Whiskey is hot, and it had better stay hot awhile, because somebody needs to drink the lake of whiskey that craft distilleries are busily filling, barrel by barrel.
You’d never know there was a lake of whiskey in downtown Graton, because the whiskey lake at Graton Distilling is hidden inside a lake of wine. Almost literally. The buildings of Purple Wine & Spirits, a custom crush, bottling and distribution facility, seem to go on for a mile, and surely contain enough wine to fill a small irrigation pond, at the least. If you’ve ever seen an unfamiliar, maybe whimsically titled brand of wine that was vinted in Graton, Calif., this is likely the source. I see familiar names on cases stacked to the sky here, too—these wines are being bottled, blended or otherwise reshuffled and warehoused. This sprawling labyrinth is the kind of place where quaint wine country gets business done.
The company was founded by Derek Benham, the brandmeister—with brother Courtney, who runs Martin Ray down the road—behind the Blackstone and Mark West labels. A big fan of Spanish gin, Benham added the spirits component in 2014. But first, on to the whiskey, as company president Aaron Webb at last opens the door to a barrel room packed with gray, crusty old casks that look very different than wine barrels.
These weren’t distilled in Graton, explains Webb, whose qualifications include 15 years experience at Kentucky spirits behemoth Brown-Forman, and the accent to match. They’re playing the market both ways, importing and aging Kentucky or Indiana-produced whiskey for a blend they’re calling—with some kind of smooth-sounding apologia lost to my notes—Redwood Empire American Whiskey. Yet to be released, the blend is quite smooth and tasty.
Behind another door, master distiller Jeff Duckhorn and crew are steadily filling barrels, four a day, four days a week, with the product of their column still. These whiskeys are made from a wash fermented from pre-milled grain, and are still a work in progress. Duckhorn, who actually started in the accounting department (and, yes, he’s related to the Napa wine folks), pours samples from a multi-hued collection that fills a wall in a stylish anteroom furnished with a rustic bar. Graton Distilling is not open for tasting, however, so don’t bother the folks at the front office about it.
Made with neutral spirit that’s redistilled with a custom blend of aromatic spices and citrus in small batches, the attractively retro-labeled D. George Benham’s Sonoma Dry Gin is floral and spicy, with a nice sweet and dry balance, and can be found at local retailers and bars.