskey. // Open Friday and Saturday;442 N 4th St (San Jose),10thstreetdistillery.com
Barber Lee Spirits: Balanced Whiskeys With Sustainable Roots
In downtown Petaluma, Barber Lee Spirits—a grain-to-glass distiller with winemaking pedigree—has been focused on doing things the sustainable way since 2017. All spirits here are hand-crafted from start to finish with minimal technology; leftover grain is sent to farmers for feed; and the bottles' labels are made by a local artist out of scrap leather.
Each batch of rye and bourbon has its own characteristics, designed to let the beauty and flavor of the ingredients shine. As Lorraine Barber puts it, the team is going for “balance, not bite.” Their flagship whiskey is a 100 percent malted rye (the un-aged rye is available as moonshine); their bourbon is made from organic Hopi blue corn. Barber Lee is produces apple brandy, absinthe, and rum.
The tasting experience ($18) is well worth it for a chance to sample three spirits plus an inventive seasonal cocktail like the savory Pistols at Midnight (bourbon, coffee, activated charcoal, and homemade honey miso syrup). // Open Wednesday through Sunday;120 Washington St (Petaluma),barberleespirits.com