Ooh, I’m so excited to share this with you!
As soon as I heard about this place, I couldn’t wait to check it out. I recently discovered Sonoma County Distilling Co. from a friend (thanks Nancy!) which is literally six minutes from my house. What a happy find. You must do yourself a favor and visit them if you’re heading to this area. I have to admit though, it’s only recently that I have begun to appreciate the world of brown spirits – in this particular case – bourbon & whiskeys. I’ve always happily drank them in a cocktail, or sometimes neat (if I was feeling bold). But now that I’ve been properly educated on how to enjoy this heady and complex drink by Cameron Wong, our expert host from their sales & production team, I’m even more taken with it. For those who’d like a quick refresher on the definitions of whiskey & bourbon – scroll down to notes at bottom .
Taking a page from their wine country brethren’s handbook, Sonoma County Distilling Co. uses many traditional winemaking techniques throughout their production to achieve a vintage style of whiskey and bourbon. Large distilleries traditionally go for a style more focused on the barrel, but these folks opt for a grain-forward style of spirit. Each batch will have variations due to the open top native fermentation and the non-temperature controlled rooms (separate oak profiles develop based upon differences in the local weather). Everything from their wheat, corn and rye selection, texture of the milled grain, reverse-osmosis water used, degree to which it’s extracted in the basket presses, level of char on the American Oak barrels—every step is purposeful throughout the distillation process in order to preserve the inherent characteristics of each grain. As in small-lot winemaking, the goal is to capture and protect each grape’s unique flavor profiles within a vineyard or lot. Same principals apply here — just in this case– to the grain.
We toured the fermentation room which is small, but mighty. They produce only one batch of spirit at a time. Meaning one month it may be rye whiskey, then the next month wheat. The following month it may be the bourbon. Their choice of what to produce when is all based on the raw ingredients, where they are sourced from, and when that particular grain is in season. Some grains are winter crops; others are summer. Meticulous record-keeping is also performed throughout distillation in order to demonstrate a hands-on and small-batch method of production. From brewing, fermenting, distilling, aging, and bottling—each step is chronicled in detail. This ultimately provides full traceability for each component used to make each specific batch. Labor intensive. Yes. Time consuming. Yes. Expensive. Yes. BUT…..in the end…the finished spirit’s quality is that of a true artisan.
In the non-temp controlled cellar, there are different size barrels being used. This changes the ratio of liquid to wood in the final spirit. They adjust barrel sizes accordingly, depending on how much of an oak-influence they would like. Again, they’re going for a grain-forward style, so the majority of the whiskeys don’t stay in the barrels long. If it’s going to be bottled as cask strength, they remove it from barrel and bottle it as-is– no water added. If not, then distilled spring water is added to create the perfect balance of grain and oak flavors. Then over to the bottling area (okay, this equipment is very cool!) where it’s bottled by hand, (not by machines on conveyor belts). From there, off to the big wide world for our enjoyment!
Here’s what we tasted, along with notes from the distillery on each bottle. First we tried each one neat, then, added one drop of distilled water. Then another sip with three more drops of water. Amazing! The flavor (and aroma) was so different depending on if, and how much, water was added. So fun!
Sonoma Rye Whiskey Batch 7
‘Our flagship whiskey made from 100% rye, this dry-style whiskey is double distilled in traditional copper pots and aged on new American oak. With a nose reminiscent of vanilla, gardenia and allspice, this whiskey can be served neat or used as a base for an old fashioned’.
2nd Chance Wheat Whiskey Batch 3
‘Using both unmalted and malted wheat, this whiskey is aged in our used rye barrels in order to showcase flavors derived from our ferments. Dubbed “the bartender’s choice”, this whiskey is great both neat and in any mixer you can concoct. Notes of sourdough, butterscotch and citrus linger making you want to give this whiskey a 3rd and 4th chance’.
2nd Chance Wheat Whiskey Batch 4
‘Our newest batch of wheat whiskey. Tasting these two batches side by side showcases the slight variations we get in our grain batches and oak profiles due to the influence of the Sonoma County environment. Come taste them side by side!’
West of Kentucky Bourbon No. 2
‘Bourbon is an American tradition and here at SCDC we give tribute to its roots with a corn based mash layered with wheat and spiked with malted barley. Aged on new American oak, our Bourbon lifts with aromas of almond, sweet hay and toffee. Drink it neat or as a Manhattan’.
Sonoma Rye Whiskey 8 Cask Strength (my favorite!)
‘The proof is in the pudding with this uncut, straight from the barrel cask strength rye. Presenting its raw form allows the sophisticated drinker to not only appreciate the balance and nuance our rye exhibits right from the start, but gives a great starting point for any who wish to add a dash of water to personalize their own proof. Brimming with maple, white pepper and anise this whiskey is a bar staple for any spirit connoisseur!’
2nd Chance Wheat Whiskey 4 Cask Strength
‘Our barreling changed with batch 4, aging longer in larger barrels. This allowed a more mature oak profile compared to previous batches while still taking backseat to the nutty, biscuit nature of wheat. At 118 proof our cask strength wheat is bursting with notes of lemon and brioche. Enjoy it neat or add a dash of water and watch as the whiskey transforms in the glass!’
*all whisky/ey’s are a spirit distilled from a mash of fermented grains.
*Canadian, Scottish and Japanese WHISKYS are spelled without the ‘e’. Each of these will taste completely different as each country has their own style.
*Irish and American-styles are spelled WHISKEY with the ‘e’. Within the American-style are Tennessee, Bourbon and Straight Rye.
* In order to call a whiskey a ‘bourbon’ it must contain 51% corn (maize), have aged in new, charred, American oak barrels, be distilled to no more than 160 proof, and a barrel entry proof no more than 125.
*Straight Rye must have no added flavors, colorings or blends of different whiskeys. Must also be aged in oak for a minimum of two years.