Just about everyone knows California produces some of the world’s best wines and craft beers. But along with the Cabernet Sauvignon of Napa Valley and the Double IPAs of San Diego, California also has a growing community of artisanal distilleries making everything from tropical rums to aquavit, a spirit popular in Scandinavia.
On the most recent California Now Podcast, Ryan Friesen, vice president of the California Artisanal Distillers Guild, talks about the rise of Golden State craft distilling. About 200 licensed distilleries now operate in California and the innovative distilling culture is anything but traditionbound. “We’re not beholden to old rules or anything like that, real or perceived,” says Friesen. “We kind of have carte blanche to do whatever we want.”
If you’re looking to visit a distillery, here are some of Friesen’s recommendations.
Malahat Spirits Co., San Diego
About 17 craft distilleries operate in the San Diego area, including Malahat Spirits Co., which is known for its rums. “They’ve got this really neat entry into their distillery, where you kind of feel like you’re walking through crates and hanging ropes. Like you’re on the docks down by the bay. It’s a really cool place, cool experience, and great spirits,” says Friesen.
Drift Distillery, San Clemente
Drift Distillery produces a range of spirits: vodka, gin, rum, and wheat whiskey. Owners Ryan and Lesli Winter like to call their Orange County distillery a “grain-to-bottle operation.” As Friesen explains, “They’re making a wheat whiskey from wheat grown on their family’s farm in Kansas.”
Lost Spirits Distillery, Los Angeles
In Los Angeles’s downtown Arts District, Lost Spirits Distillery takes visitors on a theme park-style adventure that earned honors as the world’s best distillery tour from Drinks International. Equally unique is the Lost Spirits process. Friesen says, “They’re doing a totally different style of manufacturing, which kind of is a big departure from what you’ll find at most other places. They’re actually doing some heat extraction of flavors…it’s kind of rapid aging.”
Sespe Creek Distillery, Oxnard
The founder and head distiller at Sespe Creek Distillery in Oxnard is David Brandt PhD, a biotech industry veteran, whose background informs his innovative distilling. According to Friesen, Sespe Creek is “doing some interesting things where they’re smoking corn and trying to get a smoky flavor into their bourbons that way, which is really unique and different.”
Paso Robles Distillery Trail
Renowned for its wines, Paso Robles also has a vibrant distilling scene with nine operations along the Paso Robles Distillery Trail. Friesen touts Re:Find Distillery and Wine Shine: “Both are making grain-based spirits, like whiskey, but they’re also making spirits based on the fruit of the land, which is the venerable grape…they’re turning that into brandies and all kinds of flavored vodkas.”
Osocalis Distillery, Soquel
Friesen says to “make sure you stop at” Osocalis Distillery, which is near Santa Cruz in Soquel. The distillery uses an antique, 100-gallon alembic still to produce complex, flavorful brandies. “They’re one of California’s oldest distilleries making brandies, grape-based spirits,” says Friesen.
St. George Spirits, Alameda
Describing it as “one of the granddaddies in the industry,” Friesen enthusiastically recommends St. George Spirits near Oakland. The distillery started with fruit-based spirits and now also makes an outstanding single-malt whiskey, as well as gins. “It’s definitely worth the trip out to Alameda, which is on an island. It’s a really, really cool facility on an old military base,” he says.
Napa Valley Distillery, Napa
The first distillery to operate (at least legally) in the city of Napa since Prohibition, Friesen says Napa Valley Distillery has “been doing it for a long time and they’re making some great brandies, and also whiskeys.” You can taste the spirits in a salon that the distillery describes as “one part art deco speakeasy, one part tiki room.”