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Spirit Works Distillery, Sebastopol

Author: William Rohrs
March, 2016 Issue

Spirit Works
6790 McKinley Street, #100
Sebastopol, CA, 95472
Tours: $20
Tastings: $8-$18, depending on spirits selected
Spirits: vodka, gin, barrel gin, wheat whiskey, straight rye, sloe gin, barrel reserved sloe gin
Reservations: Required for tour, but not for tasting
Picnics: No
Pets: Yes
 
Did you Know? After Timo Marshall asked for Ashby’s hand in marriage, he asked for her father’s permission and gifted them a bottle of his family’s sloe gin.
 
It’s a pretty safe bet to believe that, when it comes to gin, Limeys know best. Who else but British sailors have the constitution to stomach the rotguts and grogs to find the best drinking gins for curing scurvy (when served with lime), shyness (I believe the drinking method is called “by the litre”) and, for my purposes, sobriety.
But it wasn’t just Timo Marshall’s adventure on England’s high seas that spurred his passion for distillation and its consumption. His family’s been routinely mastering their sloe gin recipe for years, and with Timo’s wife, Ashby, the pair started Spirit Works Distillery to further perfect their craft and bring a rarely-seen gin varietal to the West Coast.
 
“The staff around here come from all sorts of backgrounds, and the ‘manager’ titles sounds silly to us because we’re so small,” says marketing manager Jessica Shumaker. “But everyone picked up the reigns very fast, and we all love it here.”
 
But the cofounders aren’t satisfied with where they’re at right now. “We’ve done very well, but I can’t say we’re perfect yet,” says Timo. “We may never get there. But it’s important to keep striving for it—to keep making new and incredible things.”
 
And the next phase of perfection may come to fruition later this year. The Marshalls are nearing the completion of a two-year study to find if gentle, sound-induced vibrations over a whiskey’s aging period will change its flavor. In other words, they slapped headphones on a barrel and played Led Zeppelin for two years. “Come April they’ll be mature and we can find out if I was right,” says Timo.
 
After a tour of the facility, Shumaker led us to the tasting room, where we sampled all their spirits. The vodka, which comes out of the pot at a tongue-curdling 190 proof (95 percent alcohol by volume, ABV) before dilution, was first. Aromatically, it smelled buttery with a hint of vanilla, and, on taste, I was reminded of dessert-style popcorn, with melted butter and a dusting of sugar and vanilla. Something briny on the side, like cornichons or pickled fish, would tie the flavor combinations very well.
 
Spirit Works gin, I was surprised to find, is not a London dry variety. At 43 percent ABV, the Spirit Works gin has a citrus-and-coriander bite up front; melting into a grassy, clean finish. This is a truly versatile gin, enjoyable on ice, with classic vermouth, or for the adventurous, with sherry to create a Spanish martini.
 
It’s older, amber cousin, barrel gin, starts the same as the clear stuff but is instead aged for two years in charred oak barrels (char level four for the inquisitive). It’s woody aroma and warm mouthfeel reminds me of an orange-infused whiskey or maybe a sweeter, lighter finish rye. Ditch the dry vermouth for sweet, a dash of bitters and a Luxardo cherry, and you have a gin Manhattan.
 
The wheat whiskey was golden-colored and honeyed on the nose, with a clean grain flavor with a smoky, honeyed finish. Smoked meats on the charcuterie platter would be a welcome addition.
 
On the other side of the Midwest grain fence, Spirit Works’ straight rye provides an entire loaf of bread’s flavor into a single pouring. This particular batch is a smooth operator, tempering the intense rye flavor with the oakiness of the barrel it was housed in, along with a smoky, slightly sweet finish.
 
After a palate cleanser of artisan-style goldfish crackers (I think they just poured them into a bowl) we came to the moment of anticipation: the sloe gin. During the regular gin-making process, flash-frozen sloe berries, imported from Bulgaria, are macerated and added to the mix, resulting in a violet-hued liquid. On first taste, I immediately see what the fuss is about: It’s hard to quantify what a sloe berry tastes like without using British fruit like blackcurrants, but it tastes like a tart hybrid between a plum and a blackberry. Combined with the citrus start and grass finish of the original gin, I was impressed. I continue to enjoy the bottle I purchased later on ice, or sometimes with some seltzer water for a gin fizz.
 
The barrel-aged version, the first barrel-aged sloe gin made in California, turned the bright violet much darker, making it reminiscent of a ruby port. This iteration was much more intense on the sloe berry flavor, and while I enjoyed it, if given a choice between aged or non-aged, I’d reach for the latter for its brightness of flavor.
 
Right now, Spirit Works is a small player in the big ocean of spirits. But from what I’ve tasted, there’s no contest. Timo and Ashby Marshall are on the cutting edge of a new appreciation for classic liquors with a twist.

 

 

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