06 May Sonoma Magazine – Forget the Wine, It’s Whiskey Time!
It used to be that if you wanted a wee dram of whiskey in Sonoma, you’d drink one from a far-flung, romantically removed place such as Scotland or Ireland, or a domestic Kentucky bourbon or Tennessee sippin’ whiskey. But, as a new generation of spirited folks has met the challenge, you can now add Sonoma to the list of world-class distillers of whiskey.
“Sonoma is a perfect spot for making whiskey,” said Adam Spiegel of Sonoma County Distilling in Rohnert Park. “We are in an area known for great food, wine and beer. We are also coastal and that allows for a damn-near-perfect barrel-aging environment, as it’s hot during the day, drops to a nice cool temperature at night, and with very low humidity. It helps produce great wine and also helps us make great whiskey.
“We have access to Lake Sonoma water and Cobb Mountain spring water,” he added. “Nowadays, we are using many California-grown, organic grains and the sky’s the limit on the effect they will have on our already-top-tier product. We get a sense of place from where the barrels live, where the mashes are made, and the water we use.”
In its simplest form, whiskey involves mashing (steeping) some type of grain and fermenting it into beer, according to Dave Broom, author of “The World Atlas of Whisky.” The beer is distilled and then aged in barrels.
Broom adds, however, that the variations on these simple principles of whiskey-making have never been greater, with distillers around the globe questioning why they should conform to what has been handed down.
This means a world of experimentation is going on right now, with whiskeys being made not only from rye, corn, barley or wheat, but also oats, spelt and quinoa. Barleys are being toasted at different levels to produce different flavors. Malts are being smoked not only over peat, but perhaps also nettles or sheep manure. In the process of fermentation, ale and wine yeasts might be in play.
Though Scotland dominates the whiskey world with its single malts, rye whiskey was once America’s favorite. But Prohibition changed its fortunes as people discovered bourbon, which, sweeter and stronger, gave them more illicit bang for their buck. Today, we like it all and the distilleries we highlight here are, in many instances, making a range of whiskeys.
Spirit Works Distillery
A grain-to-glass operation within Sebastopol’s The Barlow, run by husband-and-wife team Timo and Ashby Marshall, Spirit Works does everything in-house, from milling the grain to creating the mash to distilling its gin, vodka and sloe gin on-site and aging some of the gin in barrels. It began releasing the first of its whiskeys this year, a Straight Rye Whiskey and
Straight Wheat Whiskey. The wheat is grown in the Sacramento Valley and the whiskey given two years in charred, new American white oak barrels, while the rye is similarly aged. The tasting room is open Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a charge of $18 for six tastes. Or book online for a distillery tour, Friday through Sunday, at 4 p.m., concluding with a tasting ($20).
Spirits Works Straight Wheat Whiskey, $65
Notable characteristics of this whiskey include tobacco and butterscotch, with softer nuances of walnut, stone fruit, tea and caramelized sugar. This is one to enjoy in cocktails such as the distillery’s Nutty Professor, a mix of the whiskey, lemon juice, walnut liqueur, simple syrup and an optional whisk of egg white.