If you’re a fan of craft spirits, it’s been hard to miss the industry’s explosive growth in recent years. Much like the craft brewing scene two decades ago, small-batch distilleries have been popping up all over the country in unprecedented numbers. Driven by increasingly accessible education and resources, as well as a shift towards a more permissive legal environment (thanks in large part to early craft pioneers like Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, OR, St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA, and Koval Distillery in Chicago), these local spirits have become mainstays in bars and liquor stores.
Being based in San Francisco, we at Bevvy have had the privilege of meeting a host of talented distillers throughout the Bay Area and California as a whole, producing everything from bourbon to artisanal rum. So here we’d like to call out some of our favorites—particularly those that are just starting to break out and make a name for themselves. As much as we love the bigger guys, like Ballast Point, Distillery 209, and Spirit Works, chances are you’ve come across their products before.
We also decided to stick with distillers only, as there are so many small brands operating as rectifiers (that is, they purchase distilled spirits and then age, blend, infuse, or otherwise flavor them) that we couldn’t possibly come close to a comprehensive list.
That said, we’d like to give honorable mentions to a few: San Francisco’s Cannella Spirits, who produce an excellent cinnamon cordial (and they’re currently working on a few new offerings as well); Mosswood Distillers in Berkeley, who make truly creative barrel-aged whiskeys and are planning to begin their own distilling operation soon; and Ventura Limoncello, who have been making award-winning limoncellos since 2007.
As for the rest of the list, here are 12 California distilleries to watch (and, hopefully, sip).
This Humboldt County distillery produces a white (unaged) whiskey, sold under the brand name Boldt. They’re quite new, producing their first batch in 2015, but their pedigree is impressive–in 2011, distillers Amy and Steve Bohner traveled to famed Chicago distillery Koval for some intensive training before starting their business in earnest. They’re currently working on a gin based on their whiskey, as well as a barrel-aged bourbon.
Ascendant Spirits was the first distillery to open its doors in Santa Barbara County since the repeal of Prohibition, coming on the market in 2011. They’re probably most famous for their fabulous Breaker Bourbon, but they make a number of other whiskeys, moonshine, vodka, and even a gin.
Do Good Distillery
Do Good Distillery, located in Modesto, is notable for a number of delicious rums and whiskeys (as well as some gorgeous label design). Perhaps most interesting to us spirit geeks, though, is their gin, which uses white rum as its base spirit.
Falcon Spirits, founded by Farid Dormishian in Richmond, produces two excellent modern gins under the brand Botanica Spiritvs. One is distilled from standard neutral grain spirit, while the other uses a barrel-aged brandy as its base. Additionally, they make a wide range of seasonally-released liqueurs.
Much like its northern cousin Clear Creek, Mendocino County mainstay Germain-Robin began specializing in brandies in the early 1980s. They’ve won numerous awards in the decades since, and have a truly impressive range of products that have cemented their place among the legends of California craft distilling.
Malahat Spirits Co.
Malahat Spirits (pictured) is a San Diego-based distillery that specializes in rum. They offer a white rum, spiced rum, and two creative infusions: ginger rum and black tea rum. The latter are great in cocktails, and go particularly well with lemonade.
Napa Valley Distillery
Napa Valley Distillery produces a clever and fairly eclectic line of spirits, including brandy, pastis, aged gin, and even some pre-bottled cocktails. They also sell a number of aromatic bitters, shrubs, and syrups, making them a one-stop shop for cocktail fans.
Seven Stills, located in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, is best known for its distillations of local craft beer into small-batch whiskey, as well as a vodka and a line of bitters. They’re constantly experimenting with new beers, with the goal of creating a whiskey for each of their hometown’s famed seven hills.
Sonoma County Distilling Co.
Sonoma County Distilling Co., founded in 2010, forgoes the vineyards for which its home is known in favor of rye, wheat, and corn. Their portfolio is rounded out by three simple but impressive products—a 100% rye whiskey, a wheat whiskey, and a bourbon.
Stillwater Spirits offers a complete range of spirits, including everything from vodka and gin to single malt whiskey and raspberry eau-de-vie. They also do contract distilling for several rectifiers, and between those two ventures have made themselves indispensible in the world of Northern California distilling.
Sweet Potato Spirits
Situated in the Central Valley city of Atwater, Sweet Potato Spirits is best known for its brand Corbin Cash. Named for the founder’s son, the company takes a farm-to-bottle approach, crafting a vodka, gin, whiskey, and liqueur distilled from (you guessed it) sweet potatoes, as well as a 100% rye whiskey.
Ventura Spirits sits off of Highway 33 between Ventura and Ojai, and in many ways seeks to pay homage to the natural beauty that surrounds it. Each of their three spirits (apparently more are in the pipeline) utilizes an ingredient that’s unique to the local area—a vodka made from local strawberries, an eau-de-vie made from prickly pear cactus, and a gin that uses botanicals literally foraged from the nearby hills.