Napa and Sonoma bring to mind rolling hills and valleys covered in vines and tasting rooms and restaurants where wine flows freely. But there’s more to the New World’s first landmark wine country than wine. Craft, or essentially small batch, distilleries are cropping up throughout the region, just as they are all around the country, and business is booming.
Whiskies are indeed the mainstay at Sonoma County Distilling Company in Rohnert Park, a distillery owned by Adam Spiegel, who trained with the great French master distiller and California distilling pioneer Hubert Germain-Robin.
For this new “7 questions for…” episode, Adam Spiegel agreed to answer some questions about his personal project… And American whiskey!
Sonoma Rye Whiskey
“Our cornerstone spirit, Sonoma Rye Whiskey, starts with a unique, 100% rye mashbill, relying on traditional techniques like direct-fire alembic stills and hand separation, overseeing production from grain to glass. Aged in new charred American oak barrels and finished in old wood, this whiskey features hints of vanilla, allspice, and white pepper. The final product is the result of the hard work of our intelligent, dedicated team who proudly ignore modern trends in the pursuit of a new legacy steeped in the old ways here at Sonoma County Distilling Company.’
2nd Chance Wheat Whiskey
“Promoting the lighter side of the darker spirits, our 2nd Chance Wheat Whiskey presents a typically forgotten grain as the pivotal player in this bright, smooth whiskey. A foundation of unmalted wheat is paired with malted rye that is then twice direct-fire distilled, implementing traditional 16th century techniques to create an experience reflective of our coastal heritage to achieve a gentle, welcoming profile for an easy to enjoy spirit.”
West of Kentucky Bourbon
“Our West of Kentucky Bourbon is a nod to those who have crafted this American spirit before us, paying homage to it’s heritage while embracing a distinctly Californian approach. Available for a limited time every year, through a series of formulaic releases, we use traditional techniques to re-imagine what a bourbon can be, creating a smooth, flavorful experience that can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or in your favorite bourbon cocktail.”
Hi Adam, first of all, could you please tell us a bit more about yourself, where do you come from and why did you decide to set up a craft distillery in California?
Thank you for speaking with me. I was born and raised in San Francisco, and I’ve been excited to add, in a small way, to the storied history of the Bay Area. We are California’s only whiskey focused distillery and when I started the distillery in 2010, we were the 15th distillery in California post-prohibition. With 60 distilleries now in California and some new laws being changed in our State, California is on track to becoming one of the best states for distilleries in the US. The ever-changing temperature swings of coastal Sonoma were something I wanted to capture, as we demand that in making American whiskey.
Where do you find your inspiration for the Sonoma County products in terms of recipe, packaging etc. ?
We adhere to a very strict moral code in our approach to designing, making, blending, and releasing our whiskeys. For example, as Whiskey Purists, we never add coloring, flavorings, wood chips, synthetic enzymes, or any additives. Flavor is derived from grain, water, yeast, and placed in American oak barrels. Sonoma County is a region known for great food, wine, beer, and we are happy to be a part of it. The region, because of the prestige, demands a level of quality we must constantly reach.
If you had to pick ONE product from your range, which one would it be and why ?
I love all my children equally but I think our Bourbon series is going to be the most interesting thing to track. Bourbon is a style of whiskey made from a mash bill of 51% corn, placed in new charred American oak barrels, and made in the US. What’s so unique about this spirit is the distiller’s choice of secondary, tertiary, or even more grains. Proportionalities of these grains can move the pallet from soft, to sweet, to spicy and that makes the bourbon category very exciting. We make a California bourbon we call our West of Kentucky Bourbon. There are a series of formulas and are right now releasing our Formula #1 which is a Cherrywood Bourbon. It uses a base of corn, has a high rye secondary grain, and uses a malted barley that has been smoked with cherrywood to give it a slight dried maraschino smoke on the finish. Formula #2 will hit Europe next year and that is a Wheated Bourbon, similar to WL Weller/ Pappy. And I hope and expect Formula #3 will land in 2017. Very very exciting stuff and we want to keep the drinkers excited and thinking!
Apart from the Sonoma County Distilling range, do you have a favorite whisky, why ?
I enjoy whiskey but I often drink outside of the category. I love brandy. I LOVE Calvados. I also love drinking to help me dive deep into the drink and taste the subtle nuances of a distillate ONLY copper pot stills can produce. I’ve also traveled to Normandy and I hope to go again next year. It’s these areas that you taste the fallen apple, survey the fields, and understand how and why the product is made. It tastes like that place. I’m working to make whiskey that is as transformative as that.
We all know craft distilling is huge in the US, how would you explain this trend ?
People are looking to make their mark and create something they put their full integrity and passion behind. Because there are now over 850 distilleries in the US, to be honest, there is a lot of crap coming out and too many people are losing sight of why they started these types of businesses…
When did you start exporting and what are your key export markets? Why? How has been the response to your products in Europe (so far) ?
Exporting outside of California and outside of the US was part of my business plan from day one. Not just because I like to travel but because if we did it right, we would fit in with the sophistication of products people expect from our area. We began selling to the UK and France from our second year of business. I figured if we got their before most, we could set the level of quality that all newcomers would be judged against.
How do you see the future for Sonoma County Distilling, any new project in the pipeline?
The future of Sonoma County Distilling is bright but to be frank, I’m unsure exactly where we go from here. Of course, I have dreams and tons of ideas but we are at a turning point in our development. I want to make good whiskey not tons of whiskey. So if I can scale up and continue to make good whiskey, then I will be happy. Please stay tuned. Thank you to our supporters!