Gins, vodkas and distilling the distinct taste of California

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These days, it seems like there are craft brewers in every city in California, batching up hoppy IPAs, crisp lagers, and dark-chocolate stouts.

But as the market for local beer becomes more saturated, and the novelty of the industry wears off, some are wondering: What’s the next up-and-coming, trend-setting drink?

Make room for something a bit stronger; local bourbons, vodkas and gins.

Take the Good Lion Bar in downtown Santa Barbara. It’s usually packed on a Friday night with 20- and 30-somethings drinking craft cocktails.

“I don’t recognize most of the the names,” says 25-year-old Camille Fenton as she checks out the bottles of liquor behind the bar. “The one that was weirdest to me was the vodka made in Sonoma. I know the best vodkas are made in Russia but I would be open to trying ones made in California.”

Like Fenton, more and more people are open to trying local spirits. In 2005, there were only about 10 craft distilleries in the state. Now, there are nearly 80.

The industry has seen a particular boom in just the past couple of years. One recent study estimated that nationally, craft distiller’s sales went up about 35 percent between 2014 and 2015. 

Ventura Spirits co-founders Henry Tarmy and Anthony Caspary. Photo: Jonathan Bastian (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Located in the basement of an steely industrial complex, Ventura Spirits, a micro-distiller in the city of Ventura, is a two-man operation. Fresh vodka circulates through a pot still. Strawberries grown in the Central Coast are piled in dozens of waist-high plastic barrels.

Photos: Ventura Spirits (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Co-founder Henry Tarmy says the strawberries weren’t fit for store shelves, but were perfect for making liquor. “It couldn’t make it to the shelf, which is a great place for us to step in as a distillery because we don’t care how the strawberry looks. We just need the sugar from it.”

Working with local ingredients is what Tarmy believes separates Ventura Spirits from larger, corporate producers.

Instead of just trying to make bourbon that tastes like a Kentucky bourbon, or a vodka that tastes like Russian vodka, they want to make a spirit that tastes like Ventura.

“It’s more interesting to try create new flavors, and the obvious way to do that is to root our approach to distilling closely in the region that we are in,” he says.

Henry Tarmy shows off his latest foraged finds, which he’ll incorporate into spirits. Photo: Jonathan Bastian (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The clearest example is a spirit they make called Wilder Gin. They walk out into the neighboring hillside to collect ingredients, picking naturally growing sages and herbs like California bay laurel and Yerba Santa. Then, they add it to the drink.

But, can you really taste these specific local flavors in a 90-proof gin? The Good Lion’s bar owner Brandon Ristaino thinks so. 

“You absolutely can. The Wilder Gin tastes like a California hike on the Central Coast.”

Brandon Ristaino owns the Good Lion, a craft cocktail joint in downtown Santa Barbara that frequently uses local spirits. Photo: Jonathan Bastian. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Ristaino has seen the spirit and cocktail world transform in the last 20 years. In the mid-90s, he says bartenders rarely worked with local ingredients, juices, or syrups – let alone alcohol.  

“The rise of craft distilleries goes hand in hand with the focus on seasonal, local ingredients across the country and the world,” he says. “Local and seasonal foods taste better. And the spirits, if they’re being produced in a similar way with similar philosophies, then you’re going to get a great taste profile.”

e5078c33-7ece-4e17-a583-43d538045f07Even with recent momentum, craft distillers only occupy 1 to 2 percent of the larger spirits market. In comparison, craft brewers occupy around 10 percent.

But there’s been some recent good news for distillers here in California.  In the past, these distilleries had to sell their products at lower prices to liquor distribution companies, which in turn sold them to liquor stores.

Just last year, the state legislature passed a bill allowing craft distillers to sell directly to consumers. Cutting out the middle man means the distilleries can sell bottles at higher prices.

On top of that, they will also be allowed to open up public tasting shops.

As common as it is to sip drinks at a California winery or brewery, it may become just as common to talk terroir at a California craft distillery.