We call Sonoma County “wine country”, which is appropriate. But the national popularity of locally owned breweries and the fanatical following for Russian River Brewing’s Pliny the Younger make a case to call it “beer country.” With the addition of Spirit Works Distillery, in Sebastopol’s The Barlow shopping district, is “spirit country” now in play?
Spirit Works Distillery was opened seven months ago by husband-and-wife team Timo and Ashby Marshall. Wife Ashby is the head distiller and Timo brought the family recipe for Spirit Works’ sloe gin – a sweet digestif made with plum-tasting sloe berries – from his hometown village in southwest England. They are currently selling gin, sloe gin and vodka, and have rye whiskey and wheat whiskey aging in barrels for a 2015 release.
We stopped into the distillery’s industrially cool tasting room last week and enjoyed half-ounce tastings with their engaging and incredibly informative tasting room manager, Lauren Patz.
Vodka: While most vodkas hit you like a blast of hot air, Spirit Works’ vodka had a texture that was almost buttery, with a sweetness of vanilla and butterscotch that allowed us to understand why they promote their efforts as sipping spirits. The alcohol is generated from red winter wheat and is distilled only once, which is why it retains so much flavor.
Gin: Spirit Works’ gin is unlike any gin we’ve tasted before, with a spiciness that comes from cardamom and coriander. The gin is made from the distillery’s vodka, which goes back into the still along with botanicals and is re-destilled to pull out the flavors. Other botanicals include juniper, angelica and orris root for earthiness, hibiscus for the floral aspect, and freshly hand-zested orange and lemon.
Sloe gin: There are many misconceptions about sloe gin: That it’s a gin made slowly, that it is best mixed with cherry slush or a spoonful of Tang. But the sloe gin produced by Spirit Works Distillery is a recipe passed down for generations by Timo Marshall’s family, and is a beautiful blush color with a soft sweetness and a touch of acidic “tang.” As far as they know, they’re the only U.S. producers of sloe gin. Sloe berries are blueberry size and come off invasive, briar plants, so no one in the U.S. is ponying up to have a sloeberry patch. Spirit Works hires a forager to harvest the berries in Bulgaria, freeze them and ship them to the U.S.
One thing to note when you walk into Spirit Works Distillery: You will not be walking out with a bottle. Blame the three-tier distribution system, which demands that a distributor and retailer must stand between a producer and its alcohol. Spirit Works has only been able to offer tastings since January with the change of a California law.
Fortunately, Spirit Works’ spirits are sold just one street over, a two-minute walk away at Sebastopol Liquor and Deli. Pick up a bottle of Sonoma County wine while you’re there. It is wine country, after all!