Against the Grain: Sonoma Distilling Co.
“While working with great Master Distillers and Blenders over the years, I’ve honed my skills to continually raise the bar with each new product and batch. There are no 'Masters' here per se; we’re just regular people striving every day to better ourselves and our craft. I like to say we’re making whiskeys in a small way for a big world."
—Adam Spiegel, Founder of Sonoma Distilling Co.
We were lucky enough to spend the day with the guys of Sonoma Distilling Co. while shooting our latest Flint and Tinder line. These guys have it figured out—they spend their days making something they love and are clearly having a good time doing it.
We sat down with the company’s founder, Adam Spiegel, to hear more about how he got started making whiskey in the first place and why it’s important to him to hold on to old school techniques that most modern distillers have let go.
Read on for the best whiskey pairings, why you should be drinking highballs, and Adam’s recommendation for the best place to drink his whiskey (clue: it involves a tent and a wide open sky).
You've been doing this for eight years. How did you get into whiskey in the first place?
I lost my job along with thousands of others back in 2008. I had to start completely from scratch so I took a step back and asked myself some of the hard questions about what I wanted my career to look like—I decided I wanted to start my own business and learn how to make something. I started by making beer, then wine, and eventually got into distillation. I was feeling so inspired for the first time in a while—I was starting to see the potential of where it all could go. And then I just went for it.
"I think there’s something really special about spirits—the ability to put a bottle of whiskey down on the table at a friend's birthday party, a funeral, an anniversary, at Christmas—and create an atmosphere of intimacy and shared experience."
I think there’s something really special about spirits—the ability to put a bottle of whiskey down on the table at a friend's birthday party, a funeral, an anniversary, at Christmas—and create an atmosphere of intimacy and shared experience. Ideally, I want to be doing this the rest of my life. I want this to be a family brand—I just had a daughter recently and hope one day she’ll get to be a part of this. The goal is to create whiskey with longevity because we really want to be around for a long time. That and, honestly, whiskey takes a long time to figure out.
Let's cover the obvious. This is wine country—why are you guys making whiskey?
The same reasons this area is good for making wine also make it good for making whiskey—access to great water with Lake Sonoma, amazing land that’s ideal for growing grains, corn, rye, and barley, and temperatures that range from 80 down to 55 in a given day. The temperature variability allows our whiskey to expand and contract in the barrel—it goes through a lifecycle where it expands and contracts every single day, like breathing, which gets you a much better whiskey when the time comes.
How does a Sonoma whiskey differ from a Scottish or a Kentucky whiskey?
Scotland’s climate is cold and Kentucky’s is hot, so the process of expansion and contraction takes a lot longer than it does in California. Since we’re coastal, we have a wetter climate and cooler temperatures at night, like in Scotland, but we also get those high temperatures during the day like in Kentucky. So, we get both the heat of Kentucky and also the coastal climate of Scotland, and with that winning combination you get a truly amazing whiskey.
We get the feeling that you’re doing things a little differently here. You’re steeped in traditional values but fueled by modern taste. What can you tell us about that?
99.9% of all distillers in the United States use some sort of new technology: the stills they use are usually either column stills, pot stills, or hybrids. When you use a column still, in my opinion, you're eradicating a lot of flavors by stripping out the alcohol and burning off the oils that define that whiskey’s profile. We put ourselves in the 0.1% of the industry by taking an old school approach. By using somewhat archaic pot stills, we get less alcohol per batch, but a lot more flavor.
"We put ourselves in the 0.1% of the industry by taking an old school approach."
Since we make our whiskey from grain to glass, we affect the flavors from the beginning. We choose the right grains and the right yeast. We make, ferment and distill our own mash. We barrel-age and bottle everything ourselves—all within our 6,000 square feet.
We also barrel age water here, which is unusual. We take water that we normally proof our whiskey down with, fortify it with a full-aged spirit, and then let it rest in a barrel for six months to two years. It's an old French technique for making cognac, and it lets the whiskey and the water marry together early so when the time comes to proof down a spirit from barrel strength to bottle strength, you're not freaking the spirit out.
Making good whiskey demands a lot of painstaking effort, there’s no doubt about that. Our whiskey has evolved a lot over the last eight years, and I think has a long way to go, too. That’s the exciting part.
What are some foods that pair well with your whiskey?
Our Sonoma Rye is 100% rye whiskey so it's big, it's bold, and it's spicy. It's got really nice notes of anise, black licorice, and herbs. I tell people it's kind of like a Zinfandel—a big, bold wine that you can pair with dry aged steaks. I really love the Sonoma Rye with a Manchego or another sharp, strong cheese with a nutty flavor.
Our Sonoma Bourbon is a little sweeter. The bourbon has this new leather velvety-ness to it. I’d recommend pairing it with something like crème brulee, dark chocolate, or chocolate covered espresso beans—maybe even honey with apricots, all of which nicely contrast the roughness of a whiskey.
We also make a Cherrywood Rye and a Cherrywood Smoked Bourbon, both of which incorporate a cherrywood-smoked barley that we prepare in-house. Because of the smoke content, these go well with gamier meats like boar or venison. I made some amazing boar ragout at home, and the whiskey plays nicely with the acidity of the tomato.
"I hope people will take these whiskeys and just go camping with their friends. To me, having a bottle of the Sonoma Rye and staring up at the gigantic redwood trees and sky full of stars is what it’s all about."
But, honestly, I hope people will take these whiskeys and just go camping with their friends. To me, having a bottle of the Sonoma Rye and staring up at the gigantic redwood trees and sky full of stars is what it’s all about. If my whiskey can help people get outdoors and have that experience, I’m doing something right.
We know environmental sustainability is important to you. How does this come into play when you’re making whiskey?
I get furious when I see the single-use mindset that dominates our culture. It drives me crazy. We have a long way to go here at Sonoma Distilling Co., but we've started a process of figuring out how to use our resources differently so we can have less of a footprint.
We installed a water chiller that cools the water we use for all of our chilling processes —for fermentation, temperature maintenance, chilling our mashes, chilling our stills. Most distillers will flush this water right down the drain and we were doing that too, for the first six years. Then the drought hit California, and we realized how incredibly precious (and finite) this resource is. By installing our chiller we cut our water bill by 76% and saved over a million gallons of water. We started to think, OK, what else could we do? These are small actions but over time they’ll make a difference. We’re committed to constantly asking ourselves how we can do better.
We source a lot of non-GMO and organic grains from farmers throughout California, people who support the type of growth I care about. Once we're done fermenting the grains, we actually give them back to the local farmer rather than dumping them. He feeds them to his pigs, his sheep, and his lambs, and gives us back really great produce and meat. We have lunch together as a company and will smoke meats out here, do a cookout, and I’ll send my guys home with any leftover food or produce we have. So we have this great partnership with local farmers and my staff gets to go home with food to feed their families. It sounds simple but it means a lot to us.
What are some of the challenges you've run into as a whiskey distiller in Sonoma, as you carve out this new path for yourself and for whiskey distilling?
There are a lot of brands out there, and we’re all competing for the same shelf space. And the big guys make really good whiskey—they know what they’re doing. I'm not going up against big boxed beer, I'm going up against Buffalo Trace and Four Roses. These are iconic brands, and they motivate me to do my job better. I’ve always thought that if we work harder than the next person, we’ll ultimately succeed. So I'm constantly running around, doing tastings, doing whatever I can to get the word out. We sell in five U.S. markets— California, New York, Illinois, Florida and Minnesota—and we do a lot of sales overseas. I strive to be honest and authentic, to answer questions, and to constantly be available to our customers. This can be really demanding, but it also allows us to keep a finger on the pulse of what's going on.
What advice can you give to other entrepreneurs who are going against the flow within their industry?
The best advice I could give to new entrepreneurs is to just keep learning. In the last couple years, I’ve learned a lot more about the financial side of business—how to balance a checkbook, how to build a cash flow, things like that. You've got to be able to do a little bit of everything—that's part of entrepreneurship. Get your hands on as many resources as you can. Stay informed and inspired. One podcast I go to for inspiration is TED Talks—it’s full of great advice, wisdom, and knowledge across so many different topics and fields.
"You've got to be able to do a little bit of everything—that's part of entrepreneurship."
The other piece of advice is to stay humble. I think there's a lot of people who tend to call themselves the masters of things when they figure out how to put their pants on which is too bad because once you think you know everything, you’re no longer driven to learn.
How do you want people to drink your whiskey? What’s the ideal way to enjoy it?
Drink your whiskey how you like to drink it. Once you buy that bottle, you can do whatever you want with it. I've had some people ask if I’d ever mix it with Coca-Cola—some whiskey people would turn up their nose at that but I’m all for it if that’s what you want to do. My Cherrywood Rye mixed with a Coca-Cola makes a Cherry Coke. It's freaking great.
"My Cherrywood Rye mixed with a Coca-Cola makes a Cherry Coke. It's freaking great."
My new thing that I’m pushing on everyone is the highball. It’s huge in Japan, and it should be huge out here. You take an ounce and a half to two ounces of whiskey and you pour it into a glass. You take a nice big ice cube and you put really bubbly water on top of it. And it's just a whiskey soda. It’s great because you get to taste the underlying spirit, and it’s super refreshing.
If I have to make a recommendation for how to drink our whiskey, I’d say try it neat first. It does really well in cocktails—just do that after you've had a chance to try it neat. That's my only advice.
Follow Sonoma Distilling Co. on Instagram @sonomawhiskey