by Heather Stewart Feldman
In Sonoma County wine country, Spirit Works Distillery is laboring over something quite different to sip on. Dreaming of working with their hands, making a product that was authentic and sustainable, husband and wife team Timo and Ashby Marshall dedicated themselves to learning the craft of artisan distilling, and now make craft vodka, gin and sloe gin.
Working side-by-side in their 8,000 square foot distillery in Sebastopol, CA is a far cry from their previous careers in environmental research, but they have managed to seamlessly blend traditional British legacy and innovative Californian style into their workplace. Raised in a small coastal village in southern England, Timo comes from a family that has been refining their sloe—a small fruit related to plums—gin recipe for generations using sloes picked every autumn along the coastal hills. Ashby, on the other hand, was born and bread on the American West Coast and has a deep passion and impressive palate for whiskey and its intricacies.
CH contributor Julie Wolfson tasted their offerings and mentioned that the vodka has a slightly sweet taste, "with hints of vanilla and almond. The character of the red winter wheat it is made from comes though with a soft mouthfeel. It pairs well with lime to boost the juicy notes. The finish is clean with lingering notes of vanilla." Wolfson also sipped on the gin and found that "the aroma of juniper berries and botanicals come through with hints of elderflower. The layers of flavor including Indian spices like cardamom as well as citrus. The mouthfeel is silky and refreshing, making this gin an easy one to sip neat or combined with martini fixings, ideally one garnished with citrus." As for the sloe gin, she found it to be "intensely sweet with notes of juicy raspberries and cherries along with citrus and a little clove and mixed spice. The finish is tart and jammy."
We spoke with half of the Spirit Works Distillery founding team, Ashby Marshall—who spends her days on the production floor as head distiller—about the company and its inspiring production methods.
Tell us a little about Sprit Works Distillery and how it got started.
My husband, Timo, and I founded Spirit Works in 2011, but we had been dreaming about it for much longer than that. Originally, we wanted to join forces with a local distillery to create a traditional Sloe Gin based on Timo’s family recipe. However, in researching distilleries around the country, we found that very few actually made their spirits from grain to glass, using raw ingredients as opposed to purchasing their base spirit. This was something that was very important to us in creating a premium spirit, so we set out to start our own distillery.
We came up with the name for very similar reasons. We wanted to articulate that it was an honest product—something we made with our own hands, entirely on-site at the distillery. We came up with Spirit Works and later learned that it was actually what the original American distilleries were called, so it was perfect.
We opened the distillery to the public in June 2013, but were working in the space on recipe research and development for six months prior. Our furthest batch along is Batch 006 for Gin (which is being bottled this week), while Vodka is at Batch 005 and Sloe Gin at 004 (which we started bottling it this fall).
How did you enter into spirit-making in the first place?
Timo’s family in England has made a traditional sloe gin for generations. Each autumn, we would forage wild sloe berries around the coast in Devon, bringing them home to steep in gin until the next holiday season. It’s a family tradition (and secret recipe) that has been passed down for generations and always something that was very special to us. This was the inspiration to recreate it on a larger level.
At first we thought we could grow the sloe berries and other botanicals, but we ultimately realized that we were much more interested in distillation. We spent several years visiting and learning in other micro distilleries, and enrolling in courses and workshops around the country. After several years working hands-on in any and every way we could, we had seen enough to know what we wanted to do and began to build our own distillery.
What’s the idea behind your “grain to glass” philosophy?
The "grain to glass" philosophy (as it’s come to be known in the industry) means that we bring in whole grain—for us, organic California-grown wheat—which we mill, mash, ferment, distill and bottle entirely on site at the distillery. Within these steps we have control over the entire process, from the consistency of the mash to the pH of the fermentation, which ultimately create complex flavor characteristics.
By contrast, most distilleries purchase a neutral base spirit from other companies that they then redistill themselves. We like preserving the unique flavor of our raw ingredients, creating spirits with character that can be appreciated straight or can really add something to a cocktail.
Where do you source or grow your ingredients?
We source organic and local as often as possible. Our grain base is organic and grown in California, near Sacramento. Our botanical sources are constantly changing, but we try to get everything out of California, as well. We want to support local sources when we can and also put the highest quality ingredients into our products.
What flavors inspire your gin, sloe gin and vodka?
Since our vodka is distilled from whole wheat, it maintains a lot of cereal character that you wouldn’t normally find in vodka—rich notes of vanilla and caramel, with a soft and round mouth feel. It makes a great sipping vodka, but can also add some really unique aromas and flavors to a cocktail.
The vodka becomes the base of our gin, maintaining that round mouth feel and a bit of sweetness. Our gin is definitely juniper-forward, but we also add cardamom and coriander, as well as fresh lemon and orange peel. There is a nice earthiness from the spices, but also bright citrus aromas and flavors from the fresh zest.
While our sloe gin is made in the traditional way using whole berries, we have tailored our recipe to appeal to a more modern palate. It’s not as sweet as what you might find in the UK and maintains more of the fresh berry brightness and aroma, making it perfect for cocktail recipes.
We do try to encourage people to try the sloe gin—it’s not the stuff your grandma drank! We’ve found that a lot of people in the US have had a bad experience with some of the big brands that are made with syrup over here, but they have never tried traditional sloe gin. Two pounds of whole sloe berries go into making every bottle and there is really nothing like it made in the US. It makes a pretty luxurious nightcap—try it straight, sipped from a port glass.
Tell us about the design of your label and spirit bottles?
When we began designing our packaging, the most important thing to us was that it conveyed who we were and what went into the bottle. The bottle and label reflect the spirit of our transparent process and the simplicity of our raw ingredients. We want to make it clear that you are buying an honest product, made by hand from start to finish, by real people.
How did you decide on the distillery location?
Finding a good community for the business was one of our first steps. We had always wanted to wind up in Sonoma. We thought it was beautiful and loved visiting, and thought it would be exciting for other visitors to have a drinking experience that was different than wine! But a lot of the appropriately zoned areas for a distillery were located in lonely corporate warehouse parks with anonymous roll up doors. It was very important for us to feel like we were setting up in a real community, somewhere that people would want to visit and get to know us and our process. When we discovered The Barlow, a group of boutique businesses that was designed around providing a shared space for artisan producers, we knew we had found the perfect spot.
What’s the environment like in there?
It’s rapidly growing—and very exciting to see! We started out over two years ago now, and it’s been amazing to see so many different small businesses grow and collaborate together in the process. We’ve become friends with our neighbors over here and even helped each other out through our construction phases. Now, when you come here on the weekends, it’s a bustling community of people—all here to enjoy the space and support locally made.
Images courtesy of Spirit Works Distillery