Sipping vodka cocktails in the Hanson Distillery tasting room in Sonoma, one thing is clear: Wine tasting rooms have never been this fun. Don’t get us wrong, because the hundreds of wineries from Petaluma to Cloverdale have a good thing going, and this is, after all, Wine Country. But a handful of enthusiastic local spirt-makers are creating artisan vodka, gin, whiskey and liqueurs that are putting something other than wine on the local tourist maps. And my tasty cucumber vodka gimlet with edible flowers is (literally) proof of that.
Walking past huge copper stills at the heart of the family-run distillery, it’s hard to figure out where the myriad pots, towering condenser columns and spiraling metal pipes start and end. Inside one kettle, patriarch Scott Hanson points to a half-way point where wine is slowly heated and sent into columns as steam. In fact, Hanson’s vodka is — appropriately — made of grapes, giving it a different flavor profile than traditional potatoes or wheat. It also makes the finished vodka gluten-free (though there’s some debate as to the fact that all distilled spirits undergo a process that makes them gluten-free).
Inside two blue barrels, Scott’s son, Brandon shows how they naturally flavor their lineup of mandarin, ginger, cucumber and yes, habanero vodkas with actual fruit and produce. Permeable bags of fragrant Hawaiian ginger are pulled out of one barrel, trailing the unmistakably peppery sweet smell. It’s hard not to just dive in and swim around inside for a little while.
It’s all in the family, with brothers Chris, Darren and sister Alanna all taking a role in the production. “The boys got me into it,” says Scott Hanson. “The vodka space is dominated by ’nightclub’ vodkas. We wanted to do the opposite of that. We were looking for something more creative.” The Hansons also share space with the multi-generational Ceja family, who help them with the winemaking process that precedes the distilling.
“We cater more to the culinary world, to chefs and mixologists,” said the senior Hanson. Each of the flavors, including limited seasonal releases like boysenberry and espresso, are designed to complement cocktails. The habanero vodka, for instance, adds a spicy-but-not-too-spicy kick to bloody Marys, featured at Disney resorts and a reputed favorite of Walt himself.
In the tasting room, visitors can choose from a tasting of the complete Hanson vodka line in addition to craft cocktails like a Moscow Mule with a kick, spinning the traditional ginger beer and lime drink on its head with the aforementioned habanero vodka; dirty martini or strawberry lemonade infused with their original vodka. Cheers to that.
Want to visit? The tasting room is at 22985 Burndale Rd., Sonoma, tours and tastings available daily by reservation at hansonofsonoma.com. Prices range from $15 for a sample of their organic vodkas, $20 for tasting and a craft cocktail, and $35 for a VIP tour and tasting. A caviar and vodka tasting is in the works.
In addition to Hanson, here are some other great distilleries with tasting rooms you’ll want to check out.
Alley 6 Craft Distillery: This tiny tasting room is worth seeking out if you’re a whiskey fan. Their Rye Whiskey is gaining serious traction on the awards-circuit, made with malted barley from Germany, and makes for a pretty spectacular Old Fashioned. We’re also pretty taken with their single malt whiskey, made in traditional copper alembic pots, aged in American White Oak barrels and available in the tasting room only. Their Harvest Gin, made with viognier wine pomace from local wineries results in a complex and tasty gin. Want something a little different? Owners Krystle and Jason Jorgensen (a longtime Stark’s bartender) love foraging around Healdsburg, and make a distinctive and delish candy cap mushroom bitters as well as a spiced peach liqueur made with peaches from Dry Creek Peach farm. Walk-ins welcome Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and by appointment Monday through Friday. 1401 Grove St., Unit D, Healdsburg, 707-484-3593, alley6.com.
Young & Yonder Spirits: One of the sleekest tasting rooms, Young and Yonder recently moved their operations to tony Healdsburg, offering an alternative to wine tasting rooms around the square. Run by Josh and Sarah Opatz, their H.O.B.S Gin is a seriously hot commodity at local craft cocktail spots, made with Russian River water and a number of local botanicals. Fans of foraging, they’ve also released Fellows & Foragers Absinthe, made with classic herbs like anise and wormwood, ginger and tarragon. You can also taste their small-batch Stave Robber Bourbon, aged in oak for less than a year, and Persian lime vodka. Thursday through Sunday, noon to 6 p.m., 449 Allan Court, Healdsburg, 707-483-8077, youngandyonder.com.
Sonoma Coast Spirits: Citrus Basil and Jalapeno Lime flavored vodkas were named Oprah’s “Favorite Things” for July 2018. Based in Petaluma, Jill Olsen teams with her husband, Doug, to recreated family recipes for tasty infused vodkas, which also include sweet ginger and espresso, along with ready-to-drink craft cocktails and Zinfandel grappa from Howell Mountain. Tasting room open by appointment,1333 N. McDowell Blvd., F, Petaluma. sonomacoastspirits.com, 707-331-0718.
Griffo Distillery: Master Distiller (and Physics Ph.D.) Michael Griffo doesn’t leave anything to chance when he crafts his small-batch gins and whiskeys. According to Griffo, he uses “formal analysis and fabrication of innovative still-controls” for his distilling process, which means this ain’t moonshine, but balanced spirits. Michael and wife Jenny run the Petaluma distillery with “Betty” the 250-gallon copper pot still. The tasting bar is open Thursday and Friday from 4-8p.m. and Saturday, Sunday from 12:30 to 6 p.m. Tours are also available. 1320 Scott St., Suite A, Petaluma, 707-879-8755, griffodistillery.com.
HelloCello/Prohibition Spirits: The first of a wave of bonded distilleries in Sonoma County, Prohibition Spirits’ Fred and Amy Groth paved the way with the most unlikely of spirits — Hello Cello Limoncello di Sonoma. Their sunny citrus liqueur is made with thousands of lemons at community “peeling parties” each year, an ode to the summery Italian spirit. They’ve expanded their repertoire to include Hooker’s House whiskey, Sugar Daddy Rum, Jack’s Gin, Chauvet Brandy and a handful of specialty bottles including Nocino Black Walnut Liqueur and Grappa. The tasting room is open daily at Cornerstone Sonoma daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with 3 tastes for $10. 23570 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, 707-933-7507, prohibition-spirits.com.
SpiritWorks: It’s all about going sloe at this Sebastopol distillery. Made with owner Timo Ashby’s family recipe their signature Sloe Gin has a stunning ruby color, infused with a relative of the plum (sloe berries) that adds just a hint of sweetness. SpiritWorks barrel-aged Sloe Gin gets a rest in white oak barrels, adding depth and layers to the liqueur, available in limited quantities. Tours include plenty of licks from their Boston Terrier, Bandit. Tasting room open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., no reservation required, $18 for six tastes. Tours are Friday through Sunday at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., $20 per person and require a reservation at spiritworksdistillery.com, or 707-634-4793. 6790 McKinley St. No. 100, Sebastopol (at the Barlow).
Sonoma Brothers: First-responder twin brothers Christopher (a firefighter and paramedic) and Brandon Matthies (a police officer) have created some of the county’s most-loved small-batch bourbon as a side-hustle. You’ll see their distinctive bottles at better bars, including gin, vodka rye whiskey, and apple brandy, all made at their small Windsor distillery. Located in the aptly-named Artisan Alley, you can do double or triple duty by visiting the tasting rooms of several breweries and cideries nearby. Tasting room hours are daily by appointment, 7759 Bell Road, Windsor, 707-888-2120 or sonomabrothersdistilling.com.