California dreamin’ at Sonoma County Distilling

There’s plenty of great craft whiskey being produced outside of the ‘traditional’ distilling states in the US like Kentucky and Tennessee – you just have to know where to look.

One of the most unique and awarded whiskey offerings comes courtesy of Sonoma County Distilling Company, which was founded in 2010. At the time of its establishment, the distillery was one of the first 200 in the US; in 2018, there are more than 1600.

The concept of ‘grain to glass’ is a focus of Sonoma Country, which handles every level of production in-house – from the mashing and fermentation of grains, through to distillation, American oak barrel aging, bottling and labeling.

According to Californian Dreamers’ Mick Robinson – who distributes the Sonoma County whiskeys in Australia – it’s also the terroir of the area where the whiskeys are produced that makes them unique.

“While the mash bill is made up of locally sourced grains and spring water, what really makes the flavour unique is the terroir of Sonoma Country, the frequent salty mist that prevails in the San Francisco area brings some real character during the maturation process,” he explains.

“Coupled with the use of hand-made direct fire copper alembic pot stills, the Sonoma County whiskeys are unparalleled.”

Sonoma County’s flagship whiskey is the West of Kentucky Bourbon No.2, a wheated bourbon with hints of vanilla, almond, toffee, hay and cocoa on the nose and honey, white chocolate, caramel and oat on the palate – best enjoyed neat or in a classic Manhattan.

2nd Chance Wheat Whiskey brings aromas of freshly baked bread, vanilla bean, ginger and golden raisins, with a lighter palate of butterscotch, brine, toffee and orange curd. “I have heard a farmer describe this as tasting like his harvest smells,” says Robinson, adding that it can bring “real life to a whiskey sour.”

The latest addition to the Californian Dreamers portfolio is Cherrywood Rye, which Robinson says has been “really turning heads” at industry tastings. With a nose of baked cherries, vanilla custard, butterscotch, hay and a whiff of tar and sweet pipe tobacco, the palate presents with dried figs, toasted almonds, brandied cherries, new leather and light smoke – perfect for an Old Fashioned.

Robinson attributes the rising popularity of American whisky in Australia to the fact that more and more quality whiskeys – often from states in the US that aren’t considered traditional whiskey-producing areas – are becoming available in Australia.

“When Sonoma County Distilling commenced they were amongst an elite few in California, now they are considered ‘old timers’ with hundreds of craft distilleries all offering something new and unique,” he explains.

“The other main reason, in my view, is a move away from mass produced, high volume, high consumption products, to a more refined, quality experience. Discerning consumers seem to be going for quality over quantity on their nights out.”

To make the most of the category, Robinson says that it pays to be experimental, and encourages operators to “try new things and variations on the classics”.

“When I was first introduced to the plum bitters in the Sonoma Cherrywood Rye-based Old Fashioned I was pessimistic, but boy was I wrong! Quality American whiskies bring a whole new experience to the classics.”

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