We recently caught up with Adam Spiegel, founder and whiskeymaker at Sonoma Distilling Company for the latest in our online interview series. His story, and Sonoma’s, in the whiskey industry began more than a decade ago after seeing a gap in the market for true pot distilled whiskeys. Since officially opening its doors in 2010, Sonoma has gone from strength-to-strength and we found out why.
American Whiskey Mag (AWM): Adam, I’d like to start by finding out a little more about the experiences you had in the world of distilling before starting up your very own Sonoma Distilling Company?
Adam Spiegel (AS): It all began for me in the summer of 2008. That year, due to the Great Recession, I lost my job with thousands of others in the US and around the world. Like many at that time I set off to learn a new skill set that I could pursue for the rest of my life, I was committed to finding a career that involved making something with my hands from scratch.
Meeting my original business partner at his barbershop in San Francisco was the jumping off point; we connected around the history of whiskey, food pairings, and above all else, making quality spirits. My education started in beer, then wine, then grappa and finally moved into whiskey. We saw a need in the local market for true pot distilled whiskeys, and the quality we were making was quite high. From 2008 to 2010, we set off stumbling through the beginnings of our business, learning how to start a distillery on a tight budget and we officially started our distillery in 2010 in a 784 square foot distillery in Rohnert Park.
AWM: What have been the real defining moments for the company?
AS: By 2013 it was clear that our business was ready for a change. I assumed full control of the business from my business partner and set off seven days a week making more and more whiskey to keep up with local, national, and international demand.
As part of the evolution of the brand, the name was changed to Sonoma County Distilling Company and eventually the ‘County’ was dropped for simplicity sake, and is now Sonoma Distilling Company, as you know. This change was in honor of the county in which the company was founded.
This transition away from the old partnership, and setting off on my own was a huge defining moment for me. At that same time, I was introduced to the most influential master distiller I’ve had the pleasure to work with, Hubert Germain-Robin and everything clicked. He and I use similar stills, share a love of and dedication to making quality spirits and our general approach is to honor the past by using traditional techniques in a modern context.
AWM: Initially, how did you go about deciding on your product range?
AS: Rye whiskey was my first love, and is by far the hardest whiskey to get right. Many distillers avoid making rye because the grains can stick, burn, make quite the mess, and the flavors are strong, rich, and spicy. Back in 2010, rye whiskey was just starting to experience a resurgence. I wanted to make a rye whiskey that tasted like rye bread, so we started making 100 per cent rye, using unmalted rye and rye malt. The result is a balanced product with layers of rye flavor, which can be sipped alone or enjoyed in a favorite classic rye cocktail.
My second love was Bourbon, but, again I wanted to make something different. California was once home to a number of Bourbon producers, many of whom were Scottish or Irish immigrants who moved west to make their fortune after settling in Tennessee and Kentucky. I wanted to give my home state its own Bourbon.
In the beginning, I made three styles: a Bourbon using cherrywood smoked barley, a wheated Bourbon, and a high rye Bourbon. Originally, I called them West of Kentucky 1, 2, and 3 to educate the consumer that Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. Our wheated version was our top seller and we eventually renamed it our Sonoma Bourbon.
AWM: Could you tell me a little more about your product portfolio and the process of trial and error that has gone into creating them?
AS: Every product ever created by our company was first made in small batches, tested, tasted, and evaluated for representation of the best flavor we were seeking to present. I use feedback to micro-adjust and through my extensive travels I’m blessed to taste many new and up-and-coming products. For us the most important thing is to always be learning and to recognize and support all of the amazing whiskeys made throughout the country, big or small. We are part of an incredibly creative, dynamic and collaborative industry, and it is one which we feel lucky to be working in daily!
AWM: If you had to choose one whiskey from your collection to drink for the rest of your days, which would it be and why?
AS: Our Cherrywood Rye Whiskey would be my choice. It’s versatile, one of a kind, and tastes great! This whiskey was literally a dream that we made into a reality. It’s rare that something you concoct in your head actually tastes as good as you dreamed it.
AWM: Lastly, are there any projects you are working on currently or that are in the pipeline that you could share with us?
AS: I’m working on a single malt that my distant Scottish relatives would be proud of. I love Scotch and this has been a passion project of mine, on the side of everything else we have produced. In a year or two, our first batches will be ready for release. I’m pleased that a friend of mine has opened a malthouse next door to the distillery. Soon, we can start to incorporate malted grains that we source from literally 500 feet away.
Lastly, we are currently working with a farmer to plant barley three miles away from the distillery and our hope, in time, is that we can source, malt, distil, barrel, and bottle within a small three-mile radius. That’s sustainable, local, authentic, and as singular as whiskey can get.