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The Five Best Places to Go Whiskey Tasting in Wine Country

Squeeze it in between wineries or go full bore for booze.

Barrels at Napa Valley Distillery.

 

As a tourist destination, wine country is as much a legal invention as a viticultural one. Wineries and breweries have for decades enjoyed an edge over distilleries, which until this year were forbidden from selling directly to consumers. That all changed when the Craft Distillers Act of 2015 took effect in January and gave small distillers a chance to build their businesses around the taste-and-purchase models that wineries and breweries already thrive on. Now, distillers are playing catch up. Distillery tour-and-tasting combos are still relatively rare in wine country—but that’s changing fast. Here are five of our favorites where you can try and buy.

Sonoma County Distilling Co.
Tours by appointment Wed.–Sun. (reserve at least 24 hours in advance).
What they make: Eight whiskeys ranging from small-batch bourbon to black truffle rye.
Why they’re great: Sonoma County Distilling Co. is the first stop in Sonoma for the whiskey purist. All eight whiskeys are made from grain to glass, a practice that is becoming more and more rare as people buy and age, or buy and blend, spirits distilled by others. On the tour and tasting ($20), you’ll walk through the entire process of making whiskey, starting with the brewing of beer, which is twice distilled, then barreled, aged, blended, and bottled. The vibe here is comparatively simple—think barrels stacked to the ceiling, picnic tables, and rustic wood—but what’s lacking in pomp is made up for in skill, focus, and the staggering range of flavors in their whiskeys. The distillery’s flagship rye is a smooth, nutty, soft, and sultry standout. And make sure to sample the black truffle rye, which they’re calling the world’s first. It packs in notes of truffle along with caramel, earth, and vanilla. It also pairs nicely with peppery red meats. 

Napa Valley Distillery
Tours and tastings: Mon. and Wed.–Sat., 11 a.m.–7 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.–6 p.m. (Reservations required.) 
What they make: Vodka, gin, brandy, rum, and whiskey.
Why they’re great: Best known for bitters and vodka, Napa Valley Distillery recently added several rums and whiskeys to its portfolio. They’re now available to taste from the barrel in the distillery’s new downtown Napa tasting room, which opened this spring. The 12,000-square-foot complex features a tasting salon with a Moulin Rouge vibe and custom-made direct-fire Charentais copper pot stills. The distillery is still producing everything off-site, but will be firing those sexy stills up soon and doing everything locally in Napa. For now, founder Arthur Hartunian is buying Kentucky whiskeys, fusing them into rustic brown-butter- and caramel-flavored blends, and aging them in Napa Valley wine barrels. On the tour ($30; look out for two-for-one coupons on the website), make sure to try the aging whiskeys and rums directly from the barrel. It’s a rare experience, and the flavors are rich, sophisticated, and just the right amount of imperfect to truly be artisan. 

Photo: Napa Valley Distillery.

Spirit Works Distillery 
Tasting room: Wed.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Private tours: Fri.–Sun. at 5 p.m. (groups up to 10).
What they make: A line of seven spirits including vodka, gin, wheat whiskey, and rye whiskey.
Why they’re great: At Spirit Works Distillery, you don’t have to take the tour to have a view of the action: The main tasting bar opens onto a large window with a view of everything going on behind the scenes. But we still recommend it. The all-female production team, led by head distiller Ashby Marshall, does everything from mill to distill on-site (but you won’t need a degree in chemistry to follow the steps from grain to bottle). On the tour ($20), you’ll find a hybrid pot-still that reaches over 26 feet in the air, and more than 200 barrels of whiskey and other spirits aging. In the tasting room ($18), have some fun with their gins, especially the Barrel Reserve Sloe Gin. But make sure to save your palate for the wheat whiskey, which features smooth flavors of caramel, nuts, smoke, and vanilla, and the rye whiskey, which bursts with honey, caramel, wood, and holiday spice. 

Prohibition Spirits and Distillery

Tours and tastings: Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–4 p.m. (Reservations required.) Groups of six or more: Sun.–Thur., hours by appointment.
What they make: A line of 21 spirits, including limoncello, brandy, rum, and five whiskeys. 
Why they’re great: Family-run Prohibition Spirits and Distillery is all about making spirits and whiskey accessible. Given this ethos, they don’t have a template for their tour ($18), and your experience can range from a couple of quick selfies to an in-depth conversation about grains and process. Whatever style of tour you choose, it will culminate in a tasting of up to six quarter-ounce pours (a limit imposed by California state law). Soon, however, Prohibition will be moving the tastings to a brand-new space in artsy boutique shopping center Cornerstone Sonoma. Visitors will be able to drop in without an appointment for pours of their small-batch spirits, along with seasonal releases. Be sure to sample from the line of five Hooker’s House whiskeys. None of these bad boys are bashful, but their flavors range from a young, sharp, clear, and slightly sweet corn whiskey to the complex, deep, and smooth aged 7/21 Bourbon. 

Alley 6 Craft Distillery 
Tasting room: Sat.–Sun., 11 a.m.–4 p.m. Tours by appointment. 
What they make: Whiskey and bitters
Why they’re great: Krystal and Jason Jorgensen moved to NorCal to learn more about winemaking and brewing but fell in love with whiskey. Last year they opened Alley 6 Craft Distillery and now make a rye whiskey, single-malt whiskey (not yet for sale, but you can taste it now), and a mushroom-based bitters called Candy Cap. Get a behind-the-scenes tour or skip right to the tasting ($10, or free with the purchase of a bottle). The single malt features flavors of peanut, smoke, and dark chocolate, while the rye is strong on caramel and vanilla with hints of clove and spice.  

  

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