The craft of it all: Spirits with a twist

The resurgence of the independent craft food and beverage industry is the hallmark of the early 21st century.  By definition, this is a more traditional, small-lot approach to production methods. Greater attention and detail are paid to every facet of the process. Fewer hands. Fewer inputs. Higher quality. More specialized products.

Consumer, meet producer.

With the democratization of information, the craft movement has flourished. Fluid access to a strong customer base, opportunities for alternative sources of funding, and the broad reach of grassroots marketing have softened the once daunting barriers to entry. In addition, the conventional methods of start-up investment have been supplemented by internet funding platforms such as IndiegogoKickstarter, and the food-centric, Barnraiser, all acting as conduits for impact investing.

Although this renaissance is happening across the country, in Northern California, the trend is palpable. Its presence is everywhere. It is infused in local cheese makers, ever-diligent bakers, eclectic brewers, and passionate distillers.

In a quest to uncover a more distinct local producer of our favorite cocktail staples, we stumbled upon the Napa Valley Distillery’s retail shop in the Oxbow Public Market. On this first introduction to their wares, our exploration only lasted as long as the attention span of our toddler. And so, purchases in-hand, we made a quick mental note to make an adults-only return in the not-too-distant future.

And return we did, only this time we skipped the retail spot and headed straight to their local distillery and tasting salon. On an obscenely wet Sunday morning, when most sane individuals were either hibernating in the coziness of their homes or nursing Bloody Mary’s over brunch, we sauntered on-site for a tour, happy to escape the rain and eager to explore something new.

As we have learned, craft should be synonymous with “what one least expects.” Whereas the distillery’s retail shop is hip and at-home in the bustling Oxbow Public Market, the neighborhood and façade of the distillery is – how to put this – unapologetically industrial. And yet, as we have discovered time and again, the best surprises often come in the most unassuming packages. And so, off a cul-de-sac, in a rugged part of town and adjacent to the consistent hum of Highway 29, we found a small, modest warehouse.

Folks, do not judge a book by its cover. Honestly, this quip should be the name of this blog. Because, truly, some of our best finds have come in warehouses. Or storage units. Or dead-end roads.

Once the warehouse doors slid open, we were welcomed by a festive and eclectic facility. Production takes place downstairs; the tastings and conversation happen upstairs. A nod to nostalgia envelopes the entire space, with vintage influences in abundance.

The Napa Valley Distillery is the brainchild of Arthur and Lusine Hartunian. Passionate about craft spirits and creating a rare product that pays homage to unique characteristics, they are singular in their approach. Arthur’s concept for the distillery came in 2009 as part of a card game bet to make Limoncello better than the one he was drinking at the table. After it won platinum at a Swiss competition, the venture gained traction.

Given their diligent efforts in handcrafting their product, it is no surprise that the Hartunian’s rely heavily on the local flavor to influence their spirits. Their Napa Vodka is handcrafted with single vintage Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc. Further, using the bounty of their location, they are primarily a Brandy producer  – examples include the Meyer Lemon Variety, Grand California and Brandy Rouge Cocktail – given that brandy is, essentially, wine minus water.

With their near religious attention to creating small-batch and limited release spirits, there appears to be limitless opportunity for creativity in their production. They recently started producing whiskey and have two alembic pot stills. The copper pulls certain elements – primarily sulfur – from the liquor. Their Rumslinger Rum is made in the agricole style found in the Caribbean

“We are incredibly proud to be taking something old and making it new and fresh again,” said Theodore Alexander, their Cocktail History Specialist.

There is a sense of whimsy and fun in everything that the Napa Valley Distillery pursues. Of the twelve employees, everyone wears multiple hats. The one constant: every employee is fastidious about the quality of the product. They are a craft distillery, first and foremost. Their knowledge and passion infuses everything, regardless of how simple the task.

“In the same way that you’d never see an apathetic jock working at a comic book shop, you’ll never see anyone here who isn’t ultra-passionate about spirits, distilling, and the process of experimenting” said Alexander.

In a sense, everything is intentional here. Nothing is by mistake. With all this attention to detail, how does the product drink? In a word: tremendously.

Napa Valley Distillery’s craft processes and strict adherence to high quality ingredients give even traditionally stodgy liquors – such as gin – a new, fresh take. The distillery infuses flavors into their products that are not always found in conventional brands, thus lending them a very distinct and more nuanced flavor profile. And whereas most mass-produced mixed cocktails are created with inferior liquor that is either too strong or harsh to be consumed in its original form, all of the spirits tasted at the distillery are drinkable either neat or on the rocks. For consumers who are not thrilled by sipping liquor, an alternative option is the Daiquiri Cocktail. Aged in oak and mixed with exactly the right amount of kefir lime, it is smooth and easy to drink on a hot day. Essentially, there is something for everyone here.

Pre-baby days, when cooking and Old Fashioned-ing were all the rage.
Pre-baby days, when cooking and Old Fashioned-ing were all the rage.

The Details

Distillery and Grand Tasting Salon

2486 Stockton Street, Napa

Friday to Sunday: 11Am to 7PM


Oxbow Tasting Salon and Retail Space

Oxbow Public Market, 610 First Street, Napa

Monday to Saturday: 9AM to 8PM; Sunday: 9AM to 7PM


Reservations are recommended for both tastings at the Oxbow Tasting Salon and tours at the Distillery.

As for us, what are our favorite cocktails?

Michael: “I have to go with an Old Fashioned. My time in the south attracted me to the nuances of this drink. I love the charred wood flavor of bourbon and adding in some sugar and a hint of citrus. As for bitters, avoid the mass distributed brands. Instead, at a minimum, choose a higher quality product such as Berg & Hauck’s Jerry Thomas Bitters or, better yet, look up a recipe and make your own.”

Strada: “It depends on the season. Summer is definitely Mint Julep or Moscow Mule territory. Super light and fun. As for the colder months, these always strike me as ‘sipping’ season. Something smooth to warm the body.”

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