California is known for a lot of things. Some of them are pretty good (San Francisco, The Beach Boys, craft beer); some aren’t so great (Hollywood, bankruptcy, Kim Kardashian). Whatever comes to your mind when you think of California, I’m guessing it isn’t whiskey. After all, the American whiskey reputation has been snatched up by Kentucky, Tennessee mostly. But this unfortunately leaves some great whiskey action happening right here in California that needs more attention.
Full disclosure: I’m a California-dweller (San Francisco to be exact) and am very much in love with my state. Maybe it’s for that reason that I thought it was important to bring the spotlight over here for a second.
I’ve had the opportunity to learn about some really cool distilleries and whiskeys coming out of the Sunshine State recently and thought I’d spread a bit of the love around. “We certainly have the knowledge here because of the number of Scots who settled here and have brought their skills with them. Rye and bourbon were originally made by Scots and Irish immigrants,” says Phil Elwell, from Ye Olde King’s Head pub in Santa Monica, a whiskey haven for southern Californians. The west coast is known for its wine and beer, which is precisely why many believe locally distilled whiskey is also catching on. For some, it seems like California is ripe for such a movement, which is why it’s achieved a few drams of success – “People in California have grown up with wineries and microbreweries so they are already receptive to craft whiskeys,” says Elwell. What you can find here are whiskeys with very distinct personalities, whiskeys you don’t find anywhere else.
St. George Whiskey
Jorg Rupf comes from a line of eau-de-vie distillers in Germany. Lance Winters has a brewing background, which is what did before coming to St. George in 1995. Together they run St. George’s Distillery.
St. George’s distillery is on the same premises as that of Hangar One Vodka, which is in an isolated airplane hangar in the old Alameda Naval Air Station. Rupf and Winters bring certain beer techniques to their whiskey. For example, St. George uses a mixture of the toasted malts on their whiskeys that lend a rich, dark color to porters and stouts; they’re the only West Coast distillers to do so. Some say this is why their whiskeys have such striking fruit aromas that make it so distinctive. Their Bourbon barrels also contribute to their signature fruitiness.
They are also known to use smoked malts – smoked over hardwoods like beech and alder. The product of their collaboration is like no other whiskey ever — it has a rainbow of sweet fruit and flower aromas you can scarcely believe come from grain, and an amazing smoothness on the palate. Yes, it’s a single malt. Or, the “whiskey that wants to be a whisky” (2).
St. Helena, CA
Charbay is known for it’s high-end brandies and eau-de-vie and produced near Napa Valley. More recently they got into the whiskey business and started to get wild. When deciding how to build a great whiskey, they had a rather radical idea – embracing hops at a new level, featuring it in a similar way as some American beers. This, combined with aging in American White Oak barrels, creates a unique flavor profile. Charbay Double Barrel Hop-Flavored Whiskey is impressive. Its aromas are vegetal – like grass and hay – and has a bitter finish (props to the hops). Heady, dry-grass aromas. More recently, Charbay has announced R5 Aged Whiskey, which is a new experimental whiskey distilled not directly from grain, but from Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA Beer, typically known to please very strong hoppy-beer fans across the west coast. It’s then aged for 22 months in French Oak.
San Francisco, CA
In true American fashion, Fritz Maytag, the founder of Anchor, wanted to rediscover the way whiskey was originally made in America, the same kind George Washington used to make – 100% rye, sold straight from the still without barrel aging. He calls it “Old Potrero Straight Rye Whiskey”.
However, laws that still linger in America after Prohibition don’t allow him to sell it without aging it (which surprised me), like he originally planned. He does release one version aged for only two years – but he’s not allowed to call it “whiskey” due to California laws, and settles for “spirit” instead.
Another version he makes is aged three years in charred Bourbon-type barrels. In a tasting panel conducted by the LA Times, it was said that Old Potrero’s aroma is reminiscent of brandy-based liquer such as B&B. When water is added, notes of fresh hay come front and center.
Old Potrero Straight Rye Whiskey
Nose: Very smoky and Scotch like. Old leather and molasses with a hint of Alspice.
Taste: Molasses, spice. A bit of vanilla and leather. Finish: Very sweet molasses and spice that lingers for a minute and then simply becomes a bit smokey.
*tasting notes from Bourbon Enthusiast
Perhaps it’s because California doesn’t have a strict whiskey tradition to limit experimentation, or maybe it’s thanks to typical California craziness, but it needs to be noted that there are unique and seriously interesting whiskeys being created right here in the Sunshine State. After all, if we elected this guy to be governor, isn’t anything possible?