In Sonoma County, California it’s all about the wine — until it isn’t. Many winemakers have started making whiskey in the region, and Spirit Works Distillery co-Founder Ashby Marshall had a vision for a distillery-only right in the heart of wine country.
BW: As a west-coast native, was whiskey ever part of your lexicon or master plan for your life?
AM: Absolutely, I think whiskey has been part of my lexicon since I was very young as my dad was a big Rye whiskey drinker! Being full blood west-coastian;) (Arizona, Oregon, Colorado, and California have all been my homes at some point), I’ve always felt that Wheat Whiskey is very much a West Coast spirit. The Organic Red Winter Wheat we use from the Sacramento Valley area is the base for all of our products except for our Straight Rye Whiskey. You’ll find our Vodka is full of creamy, buttery, vanilla flavors from the wheat itself and our 100% Straight Wheat Whiskey carries those same flavors in its youth through aging to a matured spirit that far exceeded even our expectations. This concept of farm-to-still or grain-to-glass production is at the very core of Spirit Works Distillery. We strive to be as local and organic as possible while never sacrificing the highest quality ingredients. We’re so fortunate to be in California where we have such incredible access to amazing raw materials.
BW: At what point did you figure out you wanted to make whiskey for a living?
AM: About 5 years before our distilling dreams were realized, I was lucky enough to try whiskies coming out of some of the first craft distilleries like Catoctin Creek, Koval, and Dry Fly Distilling. As true grain to glass distilleries, they showed me what incredible significance each type of grain has on the different whiskey styles, and I really fell in love with those grain-forward, barrel second styles of whiskey we now make. I feel like it was when my casual appreciation of whiskey and lingering desire to make it slammed into this newfound idea of grain-forward whiskey that everything went from “that sounds entertaining” to “I’ve absolutely found my passion”!
BW: What does a typical workday look like for you at Spirit Works?
AM: For me, each day begins with a pint of highly potent ginger-lemon homemade kombucha. Yes, as a fermenter at heart I can’t resist also doing it at home! Of course, it’s always good to stick to the non-alcoholic variety of fermentations in the morning! The day at work begins with:
In distilling you need to get things heated up to make alcohol and getting that steam on is key. Before I can get to the steam though, being able to see everything and getting some musical motivation is key. I then spend some time planning out my teams’ day and incorporating anything that may have changed from initial plans.
My distillers, Tyler and Mik, often pull samples for us to blind taste to keep us on our palate game before lunch. The nature of a Head Distiller role at a small company also means you must be a logistics master. The more efficient I am with email time in the afternoons the more time I have to focus on running great fermentations, making cuts during distillation, and further training my team. As I am also co-owner (with my charming husband;), there’s inevitably a meeting or two about something rather pressing!
BW: What advice do you have for women who want to start their own distilleries?
AM: Oh, I would absolutely say go for it – but know the competition is fierce these days! Unfortunately, it’s just not enough to make great craft spirits, you also need to be able to tell your story, negotiate contracts, have an eye for design, motivate your staff, master spreadsheets, heard ferrets, and distill better than anyone you know. Some of these I may be better at than others;) I would also recommend creating a spirit that is true to you and unique in some way. Our Sloe Gin is so well received – again not only because it’s excellent – but because it is unique to us, part of our family history, and the staff loves how much fun it is to make and talk about.
BW: Tell me about your perfect California whiskey weekend.
AM: Well, since you asked!;)…Here in Sonoma County the craft distillers have joined up with Sonoma County Tourism and created a Distillery Tasting Passport, which launches next week! Similar to the winery tasting pass found here. My perfect California whiskey weekend day would start with a day visiting a local bakery like Pascaline or Red Bird for the essentials: a chai latte, a chocolate croissant, and a couple of scones to go! Then I would use the distillery tasting passport and visit at least three other local craft distilleries in Sonoma, enjoy lunch at Beer Baron in Santa Rosa (they feature local whiskey flights), or the Matheson in Healdsburg (for their stunning spirit and food pairings). I always prefer to end the day sitting on my back deck sipping some of our Spirit Works Bourbon before starting up a true-crime podcast and cooking dinner.
Photos Courtesy of Ashby Marshall