Artisan craft distilling, largely ignored from Prohibition to the present locavore heyday -- and oddly overlooked amid a local wine and beer renaissance -- has finally hopped to the front of the line.
As evidence, a panel of celebrated expert distillers joined moderator Virginia Miller, head food and drink writer for the SF Bay Guardian, for a one-hour, info-packed laughter-fest titled "Distilled in the Bay Area: How to Drink Like a Locavore," where almost 100 Bay Area connoisseurs of the cup gathered at a June 27 Commonwealth Club event co-sponsored by the Lafayette Library and Learning Center Foundation at the Lafayette Veterans Memorial Hall.
Lance Winters (St. George Spirits of Alameda), Marko Karakasevic (Charbay Winery & Distillery of St. Helena), Davorin Kuchan (Old World Spirits of Belmont) and Salvatore Cimino (1512 Spirits of Rohnert Park) presented an impressive, eclectic lineup.
Sharing a deep understanding of creating rich, drinkable spirits, each member of the panel, like the ingredients in the fine beverages they craft, added to the audiences' pleasure.
Cimino, suavely dressed in black pinstripes, said his first product was a white rye, but described his journey as ever-changing. Taking his rye to the barrel to show more beauty, he moved on to a potato vodka exploding with flavor and is now working on a cherry bourbon and a hickory-smoked whiskey.
Karakasevic leapt from fruit brandies to black walnut liqueurs
"I don't know if I'm going to make gin -- might leave that for my kids," he said.
Kuchan, who grew up making grappa, a brandy of Italian origins, in Croatia, claimed "eventually, everything winds up in a barrel." He added absinthe to the distillers' growing list of spirits.
Winters, with a background as a brewer, set out to make a single malt whiskey for one, simple reason -- ego.
"Beer has a limited shelf life and I wanted to have a product that would stick around after I was gone," he said, in a preshow interview. "I got a small still, put it in my garage and started putting beer in there. Eventually, I weaseled my way into the distillery."
The panelists said distilling is an art form that shifts spirits from "a party thing" or "anesthesia" to a beautiful, elegant experience. And the Bay Area is the perfect setting for a variety of reasons.
Courageous palettes are particularly appealing to Winters, who has a "research lab" where he distills wildly exotic items ranging from white rice to Dungeness crab to Christmas trees.
The crab wound up smelling more like Fisherman's Wharf on a hot summer day than like the ocean, Winters joked, but the learning curve was a joyride.
A well-practiced nose is essential to both Karakasevic and Kuchan.
"It's not about taste. It's really about your nose. Do blind tasting at home; train your nose," Kuchan advised.
Karakasevic described the California drinker's preferred spirit as bold, complex, with a lot of body and a smooth finish.
"You need to train (your palette) every single night," he said, repeatedly, to much laughter.
Cimino played to the romantics in the crowd, saying he distilled to pair his products with fine food, warm summer evenings, wintery nights and friends.
Because owning an unlicensed still is illegal, the subject of licensing and permits got heavy play in audience questions and the panel's discussion.
"The spirit world today is dominated by a couple of monopolies. The laws go back to Prohibition that still control how we can produce spirits," Kuchan explained.
Karakasevic, possibly noticing expressions of dismay from the audience, agreed, but offered some hope. "It's a long process, but it's definitely doable," he said. "Go for it!"
Several questions centered on developing "impeccable taste," which the distillers said would surface organically with time.
"For the drinker, I think your high flavor profiles are a journey. It's an individual preference to find that out," Cimino said.
For potential distillers, Winters stressed understanding the distillation and fermentation processes and making a product that is genuine.
"If you don't have something to say, you shouldn't go into the business," he advised.
High praise for mixologists, or bartenders, came from all but Kuchan, who said he doesn't make his spirits for cocktail purposes, but agreed that high quality building blocks will make for a better end result.
"The cocktail culture is exploding right now. So I'm stoked if bartenders want to use my spirits to make something great," Karakasevic countered, without rancor.
In fact, the amiable, fun-seeking banter between panelists was like a sidecar; the perfect accompaniment for the detailed, expert information delivered in an all-too-short hour.
With instructions to spend time experimenting with different spirits and explore outside of stylistic confines determined by others, the distillers stepped from the grain to the bottle, offering tastings and continued conversation about the art of artisan craft distilling.