The craft distilling industry, much like the craft brewing industry, is taking off across the nation. The trend is on par in the San Joaquin Valley as well, a region where experts say there are more unauthorized distillers than legal – a sign that the region may see a boom in legal distilleries just like it has with craft beer. And when Governor Brown signed AB 933 in September, craft distilleries in California came out ahead with the newly gained ability to offer tastings.
David Souza wasn’t always a vodka man. He started out as a farmer and then escaped to Las Vegas to start a life of his own.
“I used to own a restaurant and a nightclub promotion company in Vegas,” Souza says. “I had been farming since I was kid. My family has been farming sweet potatoes for nearly 100 years.”
But after the glitz and glam of Vegas became too much, he returned to the rural Central Valley town of Atwater to continue the fifth generation family farm.
And one day, when he was trying to find a new use for the sweet potatoes that his family can’t bring to market, he had an “ah-ha” moment.
“The business in Vegas and farm, kind of brought me into the making of sweet potato vodka,” Souza says.
It’s here in what looks like a large garage from the roadway, west of Atwater, that Souza and his team of three take sweet potatoes, age them for up to 16 months and make what he calls Corbin Vodka. The creation of one 750ml bottle of Vodka takes 10 pounds of sweet potatoes.
The giant copper still that Souza and his team use to turn the sweet potato slurry into vodka looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. It’s a steam condenser – a system of three windowed columns. The tallest is about 10 feet tall.
“We farm the product, we cook it. We make a sweet potato based soup, we turn that soup into beer and then we distill it to get the vodka,” Souza says. “So it’s from farm to bottle and we have complete control of the product.”
The steam from the cooked slurry travels through the series of gradually taller shafts, collects in the tallest and finally drips into a five gallon bucket. It takes hours to fill one bucket.
But creating the vodka is the easy part. Souza says it has been tough for him to enter the larger market of spirits “because a lot of the big companies like Smirnoff and Kettle One they kind of control the industry, but for us small guys to get shelf space it has proved very difficult,” Souza says.
He also says his brand of spirits is unlike any other in the region, but it’s part of a nationwide trend of small artisanal distillers.
But Bill Owens, president and founder of the American Distilling Institute, says the craft distilling movement has been in the making for over two decades. He held the first meeting of craft distillers over 10 years ago.
“It’s gone from 86 to 606 craft distillers,” Owens says. “And what it is is that the knowledge of - via the internet and books - on how to get a license and how to distill has exploded. So the industry is growing about 30 percent a year.”
At that rate he expects to see 1000 distillers in America in less than 3 years. He says “this whole distilling thing is in peoples DNA. They just wake up one day and are like oh my god I got to do this.”
Owens says micro or craft distilling is just taking off in the Valley because “you don’t have a history of distilling like you do in Kentucky and Tennessee.”
But the few who do distill legally in Central California like Souza in Atwater or Wade Bowen of Bowen’s Whiskey in Bakersfield say they broke into the industry at the right time – two to five years ago.
“I don’t really get into all this stuff talking about how it doesn’t taste like this, it doesn’t taste like that,” Bowen says. “You either like it or you don’t.”
He says he owes the success of Bowen’s Whiskey to the craft distilling movement.
“I guess the craft thing is what really got us going,” Bowen says. “Mostly because we are small and unique. I actually started pretty much at the right time, because we started right at the beginning of the wave.”
Bowen says that in the last two years the whiskey that he once brewed at home has now become legal and is available in eight states and Canada.
He says his whiskey is unlike any other because of one regional ingredient.
“It’s 100 percent corn whiskey that I cut and age with fire ravaged oak from the local Piute Mountains up here where the forest fires have gone through,” Bowen says.
And that is why Trevor Hickman a cocktail maker at Piazza Del Pane – the upscale Italian eatery owned by the local Me-N-Eds Pizza chain – recommends Bowen’s Whiskey to his customers.
“It’s no artificial smokiness, it’s real true smokiness flavor to the whiskey,” Hickman says.
He offers three drinks using Bowen’s Whiskey. Whiskey on ice, a Smoky Peach and a “Twisted Whiskey Press similar to a Vodka Press, except we’ll add a little bit of lime juice, as well and we’ll muddle mint.”
He then topped the drink with lemon-lime soda and soda water.
“Give it a little stir here – in this one here you get the whisky flavor and a hint of the smokiness compared to the other two,” Hickman says.
And it’s mixologists like Hickman that distillers are after. Bowen and Souza agree that if distillers can convince this current generation of bartenders that their spirits stand ahead of the pack, their products will stay the test time and hopefully not only stay craft, but possibly line the shelves of markets nationwide.