The Bourbon Flight is exploring bourbon distilleries throughout the United States. In this part, we are looking at California. The state has 161 distilleries. Please bear with me, as this is a daunting task. This series will introduce bourbon lovers to both known and unknown distilleries.
This is an informative piece, not a review since we have yet to sample the bourbons. We want to inform readers that distilling bourbon is a nationwide love. Tradition and passion run through each bottle of bourbon, from Elmer T. Lee to the unknown distiller.
We cannot highlight every distillery in a state, but we will certainly try to bring the most helpful information to you.
117° West Spirits —Vista, California
This distillery’s name has a meaning and a location. You will be sipping on fine bourbon when you visit the tasting room at 117longitude. What is crazier is the distillery still was produced on the same longitudinal degree, but in Coleville, Washington.
Head Distiller Justin McCabe, a doctoral graduate of UC San Diego in chemistry, wants to reinterpret traditional spirit recipes. The interpretation is evident in its bourbon. Vienna malt, a German-style malt, is rarely used in distilling bourbon.
The tasting room is sparsely decorated, but the cocktail menu more than holds its own with larger distilleries. With live bands playing and whiskey flowing, this small family-owned distillery is a must-visit.
Alchemy Distillery—Arcata, California
Alchemy has ingrained itself into Humboldt County, with most ingredients made close to its distillery. Amy and Stephen Bohner mashed in its first whiskey in December 2015.
The distillery gained notoriety by creating Boldt Cereal Killer, which is made of either 100% wheat, rye or triticale, a wheat/rye hybrid. The spirits are only available in Cali, but they are constructing a tasting room that should be complete any time now. In the meantime, you can visit the small bar for cocktails and samples.
Most recently, the distillery won two prestigious awards for its Boldt Straight Bourbon Whiskey. The first award was double gold from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The second award was double gold from the Sip Awards. The Sip Awards is a unique international competition because the judges are everyday consumers.
Blinking Owl Distillery—Santa Anna, California
All good bourbon bases start with great water. Santa Ana has grabbed bronze, silver, and gold awards for the past five years, producing the nation’s best and highest quality tap water. The distillery is 100% a California product as of 2018 and is one of the first distilleries in the state to receive a Type 74 craft distiller’s license.
The Blinking Owl is the first craft distillery in Orange County and the owners are self-proclaimed control freaks. They mill, mash, ferment, distill and barrel age it in the case of whiskey. The distillery’s name is a homage to a midcentury bar of the same name.
Visitors can sip, dine, shop or tour the distillery five days a week. The distillery is a great place to stop if you are in the area to visit Disneyland or the beach. Be on the lookout for the first legally distilled and barreled bourbon from Orange County.
Cutler’s Artisan Spirits—Santa Barbara, California
“From Prohibition bootleggers to modern craft distillers.” This statement is what the history of the Cutler family is all about. In the early 1900s, Duke Carter opened a bar in Angels Camp, California. After serving in WWI, Duke decided to open another bar, but Prohibition was in effect. In the 1920s and the 30s, Duke became a bootlegger and when Prohibition ended, he opened several liquor stores in town.
Fast-forward to 2013, great-grandson Ian Cutler reprised the family business and started distilling Cutler’s spirits again. Many of the same family recipes are used in creating the new spirit; that is just how the distillery wants it to be.
The distillery’s 33 Straight Bourbon is a small batch dedicated to the year Prohibition ended. It is aged for six years outside California and then brought back to be blended and cut to make an exceptionally smooth bourbon. The distillery is in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara’s “Funk Zone,” just two blocks north of Sterns Wharf and East Beach.
Devils Creek Distillery—Mammoth Lakes, California
Located 45 minutes south of Yosemite National Park, this distillery benefits from the weather changes to produce a fine bourbon. Owned by John and Luan Mendel, the distillery’s name is derived from a fictional ski town named Devils Creek from Luan’s novel, “Yard Sale.”
The process started in 2019, shortly after John’s retirement. The California Straight Bourbon is at a higher altitude than other bourbons, which provides its clean and distinct taste. Blended from eight barrels aged 24-36 months, the blend creates a perfect marriage of heat and drinkability.
Devils Creek Distillery is a family endeavor and they are proud to be the Eastern Sierra’s original, independent, artisan distillery.
Kalifornia Distilleries Inc.—Temecula, California
Temecula’s first craft distillery, Kalifornia traces its roots back to Ireland. Owner Bill Tiller can trace his family’s lineage back to the 18th century and distilling has always been part of the family. He distilled his first legal bottle in 2015.
Private tastings and tours are available with a reservation. When visiting the distillery, don’t judge a book by its cover because they are in an industrial park 70 miles north of San Diego. The distillery has crafted a mostly corn bourbon that will blow your socks off. Distilled four times over, this whiskey is something special.
KROBAR Craft Distillery—San Luis Obispo, California
Like most other distillers, founder Stephen Kroener has roots in the Deep South. His grandparents were bootleggers from Alabama and his father founded a winery, so you might say alcohol runs in his blood. In 2012, Kroener wanted to leave his father’s winery and start his own path.
The still is by far the most essential tool in his distillery. After years of researching manufacturers, he decided on Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Louisville, Kentucky, to develop custom-built stills to suit the KROBAR style. Using old- and new-school styles, the distillery’s lineup is solid.
The tasting room is in the small college town of San Luis Obispo, where large windows allow you to look inside the production. Tours, tastings and guided tastings are all part of the experience. Try the rye bourbon, a 95-proof offering aged over three years.
Lost Republic Distilling Company—Healdsburg, California
Partners Colin Harter and Matthew Weese founded the distillery in 2013. The two best friends wanted to create the best whiskey or brown water in California. The grizzly bear is the state’s official animal and dons each bottle of the distillery’s spirits.
The distillery offers two bourbons, a cask strength and a straight, with exceptional flavors. With no tasting room or visitors allowed, this distillery solely grows on reputation and word of mouth.
Malahats Spirits—San Diego, California
Named after a five-masted schooner that sailed the West Coast during Prohibition to drop barrels of alcohol to thirsty consumers, the distillery is made up of three friends who decided the spirits industry needed a little innovation.
Barrel aged two years, the straight bourbon is well balanced. The different char levels smooth the edges out, creating a great bourbon from beginning to end.
The facility is a throwback to the days of Prohibition, when speakeasies were bustling and liquor was hidden in local caves and basements. During the visit, you can experience a sampling of six of its artisanal spirits, including some that you can’t find on the shelves. Make sure you visit the tasting room, which can be rented out for various occasions.
Napa Valley Distillery—Benicia, California
The original Napa Valley Distillery was the first distillery to open its doors in Napa since Prohibition. Founded on the principle “Make it different,” family owners Arthur and Lusine Harutunia do just that.
The distillery and grand tasting salon are unique, with a nostalgic décor. Educational tours and tastings are encouraged but not required to enjoy the distillery’s spirits. Memberships to the Bar Club allow first access to all the newly created spirits.
The recently created “Booze Yoga” offers a little workout while enjoying a Son of Bourbon or S.O.B. This bourbon is double-aged and finished in Napa Valley port casks that translate to exquisite and unique whiskeys.
Pacific Coast Spirits—Oceanside, California
A family-owned distillery founded by head distiller Nicholas Hammond, Pacific Coast Spirits fosters a lifestyle of exploration. The family’s passion goes beyond business to include the environment, a quest for adventure and the betterment of the community.
The distillery offers a restaurant for visitors’ enjoyment, along with suggested pairings of cocktails with its food.
The California bourbon is a handcrafted small-batch spirit made from scratch, starting with raw ingredients and 75% non-GMO corn, sweetening the spirit. No batch is the same.
Redwood Empire Whiskey—Sonoma, California
Protecting the environment is Redwood Empire’s mantra and this self-sustained distillery is one of the few in the nation. Its uniqueness still allows for a single pass, preserving water and energy.
Named after the iconic redwood tree, the distillery boasts, “Redwood Empire Whiskey is not just a product of its environment, it’s a part of it.” The distillery puts its money where its mouth is by planting a tree for every bottle sold. So far, they have planted 689,118 trees.
Located in the heart of the Russian River Valley wine region, the distillery was a canning processing plant before 2015.
The Redwood Empire’s forests stretch from San Francisco north along the coast to the Oregon border. The distillery does not have a brick-and-mortar tasting room or tour. The bourbon is easily found on most liquor websites.
Sonoma Distilling Co.—Rohnert Park, California
One of the first 200 distilleries in California and the first in Sonoma wine country, Sonoma Distilling Co. believes in keeping it old school. It uses only California grains and prides itself on double distillation to create a small-batch bourbon masterpiece. The process screams Old World, even though it was founded in 2010.
With a small bar to show off its spirits, the distillery is a throwback to when bars meant something to people and not just a place to go. It’s a gorgeous area to sip bourbon, but more importantly, a good bourbon to sip on.
Spirit Works Distillery—Sebastopol, California
Spirit Works is an all-inclusive distiller that makes everything in-house, from milling, mashing, fermenting and distilling all the way through to bottling and shipments out the door. Located in Sonoma County and established in 2012 by Timo and Ashby Marshall with an all-female distilling team, this distillery is voted continuously as the best craft distillery in the county.
The beautiful copper still is a hybrid pot still handmade to some very intentional specifications by CARL Distilleries, Germany’s oldest still producer. The still has produced a top four-grain bourbon suitably named by the same ingredients. A blend of proprietary bourbon formulas, the mash is 60% corn with wheat, rye and barley mixed in the mash.
Surf City Still Works—Huntington Beach, California
Surf’s up, dude! In 2017, the Surf City team opened Huntington Beach’s first independent distillery in 2017 with the mantra: “The magic and science of distillation.”
Located near Beach Blvd., the 25,000-square-foot distillery is wide open with 25-foot ceilings and a beach-inspired tasting room. The building also holds a speakeasy where you can sit back and enjoy the laid-back atmosphere.
Pierside Bourbon Whiskey is the offering from Head Distiller Bill Auxier. This high-rye mash expression is aided by the salty air when aging, giving it a distinctly Southern California flavor profile.
Young & Yonder Spirits—Healdsburg, California
Young & Yonder is a family-owned artisan craft distillery run by the husband-and-wife team of Josh and Sarah Opatz. Created in 2013 in a warehouse, the distillery outgrew its walls and moved to downtown Healdsburg in 2017.
That growth spawned a tasting room and production facility. Small in space but big in flavor, the distillery offers specialty cocktails and group events. Outdoor seating is available, but everything is first come, first serve.
After many years of producing award-winning vodkas and gins, Young & Yonder expanded into straight bourbon. The four-grain high-malt recipe is aged over 30 months and is a delight on the palate. Each batch only produces less than 600 bottles.
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