Examiner.com – Best in Craft: Spirit Works Distillery in Sonoma

Examiner.com – Best in Craft: Spirit Works Distillery in Sonoma

There are some exciting things going on down in Sebastopol, Not the one in the Crimea; the one in Sonoma County, California. And not wine (although there’s certainly a great deal of that as well.)

A dynamic and determined husband and wife team, Ashby and Timo Marshall, are building quite a reputation for their micro-distillery operation. They’re making exceptional spirits at Spirit Works Distillery. As they describe it, “British legacy and innovative West Coast style.” He’s the legacy; she’s the style.

It had become obvious that something special was going on down in Sonoma with Spirit Works Distillery. There was an electric buzz going around, and the stories about the charismatic and obsessively driven owners were intriguing. A pilgrimage was in order.

Spirit Works Distillery is located within The Barlow, a cleverly designed ‘mixed use’ combination of industrial park and lifestyle venue. It’s a multi-block area with a distillery, a brewery, a cidery, a top flight restaurant, coffeehouse/roaster, the MacPhail Family Wines Tasting Lounge, and numerous specialty shops. It’s also convenient to access. From Highway 101 in Santa Rosa take Highway 12 west to Sebastopol. Just as you enter Sebastopol, the entrance to The Barlow is on the right.

The distillery is located on the back side of The Barlow, with plenty of parking for visitors. Walk past the sculpture of Bandit the security chief and into the Tasting Room for a warm welcome and gaze in wonder at the splendid masterpiece of a custom-made copper still, fabricated uniquely for SWD to incorporate all the abilities of an alembic pot still, a short column hybrid still, and a tall column rectifying still—all three contained in one operation! The still alone is worth the visit.

If you are of a mind to taste—and you should be here—a new California law allows micro-distilleries to taste consumers on small samples of their products. It’s something of a thrill to taste the products while looking at the still that produced them…and if your timing is good, you can also talk to the distiller during a still run while you’re tasting the wares!

How cool is that?

Although open only three years, Spirit Works already has a wide range of products, thanks to a firm vision of the two owners from the beginning. The quality is impressive.

Spirit Works Distillery Vodka

So many vodkas from which to choose. So many styles from what was always labeled a “neutral spirit,” which was misleading at best and a misnomer at worst. There are always aromas and flavors in vodka. True, the high heat required means that most flavor elements are cooked out in distillation, but state of the art distillation techniques employed with custom-made stills allows greater control of the process than ever before. Spirit Works Vodka is hardly neutral; it is made from Northern California organic hard red winter wheat and goes directly from “grain to glass” at the distillery. It is fragrant and slightly grassy in the nose, full and rounded in the mouth, and deliciously clean and cooling in the finish. Keep it chilled, or simply stashed in the freezer. Ice cold shots with caviar, egg and onion would be perfection itself. The pictured cocktail is The Spyglass, an enticing blend of 2 ounces vodka, .5 ounce dry vermouth and a bar spoon of apricot liqueur. You could also try it in a Mule, with ginger beer and lime, or with grapefruit and salt.

Spirit Works Distillery Gin

Timo, the English-born partner, is proud of his Devon country heritage and he hews to the utterly classic style of “London Dry Gin” handed down my multiple generations of family distillers. If too many cooks spoils the broth, then too many botanicals might diffuse the focus and clarity of the gin. Spirit Works elects to use only eight botanicals: the requisite juniper, orris and angelica root, fruity cardamom, green and citrusy coriander, hand-zested (!) orange and lemon peel and juicy, floral hibiscus.

This is firm, focused and authoritative gin with a hearty botanical fingerprint, ideal for a dry Martini while perfectly capable of standing up to the sturdy ingredients in a Negroni (pictured), with equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth.

Spirit Works Distillery Barrel Gin

To the heady aromatics and flavors of Spirit Works Gin, add the effects of aging for several months in toasted American white oak barrels. You get heavy toast and warm spice suspended in a golden-amber gin laced with sweet vanilla, butterscotch, and toffee.

This is impressive gin, and makes a truly awesome Negroni. You also might want to try it in the pictured recipe, an altogether luscious Bee’s Knees. 2 ounces Barrel Gin, .75 ounce lemon juice, and .5 ounce honey syrup (equal parts honey and water mixed). Careful: they are habit forming.

Spirit Works Distillery Sloe Gin

A treasured part of Timo’s English heritage (he proudly relates the story of his father producing award-winning sloe gin in Devon), he and Ashby make this the old-fashioned country way, about as far from the Americanized concept of industrial “sloe gin”, which is sugary bulk alcohol flavored with chemical formulae that taste artificial and have an acrid flavor underlying the sugar. Spirit Works takes fresh sloe berries (plums) and slowly macerates them in their gin base. The result is a truly stunning lightly sugared and richly flavored liqueur.

It’s beautiful in a Sloe Gin Fizz, all by itself as an after-dinner liqueur, and although the Marshall’s did not mention this, personal experience proves that it is superb with a dunk of rich, mealy Scottish shortbread cookies. Here’s the recipe for a Sloe Gin Fizz: 1.75 oz. SWD Sloe Gin, .75 oz. fresh lemon juice, 1 tsp. superfine sugar, soda water, 1 fresh egg white is optional, but recommended

If using egg white, add Sloe Gin, lemon juice, sugar, and egg white to shaker. Dry shake vigorously. Add ice to shaker and shake well, then strain into a small, chilled Collins glass, and fizz to an inch or so from the top — splash in club soda or seltzer, so that it foams to the top.

Spirit Works Distillery Barrel Reserve Sloe Gin

How to make great even better: take the Sloe Gin and age it for several months in new, charred American white oak barrels. Something truly magical happens and the result is Barrel Reserve Sloe Gin, a positively ethereal transmogrification (you know, that alchemy thing) into a rich, lush, fruit-intense concoction with spicy clove, cardamom and dried orange peel. And it is simplicity itself: only the effect of time, oxygen and oak maturation to work magic.

Mix it with something? Sure. But why, when it is so attractive all by itself? This is nectar.

The bad news is this remarkably tasty stuff is small batch and thus in short supply, currently available only in northern California and at the Tasting Room. Good luck. Trust me, it is worth the search.

Spirit Works Distillery Straight Wheat Whiskey

Take red winter wheat sourced from the nearby Sacramento Valley, do all the sorting, milling, mashing, fermentation and distillation (grain to glass, they call it; although some refer to it as obsessive compulsive control—and that is not a bad thing when you’re making artisanal spirits), then put the distillate in a new, charred American oak barrel for a minimum of two years (required for Straight Whiskey).

Bottle it non-chill filtered to preserve all the natural flavor possible, and you have a delicately amber whiskey that is light and crisp, redolent of black tea, walnuts, fruit and light butterscotch-vanilla with a wisp of smokiness in the background.

Light, bright and bracing, the Straight Wheat is great with in a Nutty Professor (pictured): 1.5 oz. SWD Straight Wheat Whiskey, 1 oz. fresh lemon juice, .5 oz. Walnut liqueur, .5 oz. simple syrup, 1 egg white (optional).
Combine ingredients in cocktail shaker and fill with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with Angostura bitters.

Spirit Works Distillery Straight Rye Whiskey

Ashby and Timo both love their Wheat Whiskey…but one suspects that Timo at least has a special fondness for the Rye. It seems to fit his personality.

This is a big, bold, forthright expression of hearty rye-spice, with cedar and saddle leather (no, really, actually smell the richness of real saddle leather and you’ll understand), cured tobacco, and warm, fragrant, clove-spiced and caramelized baked apple pie. Then pay close attention as it trickles down your throat, when the spice of rye softens to raw honey that seems to linger forever.

A bold whiskey such as this needs a bold cocktail. Try the Monte Carlo (pictured): 2.0 oz. SWD Straight Rye Whiskey, .25 oz. Benedictine, .25 oz. simple syrup, 3 dashes Angostura bitters. Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass, add ice, and stir until cold. Strain over a large ice cube in a bucket or old-fashioned glass. Garnish with lemon twist.

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