When life gives you grapes, make wine. And then, brandy. Or perhaps vodka. These are among the growing variety of spirits now distilled by wineries in Arizona, California, and in many other states.
Along the West Coast and inland in the Arizona desert sands, vintners turned spirit distillers are increasing in number amid a wide variety of products.
“The craft spirits industry is growing every day,” said Margie Lehrman, executive director of the American Craft Spirits Association. “We estimate there are as many as 800 craft distilleries in the U.S., up from just a few dozen a decade ago.”
An Atlantic magazine feature article proclaimed craft distilling (defined as less than 50,000 cases a year) is still in its early days, adding, “Hardly a day passes without the announcement of a new distillery opening its doors to produce craft gin or bourbon or some obscure liqueur.”
A Time magazine small business article on “The Micro Distillery Boom” projected that the renaissance that happened to wine and beer had now moved on to spirits.
“Buoyed by America’s artisanal love affair, businesses are popping up like corks at a wedding reception,” the article said, predicting that “there could be a thousand little stills churning out potent potables” within a decade.
Happening in Arizona
“We’ve been producing wine since 1982, the second oldest continually-producing winery in the state,” said Gary Reeves of the Village of Elgin Winery in Elgin, Ariz. His business endeavors now feature the year-old Elgin Distillery, the first craft distiller in the state producing whiskeys, brandies, rums, and other specialty spirits.
Reeves said, “Last year we grew grapes on 160 acres and turned some of those gallons of wine into brandy. In addition to making our product, we own one of only two current custom crush licenses.”
The artisanal marketplace opened up with the enactment of craft distillery laws in California and Arizona. There are 13 other craft distillers in Arizona and a lot of wineries have developed brandy micro-distilleries in California,” said Reeves.
The new regulations in California and Arizona, he says, open things up and allow growers and wineries to produce another revenue stream from their base product.
Reeves said, “It represents an additional market for flexible growers to decide what crops they will grow and what form they will end up in.”
Making bourbon whiskey
Garrison Ellam, owner of the Tombstone Distillery and the agent for the Arizona Craft Distillers Guild, started making bourbon whiskey when the laws changed.
In an interview with area journalists, Ellam said, “The market is hungry for what we do. I’m happy to have a small piece of a bigger pie and as more producers get in, the better off we’ll all be as an industry.”
He expects the number of licensed distilleries in Arizona to nearly double by years end.
Flying Leap Vineyards
Less than a mile further down Elgin Road is the newest player in the game, Flying Leap Vineyards. The company hopes to open a new distillery in late May to produce whiskey, brandy, vodka, and grappa, an alcohol-rich winemaking byproduct made from grape skins and pulp.
Mark Beres, president and viticulturist at Flying Leap, has the responsibility for nearly 60,000 vines growing in three blocks in the Willcox-Kansas Settlement area and Elgin (with another 20 acres planned by 2019), along with the distillery construction nearing completion.
“We’re meticulous planners with a well-thought-out, comprehensive, vertically-integrated business strategy to develop into a leading Southwestern wine and spirit business,” Beres said.
When the craft distillery licensing structures changed, Beres spent a year evaluating the pros and cons of a distillery before it ultimately became a part of the master plan.
“The winery and the distillery are connected because our mature wine retail business can be used to fund the aging period needed for spirit production.”
Flying Leap grows four unique wine grape varietals - Marsanne, Petite Verdot, Graciano, and Tannat. Just planted are 11,000 Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano) vines, a light white French grape used in champagne and cognac production with expected 6-8 ton per acre yields to create high quality brandy.
Commercial brandy made from crushed grape skins results in a somewhat harsh distillate which needs aging in oak barrels to remove the edgy taste.
In California, members of the California Artisanal Distillers Guild (CADG) are working to expand their hand-crafted small batch spirit industry through legislation. It would allow “craft distillers to operate tasting rooms and sell distilled spirits directly to consumers, much in the same way wine and beer can be tasted and purchased at any California winery or brewery.”
The California Craft Distillers Act (AB1295), signed by Governor Jerry Brown and took effect Jan. 1, 2016, allows distilleries to apply for a license for limited direct-to-consumer sales.
“This is huge,” said CADG President Timo Marshall.
One of those California players bills itself as “the original Napa Valley Distillery - and the first distillery in the City of Napa to open its doors there since Prohibition.”
The business, family-owned and operated by Arthur and Lusine Hartunian, was founded on the basic principal - make it different.
Using that mantra, the Hartunian’s objective is to create rare and unique craft spirits with a taste and character unlike anything else - spirits which are singular in method and materials.
“I’ve always been an admirer of the cocktail culture and wanted to be a part of the spirit industry that shapes the world we know today,” Arthur Hartunian said.
“We’re distillers, not farmers,” he says, relying on Napa Valley grape growers to produce the first step, noting that crushing and fermenting is a process he doesn’t need to take.
“Wine is fermented grapes and that’s what we start to work with to extract flavors from the wine itself,” said Hartunian.
So far, their mission has been successful. Their Napa Vodka, handcrafted using single vintage Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, was lauded by Wine Enthusiast magazine as one of the Top 50 Spirits in the World.
Hartunian explained, “It’s a viable business for us. We’re moving into new 12,000-square-foot production facilities where we will make nearly three dozen products.”
Ballast Point Spirits
The urge to add distilled spirits to an initial mission is strong across the board. For example, take Ballast Point Spirits in San Diego. In 1996, partners Jack White and Yuseff Cherney started making beer. After a decade of growth, they added new product spins and today offer 14 more types of distilled spirits.
“For us, distilling was a natural next step,” said Cherney, the head brewer and distillery co-founder.
“We were home brewers first, so the alchemy and experimentation behind distilling spirits was always intriguing to us,” Cherney shared. “We couldn’t just stop with beer. We got into distilling to see if we could add our own spin to another centuries-old craft.”
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