The Bay Area remains on the leading edge of many innovations, and not just in technology and culture. Our food and drink communities have long set national trends.
But besides their unique and sometimes-never-before-seen expressions, the thing we love most about the newest craft spirits being developed by local distillers is that personal histories and environmental impact are often at the heart, whether it's a father/daughter duo bringing the stories of Oaxaca's unsung mezcaleros to the forefront or a certain San Francisco chef (hi, Ravi Kapur!) who's managed to bottle his own multi-ethnicity provenance in a one-of-a-kind botanical spirit.
Here are three small-batch craft spirits that are finding their way into our glasses.
Olehna: A Heritage-Driven Turmeric Spirit From Chef Ravi Kapur
“I've been trying to find my box my whole life. Growing up, back in elementary school, when taking those standardized bubble tests with your #2 pencil, you had to fill out your race/ethnicity—there was never a bubble that captured my identity. My father is Indian, my mother Hawaiian-Chinese, and I grew up with a very Indian name in Hawaii, in a land of mixed-race people. Even there I wasn't easily labeled.”
While visiting Maui for a family funeral in 2018, Kapur realized that, as a restaurant founder, he was in a position to create a spirit that honored his heritage.
“I wanted a libation that had a sense of provenance, something more interesting than vodka, more island vibe than gin, and without the colonial baggage of rum. I knew that turmeric and ginger were canoe plants the Polynesians brought with them when they settled in Hawaii, and I really started thinking about that. Digging into the significance of their voyage, I realized how it was really part of who I was. Then I started to think about putting those flavors, that history, the cultural significance of those ingredients, into a spirit.”
The result is Olehna, a play on the word 'olena, Hawaiian for turmeric. It’s the first distilled spirit to capture fresh turmeric's earthy aroma and visual essence along with a juicy nip of ginger. A botanical spirit, Olehna is crafted by hand in small batches by Treecraft Distillery on Treasure Island.
Kapur says he prefers a splash of the spirit on the rocks, but offers a martini recipe for people who want to sample the spirit in a more familiar form:
Recipe: Olehna Martini
2 ounces Olehna
2 ounces dry vermouth
Stir Olehna and vermouth over ice, strain into coupe, and garnish with a lemon twist
// Olehna ($38 to $45) is available at retailers including Bi-Rite Market and restaurants including Rich Table, The Progress, Mister Jiu's, and Good Good Culture Club; olehna.com.
Catedral de Mi Padre: A Family-Run Celebration of Oaxacan Mezcaleros
Mezcal is deeply ingrained in Mexican culture; by definition, the spirit can be made only in Mexico. But because the production of artisanal mezcal is so labor-intensive and thus small-scale—and because the import and licensing hurdles are so high—it can be nearly impossible for a craft mezcal distiller in a remote pueblo to sell their own product in the U.S.
After living in Oaxaca for many years, San Francisco father/daughter duo Jeff Block and Sydney Block have set out to showcase some of the mezcaleros whose families have been distilling mezcals for generations; their personal stories are integral to the Blocks' new mezcal label, Catedral de Mi Padre. In a unique twist, those same mezcaleros are equity partners in the family-focused brand. The team has also partnered with an Oaxacan botanist to help make their agave crops more sustainable.
Catedral de Mi Padre currently offers six mezcal expressions each made by a different mezcalero. Most drinkers find mezcal made from the Espadin agave to be the most approachable. The Espadin made for Catedral de Mi Padre is smooth and bright with pineapple and grapefruit notes, great alone or mixed with plain soda as a summer refresher.
Catedral de Mi Padre also has a mezcal made from the relatively rare Mexicano agave. Even rarer than the varietal is the mezcalera who makes it: Adela del Carmen Cruz Antonio, is in her early 20s and has been making mescal with her father since she was 11. Her Mexicano mezcal has a deep minerality combined with a bite of black pepper that can balance out cocktails that include sweet ingredients like tropical fruit and coconut.
// Catedral de Mi Padre mezcals ($60 to $90) are available at Ale's Unlimited and the Jug Shop and in select Bay Area bars and restaurants including The Battery and Tosca Cafe; catedralmezcal.com.
Bespoken Spirits: A More Sustainable Whiskey (and Rum)
(Courtesy of Bespoken Spirits)
Brown liquors like whiskey, brandy, and rum come out of the still as a white spirit and take their color while aging in wooden barrels. The time a spirit spends in any particular barrel is traditionally determined by a master distiller/taster who samples the liquor from each barrel, determines when it has reached the optimum color, aroma, and flavor, and then blends it with other barrels’ contents to assemble a batch for bottling.
Martin Janousek and Stu Aaron—both sustainability entrepreneurs and lifelong whiskey aficionados—argue this process uses much more wood than is necessary, that the spirit which is lost from evaporation through the barrel (called the angels’ share) is wasted, and that the years spent in a barrel aren’t needed. Janousek and Aaron claim their proprietary technology extracts key elements from wood that provide aroma, color, and flavor; manage critical chemical reactions with precision; and produce a less expensive and more sustainable product within days rather than years.
While many in the industry have pooh-poohed their claims, Bespoken Spirits has racked up enough silver, gold, and platinum medals in its first two years to serve as a reserve currency for a small country. Most recently they won a slew of awards from the 2022 San Francisco World Spirits and World Whiskies competitions.
Bespoken currently offers a bourbon, a rye whiskey, a corn whiskey, a Japanese-style whiskey, and a dark rum. Their flagship spirit, and a good one to sample initially, is the straight bourbon. This double-gold winner delivers spicy oak up front and finishes with smooth caramel and burnt orange. It's a fine sipper for chilly Bay Area evenings.
// Bespoken Spirits bottles range $45 to $60 and are available at Bay Area–wide; bespokenspirits.com.