With a doctorate degree in physics and a successful career in electromechanical engineering, David Klein is not your typical brandy distiller.
As the founder of Gener8, a San Jose engineering and product design firm, Klein spent decades designing complex scientific instruments. But when his wife, Zoe Osborne, bought him a home-brewing kit in 1989, his passion for invention led him outside the lab.
“I really consider myself a toolmaker; I absolutely love making things,” said Klein, co-founder of Ambix Spirits in Sebastopol. “My home-brewing hobby really gave me another outlet for that.”
Throughout the 1990s, Klein and Osborne became active home-brewers, eventually becoming beer judges and helping launch the Bay Area’s World Cup of Beer home-brew competition.
Meanwhile, as Gener8 grew, Klein’s increasing responsibilities left him little time for creativity. So in 2019, he decided to take a step back and put his energy into a new endeavor: brandy.
This summer, Klein and Osborne opened the doors of Ambix Spirits, an apple-brandy distillery, orchard and tasting room on the east side of Sebastopol.
“I’ve always loved the rich tradition of apple cider and brandy in the United States,” Klein said. “Not many people know it was popular during the colonial days … because apples grew well and there were few safe, potable liquids to drink at that time. Apple brandy is really a jumping-off point to so many intellectual and heritage pursuits.”
In the three years leading up to the launch of Ambix, Klein and Osborne spent nights and weekends at Essential Spirits, a micro distillery in Mountain View where they built on their beer production knowledge and delved into the art of distillation.
They also planted a 4-acre orchard with more than 200 apple varieties, including many rare, heritage cultivars. The couple planted nearly all of their 1,600 trees, and they expect to add 400 more.
As for which varieties they decided to plant, Klein said that was the fun part.
“I spend way too much time looking for obscure apple varieties online,” Klein admitted. “But my main goal is to find heritage apples with a rich history and strange apples. I’m a sucker for both of those.”
In addition to American varieties, Klein has sourced cultivars from England, France and Spain. He realizes all may not thrive in Sonoma County, so some are for research purposes.
The harvest season is long — from July through November — with different varieties ripening throughout the second half of the year. While Klein and Osborne have had to source fruit from local Sonoma County growers as their orchard has matured, this year marks the first time they’ll be able to produce brandy with their own fruit.
Ambix’s process for making apple brandy begins by crushing one or more apple varieties together and fermenting the resulting juice into hard cider.
The cider is then distilled in Ambix’s alambic Charentais still, which allows for double distillation and a smooth, complex spirit. After aging in French oak for at least two years, one or more brandies are combined to create a balanced finished blend.
“So much of apple brandy’s character comes through in that blending process, it’s amazing,” Klein said. “It’s just like making (scientific) instruments. The creative process allows you to create flavors and characters that weren’t there in the first place.”
Currently, Ambix is producing four products, which are available in the tasting room and on its website. The Founder’s Release Brandy ($45) is a Calvados-style sipping brandy made with a blend of Gravenstein, Jonathan and Golden Delicious apples from Sebastopol and Colombia Crabapples from Washington.
Pacific Alchemy 1 ($40) is a vibrant marriage of apple and pear brandy designed for mixing or sipping. The pears were sourced from a tree discovered on the Ambix orchard.
The Pommeau ($30), a traditional French aperitif, is a delicious marriage of Gravenstein apple brandy and apple juice that has been aged in French oak for two years.
“I like to think of the Pommeau as Gravenstein in a glass,” Klein said. “The fresh, sweet, crisp character of the variety clearly comes through in the juice, while the sweetness is tempered by the brandy and aging in oak. We like to serve it chilled.”
The Cider Royal ($35) is a blend of apple juice, hard cider and apple brandy that’s aged in oak for two years. The result is a complex, apple dessert wine perfect for the holidays.
“You get all the tertiary flavors of the hard cider, the freshness of the apple juice and the richness of the brandy all playing together,” Klein said. “It’s a great dessert wine because the sugar takes a backstage.”
As for whether Klein is enjoying his new career move, it’s a definitive “yes.”
“Launching Ambix is more enjoyable than I ever could have expected,” Klein said. “I love the orchard so much that I need to make a point of limiting my time there so I can make phone calls and do marketing. That has been an unexpected thrill.”
Ambix Spirits, 1944 High School Road, Sebastopol. Open by appointment, noon to 4 p.m. Friday – Sunday. Tastings are $15 and include a short orchard and distillery tour. ambixspirits.com