The Emerging California-Style Whiskey

A number of half-full small bottles on a wooden shelf
Whiskey samples at Redwood Empire American Whiskey in Graton / Photo by Hannah Park

California is best known for its wine, but it also has a burgeoning whiskey culture. In fact, its newest bottlings include a handful that stake a claim for a new “California-style” whiskey.

When Los Angeles producer CALI Distillery released its lightly spiced whiskey, it declared, “we have reimagined whiskey as a California spirit.” Griffo Distillery, in Petaluma, uses open-air fermentation to encourage wild yeast to flourish to add local terroir to its Stony Point bottling.

Elsewhere in Sonoma, Graton Distilling Co.’s Redwood Empire American Whiskey is made with a small portion of a two-year-old rye, rested in wine and Port barrels. Here are eight California-made whiskeys worth a pour right now.

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St. George Spirits, Alameda

This craft distillery just south of Oakland jokes that its new hobby is “barrel thieving.” The whiskey is made mostly with Tennessee rye and Bourbon, plus Kentucky Bourbon “pilfered from a few of our favorite distilleries,” the producer states. It’s all blended with malt whiskey made at the St. George facility. This sipper shows smooth vanilla, spice and oak, with a tease of red fruit on the finish. abv: 43%

A slim bottle of whiskey in front of a field of bloomming poppies
Photo courtesy of Cali Distillery

CALI Whiskey

Cali Distillery, Beverly Hills

“We have reimagined whiskey as a California spirit,” say these producers, who describe CALI Whiskey as “relaxed, but sophisticated, with a rugged edge.” This flavored whiskey is made with Kentucky Bourbon and rye, finished with herbs, spices and botanicals from California. The palate leads with sweet spices, Red Hot candies and a light note that suggests banana bread. It finishes sweet and warming. abv: 42.5%

Left image of a pot still and a condenser, right image of a blue-labeled bottle of whiskey on wet rocks
Inside Charbay’s distillery / Photos by Sara Sanger and Drink in Nature Photography

Charbay Doubled & Twisted

Charbay Distillery, St. Helena

Marko Karakasevic loves to make whiskey with “bottle-ready beer,” and this dynamic offering is no exception. The whiskey starts with three beers, a single malt, a stout and a Pilsner, custom-brewed by Sonoma’s Bear Republic Brewing Company. These beers are then distilled into whiskey, then blended at full strength. The finished whiskey is plush and slightly hoppy, while the stout contributes a rich cocoa note. abv: 45%

Man in jeans and a T-shirt looking into a small window on a copper still column
Michael Griffo peering into a column still / Photo by Michael Woolsey

Griffo Distillery Stony Point Whiskey

Griffo Distillery, Petaluma

This is a California-made Bourbon from start to finish. It starts with a mash of corn and rye, fermented in open vats to encourage local yeast to flourish for “for [a] rich character of local terroir,” according to the producer. It’s distinctly nutty, with soft hints of vanilla, coffee and pecan, before a finish that features baking spice and mouthwatering lemon zest. abv: 47%

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Low Gap 2-Year Rye

Craft Distillers, Ukiah

This small-batch rye is made on an antique Cognac still, and aged for two years in former Bourbon and Cognac barrels that previously held Germain-Robin brandy. The end result is delicately spicy and super silky. The Low Gap label also includes a range of excellent wheat whiskeys, Bourbons and blended whiskeys. abv: 42.2%

Redwood Empire American Whiskey

Graton Distilling Company, Graton

A blend of sourced Bourbons aged between five and 11 years and a three-year-old rye is combined with a two-year-old rye made at Graton. A portion of the whiskey also was rested in wine and ex-Port barrels at the Sonoma distillery. The finished product is a mellow mix of vanilla and stone fruit tones, with a perky cinnamon-cayenne finish. abv: 45%

A slim bottle of whiskey with purple labelling, two pours on the rocks, nuts, fruit and a blurred book, on a wooden table
Photo courtesy of Greenbar Distillery

Slow Hand Six Woods Whiskey

Greenbar Distillery, Los Angeles

What starts as a three-year-old American single malt is aged in a large French white oak vat with hickory, maple, mulberry, red oak and grape wood staves. The unconventional process adds surprising complexity. The nose and palate are tinged with plum, oak, cocoa, tea and clove. Try it in an Old Fashioned. abv: 42%

Left image of a man in jeans and a button-down in front of a big pot still, right image of a big whiskey bottle against a black background
Sonoma Distillery’s whiskey maker, Adam Spiegel / Photo by Michael Woolsey

Sonoma Bourbon Whiskey

Sonoma Distilling, Rohnert Park

This wine-country label was a trailblazer among California-made whiskeys upon its launch in 2010. Formerly known as West of Kentucky, the wheated Bourbon is made with Midwest-grown corn and wheat sourced from California and Canada, for almond and toffee richness. Also, keep an eye out for the cherrywood-smoked version, a seasonal release available in the fall. abv: 46%

Published on April 26, 2019
Topics: Drinks
About the Author
Kara Newman 
Spirits Editor

Kara Newman reviews spirits and writes about spirits and cocktail trends for Wine Enthusiast. She's the author of several cocktail books, including Shake.Stir.Sip. and NIGHTCAP: More than 40 Cocktails to Close Out Any Evening, which debuts in September 2018. Email: spirits@wineenthusiast.net



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