When Scott Woodson approached his friend Gail Coppinger to gauge her interest in distilling, Coppinger needed some clarification.
“Distilled water? Perfume? I had no idea he was talking about whiskey,” recalled Coppinger, who was running an organic produce stand at the time.
The two had met years earlier while working as painting contractors. Coppinger, a house shingler by trade, had moved on from contract work when Woodson showed up at her produce stand to talk whiskey. After catching up, they discovered they both were yearning for a new adventure.
“I approached Gail with the idea of starting a distillery because I remembered how well we worked together,” said Woodson, who has been an avid home brewer since the 1990s. “I knew we would make a good team.”
Today, Coppinger and Woodson are the proud owners and distillers of Elk Fence Distillery, the first craft distillery in Santa Rosa. Located in an industrial building off Santa Rosa Avenue, the small-batch distillery produces an American single malt whiskey, a botanical gin and a barley-based vodka, all poured and sold in their recently opened tasting room.
(As for the name, it refers to the fence bordering a field where Woodson once grew barley. On the other side were elk, and he called the area “the elk fence.” The partners thought it a fitting name for their new venture.)
For Coppinger and Woodson, getting to this point was an exercise in patience and determination that brought a new crop of gray hairs. From ideation to first distillation, the process took about five years, which Coppinger compared to “going through a series of brick walls,” from complications with permits to the 2017 Tubbs Fire.
“You hit one brick wall, you figure out how to go through it and then you keep going,” she said. “Because at some point you’ve gone too far forward to go back.”
Breaking new ground
To start distilling, Coppinger and Woodson needed to apply for a distilled spirits permit. But before that, they needed to secure a lease on a distillery location.
Unfortunately, with no distilling experience, they found few property owners were willing to give them a chance — especially considering the flammability risk of spirits production. A year and a half later, they were grateful to obtain a location in Santa Rosa that would eventually become the town’s first distillery ever.
Then came the divorce.
The day before Coppinger and Woodson were scheduled to submit their distiller’s permit application, their attorneys called to discuss an urgent matter: tied-house laws.
In simple terms, federal and state tied-house laws prohibit distillers, brewers and winemakers from pressuring bars, restaurants and retailers to buy their alcohol. The laws came into effect after Prohibition, when alcohol beverage producers would often bribe saloons and retailers to sell their products in exchange for low-interest loans, free draft systems and other perks.
At the time, Woodson’s wife, Cat Cowles, worked for Hog Island Oyster Co., a popular oyster bar in Tomales Bay that had two liquor licenses. According to tied-house laws, that was a conflict of interest.
“If we wanted to be approved for our distiller’s permit, I would need to get a divorce!” Woodson said, laughing. “So that night, I broke the news to Cat. Fortunately, she agreed.”
“One of the things I love about Scotty is that he’s very even-tempered,” Coppinger said. “Nothing really rattles him. In that way, we even each other out. That’s one of the reasons our partnership is so strong and solid.”
By the time Coppinger and Woodson were ready to begin building their distillery, it was 2017, the year of the Tubbs Fire.
“When we told the fire department we wanted to build a distillery, they were like, ‘What?’” Coppinger said. “They had no idea how to handle us because there was no historical framework for building a distillery in Santa Rosa. There are numerous distilleries in Sonoma County, but each town has its own rules. So that made things very complicated.”
It would take three years for Coppinger and Woodson to build the distillery, but they forged ahead with determination throughout the process. To support U.S. manufacturing, they bought high-quality American-made equipment for their facility, including two copper Trident stills from Maine, a roller mill from South Dakota, a wort chiller from Arkansas and a boiler from the small town of Wyoming, Illinois.
For the tasting room, the pair cleverly transformed a tired office space adjacent to the distillery into a cozy bar beaming with character. Every object here has a story to tell, from the old-growth redwood bar dating to the 1800s, to the upright antique Steinway piano rescued from a basement, to the dark and dreamy wall art obtained at flea markets throughout the state.
Now, after years of delay, the Elk Fence tasting room is finally open for tastings, tours and select artisan cocktails.
Elk Fence Distillery produces three core spirits, including a whiskey, a gin and a vodka.
Briny Deep ($140 a bottle), an American single malt whiskey, is made with local barley sourced from Admiral Malts in Alameda and Grizzly Malts in Rohnert Park. Aged for two years in new American white oak from Minnesota, it’s delightfully drinkable for such a young expression. “If you put good stuff in the barrel, it doesn’t take long to age,” Coppinger said.
White Elk ($35 a bottle) is a barley-based vodka that could stand on its own with just ice and a twist of lemon. Distilled only twice, the spirit retains a subtle sweetness with a hint of malt.
Fir Top ($50 a bottle) is a botanical gin made of juniper, coriander, tangerine and grapefruit from San Francisco Herb Co. It’s fresh, citrusy and destined for a gin and tonic with Fever-Tree tonic.
On certain days, Woodson whips up one or more of his inventive cocktails, like the popular Elksicle, with Fir Top gin, fresh tangerine juice, lemon and apricot liqueur.
Tastings include a complimentary tour, with additional bottles available for purchase. The spirits are also available at Bottle Barn, Willibee’s and in cocktails at Perch and Plow.
Looking forward, Coppinger and Woodson want Elk Fence Distillery to be a gathering spot, where people can listen to music or learn more about the art of distilling. They also hope to offer classes in distilling someday.
“People know how to make beer and wine, but distilling is often under a veil of secrecy. We want to share our knowledge with others,” Woodson said. “Some people call themselves a master distiller, and I just shake my head. You might know a lot, but you’ll never know everything. That’s why we’re always learning and experimenting.”
Tastings from $10, waived with purchase. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and by appointment. 464 Kenwood Court, Suite E, Santa Rosa; 415-497-4338, elkfencedistillery.com
You can reach staff writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or email@example.com.