Would you believe there are now about 40 distilleries in California? That’s according to the American Distilling Institute in Hayward, which sent me an Excel spreadsheet. We’ve turned it into a Google map for you.
Stunning, huh? You can see how it’s possible now to stock a whole bar with nothing but California-made spirits, bitters, juices, and so on.
“As long as you were OK with the fact that you were excluding a certain percentage of classic cocktail drinks that require things like crème de violet, or you know, Campari.”
That comment is from Dave Driscoll, the Northern California spirits buyer for K&L, an alcohol retailer based in Redwood City. I talked to him while exploring the exploding world of craft distillation or The California Report. (Another version of the story aired on NPR's Morning Edition.)
Driscoll got his feet wet in cocktail culture by bar-and-restaurant hopping in San Francisco. Perhaps because of this peripatetic start, he rolls his eyes at people who over-think the question of “what’s the best?”
Why do people spend a mint to buy a rare bottle at one of his stores?
“The story,” he says, “is that everybody needs to have that kind of tidbit. Otherwise you’re just bringing a bottle of something to a party. Why is that bottle interesting? It’s got to have something behind it, like 'this is made by a farmer who grows everything bio-dynamically and then he makes, you know, one barrel a year and then I’m lucky to get one of those bottles.' It’s almost like showing off.”
Keith Taylor of Mohawk Bend understands the power of story. The owner of the LA gastro-pub wanted Taylor to build a "Made in California" bar to brand the beer and the spirits.
“Obviously, we can’t have Campari," Taylor says when I ask him how he'd make a Negroni. "It’s from Italy. But what we do have is a Hibiscus liquor, made by Modern Spirits (of Monrovia). So we’ll tell them what we’re going to make, we’ll call it a California Negroni. You know, it’s the same same but different.”
“Yes,” you may be saying. "Whatever that is, that’s not a Negroni.” If you’re stuck on that fact, you’re not Taylor’s customer. Or maybe you are. He knows the recipe for success with the California-only concept is taking the time to talk to customers about the products he's selling - and the distilleries that make them. Many of them are small outfits with small marketing budgets.
“When someone comes into Mohawk Bend off the street, chances are they’ve never heard of any liquor that we carry. So it’s the challenge to tell them the story of why we do that and to make them a drink that they’ll appreciate.”
I also talked to Thad Vogler, "the guy behind the guy behind the guy" (as another guy put it) at many of the best Bay Area bars. At the very least, he was in the area at the creation: Jardiniere, Bourbon & Branch, Flora, Beretta, Camino, Heaven's Dog, Bardessono. Now he's focused on his own Bar Agricole.
Vogler says California is surfing on a new wave of cocktail love. "Cooks looked out of the kitchen and realized those bars were part of their food program." Right away, they started getting rid of artificially flavored and colored ingredients, as well as bland, industrially produced spirits.
Vogler has a twin focus: 1) high quality ingredients; 2) authenticity, in terms of reviving the cocktail culture of pre-Prohibition America.
He points out, for instance, that brandy was big in 19th-century cocktails. As it happens, California distillers are turning out some great brandies. You may have noticed we grow a lot of grapes in this part of the world...
But while Vogler likes a creative cocktail challenge, he chafes at the idea of setting an arbitrary limit on his raw materials, as in local-only.
"Things that are local, things that are made in small batches - they’re almost always the best," Vogler says. "But there are exceptions. Take Calvados, which is a really beautiful heirloom apple brandy from Normandy. These guys have been growing apples for hundreds of years, and doing their own fermentation, their own distillation. Beautiful spirits - and arguably - our notions of what distillation are begin in areas like this."
Vogler considers himself a Europhile. Indeed, many of the distillers who just started in California, started by bringing equipment over from Europe. Many learned what they know about process and taste from Europe. When you think about it, that's how the wine industry started here. Now doesn't this all give you something to look forward to in 2012? Tchin Tchin!
View California Distilleries in a larger map