Visiting Wine Country, you probably assume that tasting fantastic wine and touring wineries are the only options available to experience here in the Valley. But, if you are a cocktail or spirits connoisseur you may want to check out the unique tasting and tour available at Napa Valley Distillery close to downtown.
Not everyone that visits the Napa Valley is a wine enthusiast or wine lover. Napa Valley serves up world-class food as well as craft beers and cocktails and even has a distillery. Napa Valley Distillery is a craft, boutique micro-distillery that is teaching us wine drinkers all about spirits.
I am not too adventurous when it comes to cocktails. Unless it’s Vodka straight up with a twist, I am strictly a wino. So when I went to Napa Valley Distillery to do a spirits tasting, I was a little apprehensive. Whiskey and Bourbon left with college, Rum left on a foggy New Years Eve, and my disdain for Gin has never wavered. With that said, I decided to give these craft spirits a try, making a reservation for this unique, educational tour and tasting in Napa.
Napa Valley Distillery is the first legal distillery in Napa since prohibition and the only distillery in Napa proper that is producing on site. With fourteen employees total and only ten thousand gallons of proof alcohol produced per year, it is considered boutique. They have tastings at the distillery where I visited as well as in the Oxbow Market in downtown Napa.
The tasting and tours started upstairs in their Grand Tasting Salon. I got a post-prohibition vibe in the old-style tasting room lining the large bar area with all kinds of different spirits handmade by the distillery. We started with the do’s and don’ts of spirit tastings.
Paul, the Brand and Hospitality Director, told us three things: do not swirl the alcohol, do not shoot the liquor and cleanse the palette with water between each spirit. Swirling makes the alcohol ‘hot’ and therefore burns the palette keeping you from tasting the secondary notes which are the flavors created from the infused herbs added.
Napa Valley Distillery infuses only all natural ingredients. Adding lots of oxygen to your empty glass after drinking and then turning upside down, will reveal the essential oils in the glass, forming like legs in a wine glass. The aromas will also be present, yet artificial flavors do not do this. Instead, they dry up and become nonexistent.
We then were shown a new breathing technique which expels the ethanol (burn) out along with the primary notes or the notes usually associated with the nose of the spirit. Paul taught us to inhale and hold, take a sip and swallow immediately and then exhale out slowly, expelling the ethanol and letting the secondary flavors land on the palette. We tried this technique on our first tasting, Vodka.
Napa Valley Distillery’s Vodka is technically a neutral Brandy made from 100% Sauvignon Blanc grapes. In 2007 it won a spot in the Wine Enthusiasts top 50 spirits of the world and was the first Vodka in California to be made from 100% grapes. We used the breathing technique on the Vodka, which wasn’t even chilled and it made a huge difference. The Vodka was very smooth and did not burn at all. It did not even need to be chilled. I was impressed, but then again, I am a vodka drinker, and the next few tastings made me a little nervous.
Next up in the tasting was the Old Hollywood Ginn. Gin is on my “absolutely no way” list, so I was a little nervous when the Gin went in my glass, but I promised myself I was going to stick it out.
Basically, Gin is vodka with juniper added. When we smelled the gin, we got your basic juniper and pine on the nose, but when using the breathing technique, the flavors were not juniper and pine but cinnamon, fennel, allspice, and clove. After distillation, an infusion of cinnamon, fennel, and cardamom are added to create these secondary notes. I was pleasantly surprised that the gin didn’t taste like gin at all.
But I wasn’t out of the woods yet; next up was Bourbon. My experience with Whiskey or Bourbon is minimal besides drinking crappy Jack Daniels in my early 20’s.
Paul explained that Bourbon is an American whiskey that has to be made with at least 51% corn mash. If it’s labeled straight bourbon, it is aged no less than two years in brandy-charred white oak barrels, and all bourbon must be made in the United States.
Napa Valley Distillery makes their Bourbon with 70% corn, 25% barley and 5% rye. It is mellow and soft, with oak and vanilla notes and goes well in a Manhattan, Old Fashion or a Sazerac.
Next up was Rum, aged four years, made from a molasses base which creates a natural sweetness. It is not like your typical American spiced rum like Captain Morgan or Malibu in which the word spice also means added “sugar.” The flavors also come from aging the Rum in used Port barrels. We sipped this rum and was smooth with subtle caramel notes on the palette.
I was excited to try the Cordial Brandy next since it was one of their top sellers. It had butter, caramel, and brown sugar notes on the finish. With 40% alcohol, you would think that it would burn but with the breathing technique you did not taste or feel any alcohol, only the warm, Christmas cookie flavors. This Brandy would be excellent with a cigar or to sip on a chilly night.
Napa Valley Distillery makes a variety of bottled cocktails, such as a Daiquiri, Mai-Tai, Mint Julep, and of course the Manhattan which we tried as our last tasting. A Manhattan is two parts Whiskey, one part Vermouth, and two parts bitters. With 32% alcohol in this bottled cocktail, it is made using Antica vermouth and blood orange bitters. These cocktails are great if you want to enjoy a drink at home but don’t want to buy all the ingredients and make the cocktail.
Napa Valley Distillery’s Distinguished Bar Club Membership is one of the most economical in the valley. For 80 dollars a quarter you get your bar club shipment plus up to 30% on items in your shipment and 25% on all online purchases. You also get invites to member-only events throughout the year and complimentary tastings for you and a guest at either location.
Our tour was relatively short on time but not short on information. We started with learning about distillation. There are three different stills on the property, alembic pot-style still, a Charentais still for Armagnac and Cognac and the iStill, in which the distiller can run from anywhere via phone. Napa Valley Distillery uses this iStill for contract distillation. In other words, it can take wine that is not up to par and turn it into good Brandy that the winery can then use or resell.
We went on to learn about the basics of distillation using these stills, why it always comes out clear and how aging it in barrels adds the color back into the spirits. We headed to proofing and processing where water gets added to the high proof alcohol to create approximately 40% total alcohol. It’s then filtered and bottled in their unique apothecary bottles by hand.
We moved onto the barrel area, with different types of barrels holding Whiskey and Bourbon and many kinds of Brandy on site. It’s not like a winery where it has to be cold, doors can be left open, and fluctuation of temperature is a good thing, letting the barrel expand and contract, releasing flavor into the spirits.
We wrapped up the tour learning the details about Whiskey and Brandy that your average Joe doesn’t know. I walked out more educated about processes and requirements that go into Whiskey, Bourbon, Rye, Vodka, Brandy, Cognac and more. This experience is an excellent alternative to wine tasting if you want to learn the ins-and-outs of spirits.
Grand Tasting Salon
Thursday through Tuesday from 11am – 7pm (6pm Sunday) Reservations Are Required
Oxbow Tasting Bar
Monday – Saturday: 9:00am – 8:00pm
Sunday: 9:00am – 7:00pm Reservations are required from Friday-Sunday
…Enjoy Wine Ho