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Passion Keeps Flowing for Sebastopol’s Spirit Works Distillery

Couple behind mainstay of Sebastopol’s Barlow marking 10th anniversary with new whiskey.

A lot has changed since Timo and Ashby Marshall launched Spirit Works Distillery in Sebastopol’s Barlow a decade ago.

“For starters, we now have a staff,” said Ashby Marshall, co-founder and head distiller. “Sometimes (people) don’t believe we used to do everything ourselves. It still feels weird to have help.”

In 2012, Spirit Works was among the first three businesses to move into The Barlow, along with Woodfour Brewing and Kosta Browne winery. Back then, the property had yet to grow into the buzzing outdoor marketplace it is today, with wineries, breweries, restaurants, artisan shops and, of course, a distillery.

“When we signed our lease, the broader concept for The Barlow still remained on paper,” said Timo Marshall, co-founder and operations manager. “But they needed someone to believe in them, and we needed someone to believe in us. So it worked out well.”

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this month, Spirit Works Distillery has been a passion project for the husband-and-wife team since Day One. Among their award-winning spirits, you’ll find vodka, gin and whiskey produced with organic red winter wheat; their bestselling four-grain bourbon; and a delicious, juicy sloe gin made with fresh sloe berries.

To commemorate the anniversary, Spirit Works is releasing a limited-edition 8-year-old rye whiskey ($90), the oldest release for the brand.

“There were two barrels I’d had my eye on in the cellar for quite some time,” said Ashby Marshall, who created the limited-release rye. “One was producing beautiful fruity notes, while the other was very spicy, with coriander, cardamom and caraway. I felt like the flavors would meld beautifully together.”

The brand’s leading tenet is what they call “grain to glass,” reflecting the couple’s commitment to producing their spirits with organic whole grains.

“‘Grain to glass’ sounds like a nice marketing term, but it’s massively important to us,” Timo Marshall said. “Some craft distillers just buy alcohol, tweak it a bit, then bottle it. But we start production with high-quality raw materials and process everything on-site. We want to know where all our ingredients come from.”

So do their customers. In recent years, Timo Marshall said, many people have shifted from asking which ingredients go into their products to instead asking where the ingredients are sourced from. They’re more invested in learning about the brand’s intent, and they want to buy products that support the local economy, he said.

Spirit Works Distillery are celebrating their 10-year anniversary in Sebastopol’s Barlow with the release of an 8-year-old rye whiskey. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Change for distilleries

Among the most significant changes in the industry that the Marshalls have experienced since launching Spirit Works was the passage of the Craft Distiller’s Act in 2015.

Before the act passed, craft distilleries in California were not allowed to sell their spirits directly to consumers in a tasting room. They also couldn’t charge for tastings or tours, or accept tips.

“People would come in for a tasting and we wouldn’t charge them,” Timo Marshall said. “Then they would want to buy our products, and we would tell them to buy our spirits elsewhere. They were very confused.”

Now, customers can buy up to 2.25 liters of spirits per day directly from the tasting room. That lets the distillery experiment with small batches of new products and get consumer feedback before deciding whether to release new products into the marketplace.

“The Craft Distiller’s Act has had a huge impact on the creativity and imagination of the craft distillery industry as a whole,” Timo Marshall said. “Once it passed, distillers began making these really fascinating spirits in California. It has been an amazing change to our industry.”

Spirit Works has not been immune to the effects of the pandemic, with the tasting room being forced to close for months. Fortunately, the Marshalls were able to retain their entire staff and keep production flowing.

For California’s craft distillers, the unforeseen silver lining of COVID-19 has been the passage of Assembly Bill 920 in March 2022. Designed to “mitigate the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on craft distillers and resulting loss of revenue,” the temporary bill authorized craft distillers to ship up to 2.25 liters of spirits directly to consumers — something that wasn’t allowed previously. Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a stopgap measure to extend the bill until Jan. 1, 2024.

“Being able to ship directly to consumers has been a massive change,” Timo Marshall said. “Before, customers would have to visit the tasting room to pick up their spirits club shipments, which limited our geographic reach. The bill has really helped us expand our business and hire more people, which is great for our community and the economy.”

A cocktail at Spirit Works Distillery in Sebastopol. (Loren Hansen)

Looking forward

While laws and legalities in the craft spirits industry may have changed over the last decade, Marshalls’ passion for producing quality grain-to-glass spirits remains strong.

Within the next few months, the distillery will release an exclusive Founder’s Reserve wheat whiskey, a hyper-local rye vodka, housemade citrus bitters and a unique sloe amaro.

They also are producing custom spirits for private clients, which is a significant and growing part of their business.

“The fact we’re still here after 10 years is huge to us,” Timo Marshall said. “We love seeing how Sonoma County has grown in its appreciation of craft spirits, and it’s incredible to think about all the people we’ve connected with over the years through the distillery. We’re so happy to be where we are in the industry.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or sarah.doyle@pressdemocrat.com.

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