Spotlight on Sonoma County

BBS co-founding father @london_liquor has been enthusing about Sonoma County whiskey for literally as long as I’ve known him. In fact, the evening I joined BBS – before I was even in the Facebook group – he was talking about the distillery, and the trip he’d taken there a month before. I tried the whiskies amongst hundreds of others at The Whisky Show, and even spoke briefly to Adam, the distiller, but beyond that I’d never really got to know the brand, and when BBS did a tasting back in October I was in France indulging my love of fermented grape juice.

But Sonoma kept coming up in conversation; both with @london_liquor and with other members of the group. Naturally I’d earmarked their bourbon for our month of reviews, but it struck me that this might also be a good place to begin a series of articles looking at some of the craft distilleries around America. One thing led to another, and last Sunday I found myself sitting down with five Sonoma whiskies and my little blue notebook.

Adam Spiegel founded Sonoma County Distilling Company in 2010. Back then they were one of 200 distilleries in the US. Which sounds like a fair few, but compare that to the 1,300+ operating in the country today. My God we’ve got a lot of articles to write… Sonoma itself is more known for its vino; in fact my first encounter with the name was on a bottle of Pinot Noir, but Adam’s all about the grains, bottling bourbons, ryes and a wheat whiskey.

A great deal of that grain is grown close by in California; even the idiosyncratic smoking of the malted barley over cherrywood is now done in nearby Petaluma.. There’s a good deal of positive information about sustainability on the distillery website, which is always nice to see; equally heartening is the lack of any fluffy marketing story. It genuinely seems to be an operation concerned with making the best whiskey they can in as sustainable way as possible.

The grains, once fermented, are double distilled in old-school alembics, heated by direct fire; a hot topic with scotch nerds at the moment. The upshot of this, in theory, ought almost certainly to be a less consistent product, but there’s a strong argument suggesting that direct-fired stills lend more character to the juice.

Which leads us to the tasting.

Before me I had the 2nd Chance Wheat Whiskey, The West of Kentucky Bourbon #1 and three ryes. But were they any good?

Photo Credit: East London Liquor Company

Photo Credit: East London Liquor Company

Well, the wheat was young. Rather overtly so. I tend to struggle with wheat when it hasn’t had much time, and whilst there were certainly plenty of vibrant flavours of green fruit and vanilla, the esters hadn’t properly had time to harmonise, and the cask needed longer to exert influence and flavour. Vanillas and honeys on the palate wrestled against pretty sharp alcohol, drying to a grain-focussed finish. Unquestionably good, characterful spirit, but a work in progress rather than a finished article for my money.

The bourbon, however, was very interesting indeed. It’s a mashbill of corn, rye and that Cherrywood-smoked barley, and the nose was a citrussy fruit-basket of caramel-slathered oranges, lemons and freshness. There was a woody smokiness that complemented the herbal rye very nicely indeed, before buttered corn and red berries joined in on the palate. The texture had lovely roundness; a velvety voluptuousness that offset the high notes nicely. Young, certainly, but crucially not immature.

Things got even better with the rye. First up was the standard Sonoma County. Pungent, earthy and spicy; no slouch in leaping from the glass. But what really dazzled was the mouthfeel. Unbelievably full-bodied and mouthcoating; and this is a 100% rye, usually the leaner, more medium-bodied cousin of bourbon. In fact, this is probably the first rye I’ve ever tried in which the spirit’s body was bigger than its flavour intensity … and it’s certainly not short on flavour.

I wasn’t quite so keen on the cherrywood rye. Still nice, but not quite scaling the heights of the “standard”. It’s a mixed mashbill, with elements of wheat and cherrywood-smoked barley, and personally I’d consider leaving the wheat out, as it reaffirms the youth of the spirit in a slightly distracting way. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still not bad, and it’s an interesting attempt to mimic the flavours of a Manhattan in a spirit. Just my tuppenceworth. But what do I know? And hey – anything that tastes like a Manhattan suits me.

Finally, the black truffle rye. Back to a 100% rye mashbill, but this one rested for a few months atop French black Périgord truffles. Nope, I don’t know either, but they sound expensive.

Photo Credit: East London Liquor Company

Photo Credit: East London Liquor Company

What a contribution they made. I tried a black truffle vodka last year that was utterly vile, but here the rancio notes of the truffles matched the signature earthiness of Sonoma’s rye spirit. Certainly they were the primary flavour, but they didn’t dominate; the rye was still clear and characterful. That stunning mouthfeel was back, and the flavours, amplified by truffle, were all the more intense. If anything it made the whiskey seem older than its years; there were flavours that reminded me more than a little of mature red burgundy. If you don’t like truffle, this definitively isn’t for you, but if you’re open to trying something a bit different then this might be very much your jam.

A mixed bag then, but one with far more positives than negatives. My gripes were largely confined to the wheat whiskey; I think it’s a very rare wheat whiskey that can provide interest in youth, but perhaps I’m just an unsympathetic audience. I think Adam and Sonoma are genuinely doing something interesting and idiosyncratic; they’re very much making their whiskies their way. The rye, in particular, is a must-try for the mouthfeel alone; I can only imagine how good it would be with an extra two years in cask.

1,300 distilleries is a heck of a crowded market, even considering today’s whiskey boom. The sad truth is that many are likely to be short-lived, especially given struggles with pricing. That’s one area that’s tricky for Sonoma; certainly in the UK they’re priced upwards of £50 a bottle, which isn’t cheap.

That said, I do hope that Sonoma survives and continues to thrive, and properly tasting the standard and potential of what they’re producing makes me almost certain that they will. The quality of their bourbon, and especially their house rye, shows that they do the staples very well, and their innovations elsewhere are only likely to keep getting better and better. I’d love to see them make a single malt using their cherrywood-smoked barley, and my inner wine-nerd would be fascinated to see what happened to that rye in an ex-Pinot Noir cask … but that’s up to Adam!

If they can keep the prices steady as the age of their whiskey creeps up, Sonoma County should be on to a winner. And so should consumers of American whiskey.

Fair enough @london_liquor – good tip!

Word by WhiskyPilgrim