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Craft Culture

Strange brews. Experimental spirits. Slow-sipping tequilas. How local artisans are raising the bar on booze.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

 

ith vineyards stretching from Humboldt County to Temecula, California has become synonymous with wine. Crystal stemware is now almost as emblematic of the state as the California poppy, black bears, and the Golden Gate Bridge. But while Ventura County boasts its own collection of excellent wineries, an ambitious group of craft beverage makers are steering the conversation away from the grape and toward the grain.

Fermentation and distillation are Old World traditions, but a handful of local distillers and brewers are reimagining spirits and brews for a new generation—with delicious results.

At Ventura Spirits Company, it’s all about terroir: the unique scents and flavors imparted by the complete natural environment, including soil, climate, and topography. Capturing the taste of the Central Coast is what inspired the four founders—Henry Tarmy, James Greenspun, and brothers Andrew and Anthony Caspary—to go into the micro-distillery business in the first place.

“It’s cool to think about what people would have made if distilling had been invented here,” Tarmy says. Scotland has its peat; Russia has its potatoes; and Ventura County has its prickly pears, which the partners have used to make a flavorful spirit called Opuntia in the their facility on Ventura Avenue. It’s practically an eau de vie, so faithful is it to its prickly pear origins: tropical and melony with a hint of fruity earthiness. Their California Vodka is made with strawberries, but make no mistake: this is a true neutral spirit. Where Ventura Spirits Company really shines, though, is with its Wilder Gin. “We wanted to recreate what it was like to go hiking in the hills around here after the rain,” Tarmy explains. Purple sage, California bay leaves, sagebrush, and yerba santa are all wild-harvested locally. Citrus notes come courtesy of dried Ojai Pixie tangerine peel. Crazy herbaceous and a bit wild: a taste of the Ojai Valley. A whiskey made from kernza is slated to debut later in the year. Found in the Midwest, kernza is a perennial wheatgrass developed by the Land Institute as a possible substitute for wheat. Exceptionally nutritious and low in gluten, it uses less water than wheat and coexists easily with other native grasses, offering tremendous benefits to society and the environment. “By making whiskey out of it, we hope to raise awareness about the plant,” Andrew Caspary says. “There’s an element of innovation in the idea as well,” says Greenspun. “We’ve opened this space to experiment, to do something never done before.”

A few miles down the road is Channel Islands Distillery, nestled in the heart of Rum Row, where bootleggers made booze during Prohibition. It’s fitting, then, that this distillery’s signature product is quality rum (although they make vodka, brandy, moonshine, and whiskey, too). Unsatisfied by most of the rum on the market, owners Michael Machuzak and Joe Freas founded the company as a way to get the smooth, rich rum they craved. “We wanted to make a nice, full-bodied, sippable rum,” says Machuzak. Mission accomplished: their spirit is exceptionally smooth, amber in color, with toasty spices in the nose and vanilla and oak on the tongue. The lighter Silver Rum is ideal for mixing. Grey Ghost, not yet available, has rum lovers waiting with anticipation: a “devil’s cut” (the alcohol that gets trapped in the wood during the aging process) held longer on oak chips to impart greater flavor and character. The name comes from a famous rum-running ship. “We want to promote this as a local product,” Machuzak says. “Our rums are an homage to the rum runners. … That history brings the color and life to the story that our spirits tell.”

In Moorpark you’ll find the modest but comfortable offices of Montalvo Tequila, where Alex Viecco operates the public side of the business he started with Sergio Gonzalez Rivera and Carlos Gonzalez. “Carlos introduced me to tequilas,” Viecco recalls. “I dove head and feet into the process and fell in love: the culture, the soil, the product.” Rivera and Gonzalez handle production in the town of Tequila, in the Mexican state of Jalisco (a product can’t be called tequila unless it’s produced in designated areas of Mexico) but Montalvo is very much a local company. Viecco spends much of his time running tastings at Ventura County bars and restaurants, trying to educate the public about his premium spirit. “I want to be a catalyst for creating the tequila revolution,” he explains, expressing a desire to see it regarded on par with the finest scotch and brandy. Triple-distilled and handcrafted, all three Montalvo offerings (Plata, Reposado, and Anejo) rise to that expectation, expressing pure agave flavors along with more complex notes. Wonderful in a cocktail, they’re even better straight—and served with a fine meal.

The Central Coast beer renaissance is much older than the microdistillery revival, but one of the newest breweries on the block embodies much of what makes the local beverage scene so exciting: handcrafted with local ingredients and a penchant for experimentation. Walking into Institution Ale Company on any given evening, you’re bound to find something creative on tap: a smoked jalapeño porter, a coffee-infused stout, ales with a fruit base. “If we can squeeze a specialty in, we will,” says Shaun Smith, who co-owns the brewery with his father, Roger, and brother, Ryan. Something not seen much around these parts is a sour beer, which gains its unique flavor from lactobacillus bacteria (the same found in yogurt). “It’s low alcohol, light, sour, and acidic—really interesting,” Smith explains. Seasonal ingredients drive these pilot batches, which are frequently tested on customers. “Because we do most of our business in the tasting room, we have more flexibility.”

Ventura County is a bountiful place, and it’s no surprise that the farm-to-table movement would eventually catch up to the beverage industry, as a thirsty public demands more locally sourced libations. “It’s the Golden Age for beer right now,” Smith says of California’s craft beer revolution and the enormous popularity Institution Ale has enjoyed since opening its doors eight months ago.

As Anthony Caspary of Ventura Spirits Company puts it, referencing West Coast beer and wine styles, “California has a way of putting its stamp on things. We think we have something substantial to offer in the way alcohol is made and consumed.”

INSTITUTION ALE COMPANY 438 Calle San Pablo, Unit 1, Camarillo. Tasting room open Wed.-Sun. Detailed info online at institutionales.com or by calling 805.482.3777.

CHANNEL ISLANDS DISTILLERY For history, available spirits, and retail locations, visit cistill.com or call 805.573.2392.

THE VENTURA SPIRITS COMPANY Sign up online at venturaspirits.com to learn about special events, distillery tours, and tasting opportunities.

MONTALVO 100% Blue Weber Agave tequila, handcrafted and triple-distilled. Details at montalvospirits.com.

Shaun Smith minds the technical aspects of brewing at Institution Ale Company while brother/brewmaster Ryan sweeps up. A silhouetted reflection of their father, Roger, completes the familial picture.

Channel Islands Distillery co-owners Joe Freas (left) and Michael Machuzak (far right) with Scott Noble of Ventura’s VenTiki Tiki Lounge & Lanai.

Institution Ale’s Camarillo tasting room.

Local lineup.

07-01-2014

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