When developing a new whiskey, the first thing to create is the mash bill — the profile of grains that will be used to create a distillery’s final product. From there, distillers have to decide where to source their grain. Locally, the source of what makes up Sonoma County whiskey runs the gamut.
For both Jeff Duckhorn, the head distiller at Graton-based Redwood Empire Whiskey, and Adam Spiegel, founder and whiskey maker of Rohnert Park-based Sonoma Distilling Company, figuring out the mash bill for their whiskeys meant looking to what products were already on the market.
“I try to work my way backwards,” Spiegel said of his whiskey making process. What’s helped him develop the distillery’s four whiskeys has been the ability to recognize “that there are people out there who have been doing it for a long period of time,” he said. “Not living in a vacuum has really been helpful for us.”
Sonoma Distilling Company was founded in 2010 and touts itself as being one of the first 200 distilleries created in the country, as well as one of the first to call Sonoma County home.
Redwood Empire’s operation is a bit newer. The distillery began developing its mash bill in 2015 and released its first whiskey in 2017.
“With all of our spirits we do a lot of market research as far as tasting what’s out there, getting an idea of what the set looks like and where we want to be,” Duckhorn said. “That was what we were working on — laying those down and figuring out our style. We decided we wanted to do a lot of rye, both the rye whiskey and rye in our bourbon as well. Similar to wineries, there are blends that involve different materials from different places.”
For Redwood Empire, most of their grains aren’t sourced locally, and are instead gathered from various sources throughout the United States — they get their rye from North Dakota and Minnesota, corn from the Midwest and barley from Montana. The malt, however, is sourced in Alameda.
Duckhorn said that while the company doesn’t currently source the majority of its grain locally, they’re in the process of trying to figure out how to do so. Redwood Empire experimented with California corn during last year’s production, but received a smaller yield than with product it had sourced from other areas.
“Flavors were good but the yield wasn’t very good,” Duckhorn said. “Typically a lot of the grain produced in California is made for food production, not whiskey production.”
As a result, Duckhorn said that he has challenged the distillery’s California supplier to go back and try out different types of corn.
Grain sourcing is the opposite for Sonoma Distilling Company, who sources the bulk of the grain for its mash bills from California (corn, wheat, unmalted rye), with some types coming from the United Kingdom (malted rye), Wyoming (malted barley and cherrywood smoked barley) and Canada (corn and wheat).
“Having a 70-mile radius for us on 70 to 80% of our mash bills is sort of a big deal,” Spiegel said. “We take a lot of pride in being able to work with farmers. It’s nice to work with farmers and be able to hand them a check rather than going through a company.”
Spiegel said that the company’s age likely works in its favor when it comes to sourcing grain, since they’ve already been able to spend the time needed to cultivation relationships with local farmers.
Having the bulk of its mash be close by to its distillery is part of a larger, Earth-conscious vision that Sonoma Distilling has, Spiegel said, allowing then to cut down their carbon footprint.
He said that while making premium whiskey is part of the ethos of the company, another part involves being good stewards to the environment.
Connecting back to Earth
Being rooted in the environment is a thread that runs between both distilleries.
At both Sonoma Distilling and Redwood Empire, spent grains get donated back to local farmers who use them to feed livestock.
Redwood Empire takes a more upfront approach with its appreciation, naming each of its three whiskeys after regional trees and adorning the bottles with quotes from John Muir.
“We really wanted to give it a sense of place — we wanted to tie in our location here in Northern California,” said Jessica Gray, marketing manager for Redwood Empire Whiskey. “Whiskey aging and whiskey maturation is largely impacted by the environment that it ages in, and we have this incredible temperate climate in Sonoma County. It definitely impacts the way our whiskey ages.”
Additionally, the distillery works with a nonprofit to plant one tree for every bottle purchased. The trees are often planted in countries that have been impacted by deforestation, Gray said.
Fairly new to the Sonoma County, local whiskey distilleries are constantly growing and developing — and distillers are excited to see where the industry goes.
“We’ve definitely seen a continued surge of interested in both whiskey and gin as well,” Duckhorn said (Redwood Empire has a sister brand that produces gin).
According to Spiegel, the per capita alcohol consumption today is less than it was in the 1970s, meaning that there’s room for consumption levels to go higher.
“We might not be able to compete with the big guys … but that doesn’t mean that we both can’t sit on the same shelf, at the same time, have two distillers sit on the same stage, and sit on equal footing,” he said.
“The quality of food, the quality of restaurants have dramatically changed in the last five years, let alone the last 10 years. Having all these players (bartenders) either come into the game or step up their game — what that’s done is that’s caused all of us in this industry to think ‘what are we offering that can give these people more to work with?’” Spiegel said. “I’m constantly interested to see how the Sonoma County market continues to evolve. It’s always been so well known for beer and food and wine, so why can’t it be distilleries or spirits that we can do well? I feel like the whole county is primed because the nuts and bolts that we have here in Sonoma gives us so much opportunity.”