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Carolyn Jung | Photo: Angela DeCenzo | September 12, 2016
A distillery started by an industrious couple provides another good reason to visit Half Moon Bay.
Ulli Bisono grew up in an Austrian Alps village with the centuries-old tradition of homemade brandies distilled from local fruit. In fact, no Christmas was complete without the custom of marching bands going door to door to entertain before receiving at each stop a few coins and a glass of brandy. There was only one problem: “The brandies were really gross,” Ulli says. “A lot of the farmers didn’t know how to distill. They sold the best fruit, then gave the bad fruit to the animals and used it for distilling. Never did I buy fruit brandy or order it when I was growing up there.”
And never in her wildest dreams did she ever think she’d want to make fruit brandies of her own. But that was then; this is now. Four years ago, Ulli and her husband, Caesar Bisono, founded Half Moon Bay Distillery, believed to be the first licensed distillery on the San Mateo coast. In 2014, they started producing their Purissima Vodka ($29.95 for 750 ml bottle), named for the Spanish word meaning “pure” and for a former San Mateo County ghost town. That was followed by their Harvard Avenue Gin ($34.95), named for the street on which the business resides. Next year, they hope to make their first brandies from local fruit, including red plums, chardonnay grapes and strawberries.
Ulli, a lawyer and realtor, and Caesar, a retired jockey who has a street (Bisono Way) named for him in San Mateo’s Bay Meadows development, where he raced when it was still a track, found themselves on this spirited path after a prophetic trip in 2009 to see her family in Austria. They visited the younger brother of Ulli’s childhood nanny, Matthias Gasteiger, a master brandy-maker helping to fuel a new distilling renaissance in Austria. With vile memories of local brandies, Ulli wasn’t interested in tasting anything. But after taking a sip, Caesar convinced his wife to give it a try. She found herself dumbstruck. “His oak-aged pear brandy was like the perfect Bartlett at the perfect hour of ripeness put into a bottle,” she recalls.
They decided to help Gasteiger expand production in hopes of importing his brandies into California. But they were stymied by red tape in Austria. They realized the only way to get fruit brandies like those into the Bay Area was to actually make them in California. So the couple imported a still from Germany and financed the endeavor almost entirely themselves. Then, they waited. And waited. “Before you can even apply for a permit, you have to get a site and all the equipment,” Caesar explains. “It all has to be set up, but you can’t turn anything on.” After half a year, the approvals came through from state, federal and California Coastal Commission officials.
Thanks to a new California law that took effect this year, allowing artisanal distilleries that produce less than 100,000 gallons a year to sell directly to customers (up to three bottles per person per day), the couple started offering free, 45-minute tours that must be booked in advance. In 2017, they will move from their cramped site to another location on the same street, tripling their square footage, to allow for a proper tasting room and a second still.
The Bisonos, who live in Half Moon Bay and met when Caesar was the manager of the Los Altos Hills barn where Ulli boarded her horse, run a lean operation. Besides themselves, they have only one other employee, a sales person. They can produce about 15 cases of spirits per day. They began with vodka because it’s the most popular spirit sold in the United States. Their vodka starts with a mix of wheat, a little malted barley and water that’s heated to convert the starch to sugar. After yeast is added, the mash is fermented in the still, creating a vodka that’s smooth and silky, with no harsh finish.
Their gin starts with a base of their vodka. Besides the required juniper, a dozen botanicals—including orange peel, lemon peel, coriander, rose hips, grains of paradise, cinnamon and clove—are added to a mesh bag hung in the still to allow for flavors to develop through vapor extraction, rather than steeping, to create more subtlety. The juniper is evident in the final product, but as a back note, with the brightness of the citrus and the warmth of autumn spices upfront.
Sam’s Chowder House was the first restaurant to feature the spirits. The Purissima Vodka is a premium option in its popular Bloody Mary spiced with fresh horseradish and Old Bay seasoning. “Ulli and Caesar are passionate about what they do and understand what handcrafted, artisanal products are all about,” says Julie Shenkman, co-owner of Sam’s. The spirits are also served at other local establishments, such as Cetrella, Pasta Moon, It’s Italia, Half Moon Bay Brewing Company and The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay. They’re on the shelves at Draeger’s, Roberts Market, Bianchini’s, select Andronico’s and the Safeway in Half Moon Bay too.
For Ulli, the greatest compliment comes when professed gin-haters leave their distillery having bought two bottles of it. After all, just as with fruit brandies in Austria, she’s learned firsthand that the proof is in the taste.
Half Moon Bay Distillery
103 Harvard Ave., Half Moon Bay
Originally published in the September issue of Silicon Valley