One of the most poetic things about wine is that it results from so many variables, many of them beyond human control—sun, soil and so on. Each glass represents a little living and breathing miracle.
Such dependence on nearly infinite elements also makes wine a major pain to produce. Anything from, say, labor to leaf canopy can go wildly awry. Understanding that reality is currently perpetuating a nationwide trend, from Elgin, Arizona—where Flying Leap Vineyards & Distillery makes both estate wines and grape brandies—to Portland, Maine—where Sweetgrass Winery & Distillery does everything from blueberry wines to rhubarb liquors.
Winemaking operations are diversifying what they do, and many have landed upon distilling spirits, which makes sense. After all, winemakers are already familiar with the laws, processes and aging strategies that surround adult beverages. They have the facilities with which to work with fermentable fruits, they know spirits can often fetch a higher price, and they understand that in the spirits world, there are fewer variables and thus fewer things can go bad, including the product itself.
Enjoying Fresh Passions
Matt Cechovic gets it. He has been making wine with Duck Pond Cellars in northwest Oregon for 15 years. But by the conclusion of the 2020 grape harvest, he was embarking on a whole new chapter of his career. Famed Willamette Valley distiller Tad Seestedt had retired the previous day, after selling Ransom Distillery to Duck Pond’s parent company, Integrated Beverage Group, and training Cechovic on the craft over the course of months. So it was officially day one for Cechovic as head distiller.
Cechovic led a tour and tasting of the thoroughly old-school operation, which sits on a scenic 40-acre farm in Sheridan, Oregon, where Ransom grows its own barley and rye in addition to grapes, apples and other crops. As he described the techniques that make Ransom’s Emerald straight American whiskey and Old Tom gin cult hits and introduced us to the huge hand-hammered French alembic pot still like a proud papa, he was audibly enthusiastic about the new beginning. “I feel the way I felt 10 years ago,” he says. “Distilling relit my spark.”
The fresh passion is nice but ultimately represents just one of many benefits for the business. By distilling, Ransom can use every bit of a grape. (In fact, Ransom first started by making grappa from grape skins.) It can realize better margins and create greater crop diversity, which benefits the farm’s ecosystem and overall portfolio sustainably. And Ransom can look no further than 2020—when a double whammy of low yields and wildfire-driven grape taint devastated vineyards across the West—for a reminder of why it makes sense.
Julia Cattrall is now Ransom’s winemaker and has also done everything in the distillery. “We’re positioned in a way that we’re not dependent on purely grapes,” she says. “The ability to pivot and still adhere to your core values is really important.”
But it’s more than a cold-blooded business decision, adds Cattrall. “As much as there are cynical reasons to do it, for us there’s also an abiding passion for the category,” she says. “If there’s something we love to drink, whether it’s sparkling wine or a Manhattan, we’re going to figure out how to do it and enjoy the fruits of our labor.”
Capturing Spirits Synergy
In Starlight, Indiana, the sixth-generation farming family behind Huber’s Orchard, Winery & Vineyards has been growing produce, making sweet wine and distilling their own hooch since immigrating from Germany in the mid-1800s. But it wasn’t until they started doing brandies in 2001 under the Starlight Distillery label, and later added grain-based spirits in 2013, that they were able to capture new synergies: The wine’s success financed the spirits whose barrels help age the wine, while the farm’s fruit flavors the best-selling (and increasingly popular) blackberry whiskey that flows profits back across the board.
“Everything benefits another thing,” says brand manager James Woods. “Each element of the operation plays off another.”
Playing Off Local Strengths
In Swisher, Iowa, Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery started by growing grapes and built a distillery primarily to differentiate itself from the roughly 20 other wineries in the state. Then it promptly reprioritized to become Iowa’s first distillery.
“Corn is the number-one grain used in spirits, and in Iowa, corn is what we do,” says general manager Jamie Siesken. “It didn’t make sense that the leading corn state wasn’t producing distilled spirits.”
After starting with clear liquors in 2005 and then bourbon in 2010, Cedar Ridge recently celebrated a historic milestone: As of early 2021, it’s now the best-selling bourbon in the state, bypassing behemoths like Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark while becoming the first craft distiller to lead a state’s bourbon sales.
“Wine was the first plan—why we exist,” says Siesken. “But nowadays [our focus] is whiskey-based.”
Embracing Fewer Variables
Oakland Spirits Co. in California emerged from Two Mile Wines and started selling liquor commercially in 2016. Its partners realized how crowded the wine market had become and used its wine-brand relationships and license to jump-start the distillery.
Co-founder Mike Pierce describes “way more upside” with liquor, including the freedom to create spirits like Halfshell gin, which is distilled through living oysters under the company’s Automatic gin label in partnership with popular Hog Island Oyster Company.
“There are so many damn wineries in California,” says Pierce. “We make spirits no one has made and use ingredients no one has used. You can create things that haven’t existed. You can’t do that with wine.”
While he embraces the possibilities, there are some he doesn’t miss. “With wine, you’re worrying, How was spring? Was there hail? When was bud break? Did you find enough people to pick?’” he says. “At least 10 things might go wrong, and then once you make the wine, it has to rest and then has to age and then rest again. With liquor, it’s done, and if you do it right, it’s great. For me, that’s the biggest thing: There are so many risks and variables you can avoid. Making spirits is so much more clinical and efficient.”