Behind the Bar Stick People

Where Do You Go to Hire a Master Distiller? Check the Accounting Department.

Jeff Duckhorn

The bottle itself of D. George Benham’s Sonoma dry gin demands your attention. It’s an oceanic green with copper accents, the label marked by a map of Sonoma County. When you get it in your hands and turn it over, the back tells a brief story about D. George Benham, who’s illustrated in a tall top hat. Gin from California, in a cool bottle, boasting a mysterious figure as its patron—whatever could it taste like?

Well, it tastes like California, with robust notes of Meyer lemon and mint. And that guy Benham? He’s the Burning Man alter ego of Graton Distilling Co.’s owner Derek Benham, also the founder and CEO of Purple Wine + Spirits.

After years of focusing solely on wine, he got the inkling to dive into spirits. The wine and gin are both made on the same property, and Benham says the move into booze was a natural extension of their work in the former.

“I first tasted gin while in college traveling through Spain,” he says. “In Spain, the making of Gin & Tonic is like theater, and the drink itself is spectacular. It left such an impression on me that I wanted the first spirit we produced to be a gin.”

It’s so much of an extension, in fact, that Benham didn’t have to look far to find the head distiller for the new initiative: Jeff Duckhorn was already at the company, working in the accounting department. Benham had been introduced to his skills through the fantastic homebrews he’d made and brought into the office. When it was time to hire a distiller, he offered Duckhorn the opportunity to make those weekend experimentations his career.

“He is an avid homebrewer, baker, gardener—it’s his passion,” says Benham. “Passion is something you can’t teach, but it’s often what makes the difference between good and great.”

Duckhorn’s work in the kitchen didn’t begin with the trendiness of sourdough starters and homebrew kits but back when he was a kid. After moving to Northern California and attending UC Berkeley, his love for food only deepened. It was at college that he started homebrewing, which he has been doing for more than 20 years now. “I have a garden at home and love to get outside at the end of the day and get my hands dirty,” Duckhorn says. “This was very important when I spent the majority of my day staring at spreadsheets and financial statements behind a desk.”

Though he was involved with the building of the distillery on the financial side, he didn’t anticipate the career change that was coming. Though, he’ll admit, he was itching for it. Creating a gin recipe was a big first step.

Barrels at Graton.

“Gin is one of the most broadly defined spirits on the market,” says Duckhorn. “The only real qualification is that it must have the predominant characteristic of juniper in it. The rest is up to you; method of manufacture and use of other botanicals is totally open for experimentation. This is exciting, but it’s also daunting.”

Duckhorn and the team started by blind-tasting various brands to get a handle on the market, then created a list of botanicals everyone liked. “There was a bit of horse trading, as not everyone liked the same botanicals,” he says.

The team saw an opportunity to build something that landed between a London dry and New World approach. Then their Sonoma County surroundings took the lead. “I have several Meyer Lemon trees on my property, and they have ripe lemons on them almost year around,” says Duckhorn. “Meyer lemons have a very unique quality, somewhere between lemon and tropical fruit. For me, this fresh citrus embodies Northern California.”

The result is a gin that’s distinct and almost desperate to be mixed with tonic, the grand garnishing of the Spanish style totally optional thanks to its innate juiciness.

Of course, there has been a learning curve for the accountant turned distiller. As someone who spent the majority of his career making sure everything added up, Duckhorn had to learn how to get comfortable with learning by making mistakes.

The day-to-day life at the distillery is now focused on the Redwood Empire American whiskey, which he’s developing from grain through distillation. (The earlier bottles were mixed with barrels shipped in from Indiana.) To that, he’s bringing the discipline and patience of an accountant.

“The spirits we’re making today are going to taste very different by the time we release them three to four years down the road,” he says. “You have to understand the process in its entirety and let the whiskey evolve on its own time frame.”

It remains to be seen whether this is the the final pivot in Duckhorn’s career, but for now, he’s content. “I haven’t had a chair for the last two-and-a-half years,” he says. “And I don’t miss it at all.”