Exceptional elixirs at the Barlow – Spirit Works Distillery

On a recent stormy Friday afternoon, I grabbed a pal and headed over to Spirit Works Distillery at the Barlow in Sebastopol.  Touring and tasting first class hooch was our agenda.

Led by Bandit, the resident distillery boxer, four of us headed into a cavernous room utterly dominated by a massive hand wrought stainless and copper still.  Hammered and riveted, with orifices, knobs, tubes, hoses, this custom-built German behemoth reached up up up 26 feet up.  With a porthole every foot, it looked madcap yet deadly serious.

Two large fermentation tanks and a grain mill flanked the backside, with giant bags of California organic hard red winter wheat awaiting their star turn.  Rye and malt, ingredients in their as-yet-unreleased barrel-aged Straight Whiskey and Rye flanked the bags of wheat.  Large wheeled vats full of liquid were nearby, pending distilling or bottling.  Production was done for the day, though an intern’s cleaning tasks kept noise levels high.  Our tour guide, Lauren, gamely talked over the decibels and regaled us with an amazing amount of knowledge and good cheer.

The grain-to-glass philosophy behind distiller/founders Ashby and Timo Marshall’s Spirit Works seems simple: they control every aspect of their process except for growing the wheat, the sloe berries and the botanicals used in flavoring their products.  What this means is they mill, mash, strain and distill everything onsite, unlike the vast majority of alcohol producers, who buy an already distilled spirit and simply flavor it to make it their own.  The ability to control each step allows for exceptional attention to detail, lending their finished products uniquely delicious flavors.   The incredible height of the still means that they are able to reach the purest levels available to the master distiller, lending a velvety mouth feel to their vodka and gin.

After absorbing the various steps involved in producing these exceptional elixirs, we had some tasting to do.  Their vodka, distilled as the base for the gin and sloe gin, was first.  With no plans to release it as its own product, early tasters quickly recommended otherwise.   With amazing viscosity, and rich, weighty, complex taste, they certainly made the right decision to release it!  Who knew vodka could be so persuasive?

Gin was up next and we were ready.  Mason jars of the botanicals selected to flavor their gin sit on the tasting room’s counter and prepared us for sensory exploration.  Juniper, cardamom, citrus and coriander (among other proprietary flavors) beguiled our noses while our taste buds went into overdrive.  Whoa – that is some powerfully delicious gin, remarkably balanced and smooth with a heady fusion of spice and fruit notes.  We wondered how the sloe gin could top this.  Well, guess what?

Historically, sloe gin is home-brewed in rural England and Spirit Works’ recipe was handed down through generations of Timo Marshall’s family.  Sloe berries, an invasive tiny plum, are foraged in Bulgaria for Spirit Works’ Sloe Gin and are first distilled into “sloe de vie,” a play on the words” eau de vie,” distilled fruit brandy.  The “sloe de vie” is then joined with their gin and cane sugar syrup, resulting in an exquisite sloe berry liqueur.

The Sloe Gin’s sweet berry flavor is balanced by bright acidity, and features a lingering citrusy finish.  The core complexity of the gin plays beautifully off that sweet/tart sloe berry and it is mighty tasty.   Meant to be enjoyed as an after dinner digestive, Spirit Works’ Sloe Gin is also perfect for blending into distinctive cocktails.  It’s high time to redefine the Sloe Gin Fizz’s reputation from the schlocky beginner’s drink to something truly elegant!

If you decide to taste what the fuss is all about, tasting room hours are Thursday through Sunday, from 11-4.  Tours are conducted Friday through Sunday at 4 p.m.  Reservations are recommended for the tour.

If you really want to gain street cred, get on their mailing list for a highly sought-after volunteer bottling slot, held about twice a month.  Ten lucky people will be recruited to help bottle one of the distillery’s products in a quaintly hands-on production line.  Tee shirts, product tasting and pizza cap off the experience.  I lucked out on my first try and took part in a most memorable evening’s activity.  Slots fill in about 10 to 15 minutes once the email gets sent.  Get cracking!

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