Now Playing

High Times for Hard Liquor

New distilleries, smart bottle shops, micro-batch bitters, and more. Here are seven reasons to raise a glass to the Bay Area’s booming spirits scene.


1. Gin is getting its own palace.
Six years after he opened Smuggler’s Cove, his nautically themed shrine to rum, Martin Cate is about to do the same for gin with Whitechapel, the Polk Street bar that he’s planning to open in April. “I said, ‘I want to Smuggler-ize gin,’” Cate says of the bar, which is named after the London neighborhood where gin was historically produced. “I want to turbocharge the experience.” So what does that mean, exactly?

Upwards of 500 bottles
Cate is hoping to build the largest gin library in North America. “Not only will we have wonderful new things—like a private-label gin made by San Francisco’s Distillery No. 209—and classics, we’ll also have some really, really rare bottles, like a 1930s-era Plymouth gin.”

An education program
“Gin has a reputation for being stodgy. But there are lots of terrific very traditional gins, and also really invigorating modern gins that are lighter on the palate. And the history is fascinating. Reading about it helps to add a certain flavor. I promise it won’t be painfully dull.”

“Our food concept is Anglo-Dutch-Bangladeshi. It sounds like a parody of a hipster restaurant, but the British and Dutch have wonderful bar food, and the Whitechapel neighborhood is now heavily Bangladeshi.”

Decor inspired by abandoned London underground stations
“You should see how it looks inside my head.” 


2. We have a shiny new world-class spirits shop.
With its white walls and soaring ceiling, Alchemy Bottle Shop looks more like an art gallery than a liquor store. Which makes sense: The shop, which opened on Oakland’s Grand Avenue almost a year ago, not only showcases small-batch spirits but also has a second-floor gallery that hosts tastings and classes. Owners Tova and Peter Mustacich weighed in on the state of the industry.

What kind of trends are you seeing?
Tova: American single-malt spirits are taking on a life of their own. I also see more California places playing around with agave spirits; Venus Spirits in Santa Cruz made the first, as far as I’m aware.
Peter: And definitely the whiskey-from-beer thing. Those tend to be pretty popular because whiskey and beer are popular.
Tova: We’re seeing other interesting barrel-aged things, like vermouth and white spirits. For a long time, the spirits industry was dominated by scotch, bourbon, and cognac, and there were specific requirements to call them that. With the new distilleries, there’s more willingness to experiment and play around. 


3. Our grenadine uses real pomegranates.
It’s not just spirits that are enjoying a renaissance in the Bay Area—cocktail ingredients are also having a bit of a moment. Through her company, Small Hand Foods, bartender Jennifer Colliau produces pre-Prohibition mixers like orgeat, gum syrups, and grenadine made with real pomegranate juice. When she started out, Colliau recalls, “I thought there would be six bars in San Francisco that would be interested. Now I’m in four countries.” Small-batch bitters are also emerging as a popular side project for whiskey distilleries: Seven Stills has a line of three, including bitters made by macerating organic prickly pears with cactus pads, while Workhorse Rye’s line of three includes a salted cacao variety made with Dandelion chocolate. Even simple syrup has gotten an upgrade, thanks to Purely Syrup, a months-old company whose organic-certified syrups include grapefruit, habanero, and ginger root.  


4. Sonoma is sprouting distilleries.
Forget vineyards—Sonoma County is home to a burgeoning number of spirits manufacturers. “Sonoma is known for great food, wine, and beer, so the fact that there are great distilleries is not that much of a surprise,” says Adam Spiegel, owner of Sonoma County Distilling. Some of the scene’s new players include:

Sonoma County Distilling Co.
Launched by Spiegel and a now-former business partner in 2010, this distillery makes its rye and wheat whiskeys using 16th-century techniques, like applying direct fire to copper alembic stills. Tours are offered by the facility, which recently introduced its West of Kentucky bourbon. 

HelloCello and Prohibition Spirits
Amy and Fred Groth moved to Sonoma from Colorado to start their multi-monikered distillery, which debuted in 2008 with HelloCello, an organic limoncello. Today the couple make wine barrel–aged whiskeys, rum, vodka, and bourbon; tours and tastings are available. 

Hanson of Sonoma
A couple of years ago, brothers Brandon and Chris Hanson had the ingenious idea to distill vodka from Sonoma’s most bountiful local ingredient: grapes. They’re planning to launch a new distillery later this month that will be open to the public. 

Sonoma Brothers Distilling
“We originally had our heart set on whiskey,” says Chris Matthies, a Santa Rosa firefighter who founded the company in 2012 with his twin brother, Brandon, a police officer. But whiskey takes time, so the brothers began making vodka; the first batch was released last year. 707-888-2120


5. Craft beer is being made into whiskey.
The craft beer boom’s legacy is evident in more than the Bay Area’s glut of bars and beards: Thanks to Seven Stills, it can also be tasted in bottles of whiskey. The Dogpatch-based company is the brainchild of Tim Obert and Clint Potter, beer-loving pals who two years ago got the notion to riff on the traditional method of distilling whiskey from low-quality beer. “Our idea,” says Obert, “was to use beer that was actually good beer.” Working out of Dogpatch, they brewed their first batch at Mill Valley Beer Works. As part of their Seven Hills series, they’ve released Chocasmoke, an homage to Twin Peaks made from smoked chocolate oatmeal stout; next up is Fluxuate, a coffee porter–based tribute to Rincon Hill, the original location of Folger’s. A brewery and a distillery are in the works. “We’re trying to get craft brew drinkers to start drinking craft whiskey,” says Obert. “The market is freaking huge for it. Craft beer in the Bay Area is insane.” 


6. Sebastopol is producing honest-to-goodness sloe gin.
In Timo Marshall’s native England, steeping wild sloe berries in alcohol is a centuries-old tradition. “When I first came to the U.S. and couldn’t find any, I was fairly distressed,” Marshall recalls. The red liqueur doesn’t have quite the audience here that it does in England; its fans, Marshall says, occupy “kind of the geek cocktail section of the world.” So in 2013, Marshall and his wife, Ashby, opened Spirit Works, the Sebastopol distillery where they produce “grain-to-glass” sloe gin, a concoction made by macerating sloe berries imported from Europe with alcohol made from California red winter wheat. In December, the distillery introduced a limited-edition barrel-aged version, the first of its kind in the United States. Most people have one of two reactions to sloe gin, Marshall says. “Either they drank it in high school and have terrible memories, or they’ve never heard of it. So everyone needs a small touch of reeducation.”

7. We are drowning in great locally-made alcohol.
Here's fifteen of them: Workhorse Rye cofounder Rob Easter describes himself as a “gypsy distiller,” meaning that his Redhorse whiskey ($140) is made at host distilleries. Prohibition Spirits finishes its limited-release Chauvet XO brandy ($75) in freshly drained bourbon barrels, which makes it drink more like a whiskey. Nope, vodka isn’t just made from grains—Hanson of Sonoma makes its bottles ($35) from local organic grapes. Sia scotch ($49) founder Carin Luna-Ostaseski winningly describes herself as “a Hispanic woman living in San Francisco, making scotch.” Thanks to Raff Distillerie’s Emperor Norton ($70), absinthe made on Treasure Island is an actual reality. Last July, Santa Cruz got its only distillery when Venus Spirits began making small-batch booze like El Ladron Blanco ($42), a blue agave spirit. Livermore’s Sutherland Distilling was founded in 2013 by three friends who named their Diablo’s Shadow Navy Strength rum ($30) after the mountain where they love to camp. Most rums are made from molasses, but Alameda craft distilling pioneer St. George Spirits makes its California Agricole rum ($75) from California sugar cane. That naked lady on the front of Seven Stills' Chocasmoke whiskey ($36)? It’s the work of street artist extraordinaire Zio Ziegler. Prohibition Spirits' Hooker’s House bourbon ($45) is named after Joseph Hooker, a notorious Civil War general, drinker, and ladies’ man. Allegedly the only distillery in the world built over water, Distillery No. 209 makes its gin ($35) in the shadow of AT&T Park on Pier 50. Water from Lake Sonoma provides the terroir in Sonoma County Distilling Co.’s Sonoma rye whiskey ($59), which is aged in new, charred American oak barrels and finished in old wood. The reason that Hangar 1's Buddha’s Hand Citron vodka ($35) tastes exactly like its namesake lumpy, long-fingered Asian fruit? Its creators distill the whole thing—seed, pit, oil, skin, and all—instead of using mere extract. Located in Windsor, Sonoma Brothers Distilling uses a blend of corn, wheat, and a specialty barley malt for its vodka ($30). The production of Spirit Works' sloe gin ($40) is overseen by Ashby Marshall, one of the industry’s few female head distillers.


Originally published in the February issue of San Francsico

Have feedback? Email us at
Email Rebecca Flint Marx at
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag
Follow Rebecca Flint Marx on Twitter @EdibleComplex