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Get a Taste of California's Growing Craft Spirits Industry

Jun. 26, 2017

While California is perhaps best known for its renowned wine and craft beer, it is also home to a burgeoning spirits scene. Backed by the state’s strong agricultural blessings, and a host of ambitious producers, boutique distilleries from Napa to San Diego are taking the Golden State by storm. We’ll raise a glass to that!

Here are just a few of the great spirits visitors can try when they visit the Golden State.

Mendocino County
Mendocino County is known for wine, waves and wilderness, but lovers of fine artisan spirits know that some of the best in the world are also found here. The ‘founding father’ of Mendocino County craft spirits is Germain-Robin brandy. President Ronald Reagan was a fan, and the company’s brandies were served at Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball. Today the distillery also produces an array of spirits including a rose liquor, whiskey, gin, vodka and one of the first absinthes allowed in the U.S. Visitors can taste the portfolio at the Caddell & Williams and Germain-Robin Tasting Rooms.

High Sierra
Opening July 2017, Oakhurst Spirits is aiming to become the place locals and tourists come to get a taste of Yosemite. Owner Ally and Michael Benbrook will offer everything from whiskey to limoncello, and plan to team up with local wineries and brewers to create unique local craft cocktails. Visitors can sip their favorite libation while strolling through the on-site gallery featuring local artists, including Ally’s watercolors, take a tour of the distilling facility helmed by Michael, or simply sit down and enjoy music and conversation in the tasting room.

Napa Valley
Located in the heart of wine country, family-owned Napa Valley Distillery embraces its neighbors, crafting its award-winning Napa Vodka with single vintage Napa Sauvignon Blanc. Visitors can sample over a dozen small-batch and limited-release spirits like Old Hollywood Gin and barrel aged cocktails at the new distillery and tasting room in downtown Napa. There is also an outpost at the popular Oxbow Public Market.

With more than a dozen artisan distilleries, travelers can follow the Sonoma County Beer, Wine and Spirits map to the best vodka, gin and whiskey in the area. Husband and wife entrepreneurs Timo and Ashby Marshall use British-born Timo’s family recipe for sloe gin at Spirit Works Distillery in Sebastopol. We can’t give away their secret, but one hint is that they use the traditional method of steeping sloe berries (picked from the coastal hills) in gin. Spirit Works also features California-grown organic red winter wheat as a base for their vodka, gin, whiskey and sloe gin. Tastings and tours are available.

San Francisco
Anchor Distilling Company brought back the past and ushered in the future through its handcrafted spirits. Its Junipero Gin, first released in 1996, began the move towards high-end craft gin in the U.S. Owner Fritz Maytag’s desire to produce rye whiskey like it was done in Colonial times, using pot-distilled techniques, led Anchor to become the first U.S. distillery to use the old-fashioned process. The result was Old Potrero Rye Whiskey, the recreation of America’s original whiskey. Guests can taste the three expressions of the whiskey and other spirits in the onsite tasting room.

They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Try the “medicinal” fruit in a new way by sampling the hard cider, apple brandy and vodkas the Watson family makes at its 160-acre apple orchard and distillery, Indigeny Reserve. Visitors can enjoy a lazy day at the Reserve tasting a variety of hard apple ciders including an organic and blackberry-infused variety, and its certified oak-aged apple brandy. Guests are encouraged to picnic on the bucolic grounds or stroll down one of several walking trails. Tours of the distillery are offered upon request.

Livermore Valley
Prior to Prohibition, spirits were soaring in California, and Livermore Valley was home to some of the best. Today, history is being revived. Sutherland Distilling is open Friday-Sunday for the public to sample bourbons, brandies, rums, vodkas and rye whiskey. The company’s signature Diablo’s Shadow Vodka is named for Mt. Diablo, a mountain that once served as a hideout for moonshiners and bootleggers during prohibition. Today, Sutherland Distilling Company sits at the base of that mountain. Distiller Ryan Sutherland uses non-GMO California corn to craft the 90-proof Diablo’s Shadow.

Santa Cruz
Surf and spirits are up in Santa Cruz at the rustic chic Venus Spirits. Owner Sean Venus, a former craft brewer for Gordon Biersch, uses organic locally sourced ingredients to produce blue agave, aquavit, gin and whiskey spirits. Each spirit starts with recipes using fresh herbs, botanicals, fruit and wheat, and is distilled in hand-pounded copper Alembic Stills. All of their handcrafted spirits have won accolades in a variety of craft spirit competitions. Public tastings are available Friday-Sunday, with special cocktails featured on Fridays.

If you’re going to open the first distillery in Santa Barbara county since prohibition, you better get it right. Steve Gertman, the master distiller and founder of Ascendant Spirits, has done just that. He turned to nearby Goodland Organics Farm to source the caviar limes used in his unique vodkas, and other local produce in his whiskies and gin. The spirits are commandeering attention and accolades, winning gold at the San Francisco Spirits Competition, World Whiskies Awards and Beverage Tasting Institute. Tours (and tastes!) are available.

Santa Barbara
Ian Cutler is the fourth-generation to run Cutler’s Artisan Spirits. The company has weathered wars and prohibition, and grown from speakeasy, to bar, to liquor store and distillery. The strong history helps Ian craft unique spirits like Grandma Tommie’s Apple Pie liquor, which fuses his grandma’s apple pie recipe with a New-Western style gin that blends California citrus, cardamom and elderflower notes with traditional juniper berries. Great Grandfather Duke, who used to make moonshine for the locals, would be proud! Today visitors can taste the unique sprits in the tasting room located in the cool revitalized warehouse Funk Zone neighborhood.

Los Angeles
How could you not want to visit a place that describes itself as a “collection of artists, weirdos and dreamers dedicated to celebrating the fruits and flavors of California through the traditional art of distillation?” Clearly, The Spirit Guild distillery located in the trendy Arts District doesn’t take itself too seriously, but one sip of its Vapid Vodka or Astral Pacific Gin and it’s obvious they take the craft seriously. The distillery, opened in 2012, is located on the site of California’s first commercial vineyards and orange groves. Tours and tastings are available.

Palm Desert
What started as two brothers in a basement making concoctions has grown into Desert Distilling, the only boutique-distilling brand in the Coachella Valley. John and Neil Lotz still rely on quality raw ingredients to produce their award-winning, small-batch vodka, gin and rum. Each bottle is emblazoned with a small hummingbird symbol, “as a reminder to live each moment fully and passionately.” Tours and tastings are available on Friday and Saturdays and Sunday’s by appointment.  

Combine family recipes dating back to the 1700s, an Irish family steeped in distilling, and a modern father and son – both named Billy – and you have the perfect setup for the establishment of Temecula’s first distillery, Kalifornia Distillery. All of the spirits are handcrafted in small batches from locally grown estate ingredients. The company makes bourbon and whiskey, but also some fun moonshines like Peach Pie and Le’moon’ade. The tasting room is open Monday-Friday and visitors will have an opportunity to sample the spirits, enjoy a cocktail or learn more about the family history from Billy…or Billy.

Fun Spirts Fact:

West Hollywood
West Hollywood may not have a distillery to tour and taste at, instead it offers bars and restaurants to taste the spirits created by its celeb residents. Try Drake’s Virginia Black Whiskey or Bruno Mars’s SelvaRey Rum. Or maybe Channing Tatum’s Born and Bred Vodka is more your style? And of course you can never go wrong with a shot of Casamigos tequila founded by George Clooney.