East Bay distilleries have tales and tipples
Not only do East Bay distilleries produce world-class spirits, but the stories behind their inceptions are beguiling. East Bay Express checked in with four of them.
Absinthia and the Green Fairy
Absinthe was illegal and banished from the world of spirits for 85 years—and it’s all the French wine industry’s fault, according to Absinthia Vermut, founder and CEO of Oakland’s Absinthia’s Bottled Spirits. And yes, she did change her name legally years ago to reflect her passion for the much-slandered liqueur. As she tells the story, phylloxera devastated France’s vineyards between 1863 and 1890, causing spirits-lovers to turn to the “Green Fairy.” Notables such as Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Émile Zola, Alfred Jarry and Oscar Wilde extolled its effects on creativity.
Then the wine industry recovered and needed to lure back drinkers. So, it spread rumors that absinthe caused insanity. This strategy was successful. Absinthe was made illegal and stayed illegal in the U.S. until 2007.
Vermut, however, had first tasted absinthe at a “Proust Wake” in 1996, and in 1997 made her first bottle, using a recipe she now describes as “terrible.” Undeterred, she continued, using her friends as guinea pigs and developing flavor profiles using vintage Swiss recipes. She officially launched her business in 2017.
Today, her three versions of absinthe—Blanche, Verte and Barrel-Aged—are sold online, through various bottle shops and are available at some Bay Area bars. She uses organic ingredients, locally sourcing as many as possible. She describes Blanche as “clean, good for people who aren’t familiar with absinthe”; Verte, which is green from botanicals used in production, as “earthy and grassy”; and Barrel-Aged as “rounded and softer,” with hints of anise, fennel and wormwood.
Vermut also produces a line of non-alcoholic cocktail syrups: Crimson Smoke, Caged Heat, Cherry Bomb and Fairy Dust—which uses the same herbs as classic absinthe. Business is booming, and she continues to rehabilitate the Green Fairy’s reputation. “Drink quality absinthe,” she urges. “If it’s neon green, it’s not true absinthe.”
Write Code, Make Bourbon
Friends Tory Brown and Julian Peebles were both working in the tech industry when they began talking about different business ventures. “We both liked craft spirits,” Peebles said. Beyond that, said Brown, the partners wanted to create a business that would “help people come together and get to know each other for who they are.” Thus, in 2020, Berkeley-based Common Ground Spirits was born.
They decided to focus on bourbon and gin. “The idea for the bourbon was grass-to-glass Californian,” Peebles said. But they knew their bourbon would take four years to age. So, they decided to make gin, both to “change the perspective of gin,” said Brown, and to begin building their brand.
“Gin 1” was inspired by a drink Peebles had in Ireland that contained, among other ingredients, basil, elderflower, agave—and, of course, gin. “Gin 2” comes from the partners’ love of food and cooking, and is a savory offering, with black current, thyme and peppercorn. “They are both contemporary in style,” Brown said.
Meanwhile, the bourbon, which is made from 76% corn, 14% rye and 10% malted barley, is still aging in American white oak barrels, some with French oak infusion spirals. “We’re going for a sweeter, more sophisticated taste,” Peebles said. An occasional tasting reveals the bourbon developing complex notes of flavors.
The partners note it’s been a challenge being “the new kids on the block,” but a distributor who initially turned them down has now happily welcomed them. “People follow us on social media now,” Peebles said. They often do tasting events, where people say, “I didn’t know gin could be like this,” he added.
In any case, Common Ground Spirits is in it for the long run. “We’re passionate about what we do,” Brown said. “We want this to be a legacy business for our families and kids.” Visit their site to purchase or to find retailers and restaurants carrying their gins.
Sisters With Spirit
Oakland natives Alexandra (Ali) and Samantha (Sam) Blatteis were living at opposite ends of the country when the idea of making spirits began to percolate. Sam Blatteis was living in New York City, where she was involved with the “green market greens” program, “which revitalized grain growing,” she said, as local farmers began to grow grain for the malt houses.
Beer- and spirits-makers lobbied the New York legislature for the ability to sell their products as “agricultural” as long as they used locally grown ingredients, she said.
Ali Blatteis was living in San Francisco, where she started exploring whiskeys and helped found a women’s whiskey club. When her sister came out to visit, the twins toured a distillery. “I learned about the ingredients that can transform aroma and flavor,” she said.
Knowing years of aging were required before they had a sellable product, they still decided to focus on whiskey and bourbon. As the culmination of their research at local distilleries and small family farms, distilling coursework and studies, the twins officially launched Home Base Spirits in 2015.
“We knew we really liked Japanese and Irish whiskeys,” said Sam Blatteis, but they also wanted to capture West Coast terroir. Their Home Base Single Malt Whiskey uses 100% estate malted barley, aged in bourbon barrels.
For their bourbon, they wanted to make something fresh. They used 30% malted barley and 10% rye to add to their mash. They now offer two: Home Base Bourbon and Home Base Cask-Strength Bourbon, a blend of their flagship bourbon and four-year wheated bourbon.
They also now make two bitters. “No. 01 is very citrus-forward,” said Sam Blatteis, with both navel and bitter orange, Meyer lemon and pomegranate, while No. 02 is “summer harvested, digestif-style,” with apricots, figs and cherries.
Local focus extends to their labels, as they approach local artists to create them. Limited-edition Home Base Bourbon X aids Oakland Art Murmur, the nonprofit supporting Oakland artists. Visit the site for places to purchase.
A Happy Holiday Histoire
It was just supposed to be a holiday one-off, said Dissident Spirits co-founder Oliver Gothe. The Richmond distillery already had loyal customers for its Marina Bay Vodka, Brickyard Cove Silver Rum, Monterey Pine and Peppercorn gins, and Collina Ricca Amaro.
Then Gothe met Berkeley coffee roaster Tanya Rao of Kaveri Coffee Works, and Kaveri Espresso Liqueur emerged as an ideal special release. Little did they know, said Gothe, that the chocolatey, mocha-flavored liqueur would prove so popular; it now accounts for more than 40% of Dissident’s sales and 25% of Rao’s.
Rao, whose family has been in the Indian coffee trade for generations, creates a special roast for the product, and Dissident finishes it in rum barrels. “We don’t overdo the sweetness,” Gothe said. “It’s great by itself, in espresso martinis or in tiramisu.”
Dissident includes Espresso Liqueur in its free tastings at its tasting room. “We’re on our seventh batch,” Gothe said. Dissident products are also available at various East Bay retailers. Visit the site for information.