Wine Country Booze
Going beyond the Grape/Hooker’s House Bourbon
I’d dive to the bottom and never come up
Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, rye whiskey I cry
If I don’t get rye whiskey, I think I will die
August Sebastiani has three generations of distinguished and historic winemaking behind him. His name is a brand, synonymous with Sonoma, and it stands for wine.
So what’s he doing with bottles of rye whiskey and botanical gin?
Can you say “profit margin”?
The typical net profit on a $20 bottle of wine, sold through a distributer, can be as little as $1 for the winery. Sebastiani, who is president of The Other Guy wines, a Sebastiani spinoff, says his popular Plungerhead label of old-vine zinfandels has a gross profit margin of about 25 percent.
TOG is poised to sell 300,000 cases of wine this year, so clearly they’re making a decent return on investment. But consider this: “With spirits,” Sebastiani says, “there’s just so much more margin—typically 75 to 80 points.”
Which brings us to Masterson’s 90-proof, 10-Year-Old Straight Rye Whiskey, a product of 35 Maple Street, which is both the name and the Sonoma address of Sebastiani’s newest TOG division.
Distilled in an old-fashioned pot still at a small, Jim Beam-owned facility in Calgary, Alberta, Masterson’s is 100 percent rye and spends 10 years in American oak barrels before being bottled. Along the way it picks up notes of cinnamon and spice and, when it rolls across the tongue, it’s smooth as honey, or at least honey with, as Sebastiani likes to say, “a lot of heat in it.”
The rye comes in a box covered with newspaper columns, a nod to the eponymous, one-time western lawman, gunfighter, and eventual sports editor who teamed with Wyatt Earp to help tame Dodge City.
The taste of Masterson’s Straight Rye Whiskey apparently tamed the judges at the 2012 Ultimate Beverage Challenge, who called it “excellent, highly recommended” and gave it the Chairman’s Trophy as the best rye in the running. It was not, however, the most expensive, although it retails in the $70 range.
Masterson’s rye was just the first step into the distillery for Sebastiani. Next he brought forth Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin, concocted through a series of experimental tastings in collaboration with a boutique distillery in Bend, Oregon, named, appropriately, Bendistillery and owned by a man actually named Jim Bendis.
Bendistillery lays claim to more craft spirits awards than anyone else in the business, and besides their own brands they produce private labels, including Fuzzy’s, the hot new vodka marketed by PGA champion Fuzzy Zoeller.
Uncle Val’s reflects that artisan touch, with a delightful vengeance. The nose blooms with citrus and sage, a backstory of cucumber that jumps forward on the tongue, a touch of lavender, and of course juniper berry, all of it infused after
Pull the cork, put the bottle under your nose and—man or woman—you’ll almost want to dab some on your face or behind your ears. Like Masterson’s rye it’s a potent 90 proof, but it doesn’t feel like it in the mouth, and the 35 Maple Street Web site offers some tasty recipes for things you can do with it.
Truth be told, you may just want to sip it neat while the cucumber aroma curls up your nose. Retail is under $40, and you can find it at Sonoma Market.
Find it all at 35maplestreet.com.
Surely by now you know the story of General “Fighting Joe” Hooker, a Union officer in the Civil War who spent five years in Sonoma and whose legend includes a genuine fondness for whiskey and a real or imagined tolerance of “camp followers”—women of the night who serviced his troops.
Historians differ on whether or not that was the origin of the popular term for prostitute, but the belief has only burnished Hooker’s legacy.
And now there’s another reason to celebrate the general, a 100-proof bourbon—distilled and aged seven years in new oak in Kentucky, then transferred to neutral pinot noir barrels in Sonoma for another nine months—and named, in homage to the good general, Hooker’s House Bourbon.
The name is a clever riff on history, because there is a real Hooker House, the general’s former Sonoma residence, built in 1853 and only recently restored to its proper name and now a museum of Sonoma history.
Hooker’s House could be just a simple marketing device to push a mediocre product in pursuit of a fast buck. But it’s not. It won the 2012 SIP Awards International Competition with a platinum medal for small batch bourbons 10 years old and younger. The annual competition is judged blind by a panel of 60 consumers with no industry affiliation.
The bourbon is a product of Prohibition Spirits, an offshoot of HelloCello, the Sonoma cottage industry started by Fred and Amy Groth in an industrial warehouse where they now make a growing line of limoncello-inspired liqueurs, along with whiskey.
When they made the bourbon decision they polled their winemaking friends who steered them toward French oak pinot noir barrels.
At first blush, the Groths seem to have just stepped away from a college frat party. They exude a laid-back, perpetually cheerful charm, they’re well-supplied with various varieties of adult beverages, and their warehouse headquarters has a tasting bar, a small stage, a floor-to-ceiling steel bar (presumably for pole dancing, or some form of makeshift torture), and they’re licensed to entertain. Fred has the open, friendly face of a successful realtor or a much younger and better-looking Ned Beatty. Amy, with long blond hair, could be an all-American prom queen or—in fishnet stockings—a wholesome version of one of Hooker’s hookers.
But don’t let that fool you. The two met at the University of Colorado in Boulder where Fred got a Ph.D. in environmental design and traveled the world, while Amy majored in marketing and became a highly successful wedding and special events planner.
They’ve got three kids and they somehow balance partying, parenting, and promoting with a dead-on instinct for the next big beverage idea and the ability to birth it.
The success of all their beverages is built on smart packaging, labeling, and marketing, but it begins with good taste. Hooker’s House Bourbon may start a trend—the fruit flavors leached from the French oak barrels it sits in add a whole new dimension to the taste of whiskey, enhanced by the high percentage of rye mash used in the blend. You’ll pick up flavors of plum and cherry, some cinnamon and maybe some cloves, with the rye kicking in underneath. The hundred-proof heat helps punch up the flavors but goes down smooth.
The first batch of bourbon was aged four years, the second sat for six years (and won a silver medal in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition), and the latest has spent seven years in oak barrels.
Even if you’re not a bourbon drinker, you’re liable to love this general’s potion. And if you do, you’ll want to stay alert for the next round of Fred and Amy’s distilled delights, because they’ve got a 100 percent rye whiskey aging in zinfandel barrels along with a 21-year-old bourbon that should be on the market soon.
But they’re not stopping there. Prohibition Spirits just got a distiller’s license—the first in the Sonoma Valley, says Fred—and they picked up an antique pot still that once belonged to sugar baron John D. Spreckels. The Groths plan to use it to make a Wine Country rum called Sugar Daddy once they complete a due diligence rum reconnoitering trip to Puerto Rico. Look for it in October. And, cheers!
From the 2012 Fall issue of SONOMA