An Old World approach to a New World whiskey

Adam Spiegel is as humble a distiller as they come.

After graduating from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and moving back home to San Francisco to continue his career in finance, Spiegel said his work behind the still started after the company he worked for lost billions of dollars in just one week during the Great Recession in 2008.

“I was part of a massive layoff,” Spiegel said. “But leading up to it, I promised myself that I would absolutely not work for something that I did not believe in. I want to wake up everyday loving what I do, and I set out to learn a skill set that would carry me for the remainder of my life.”

Spiegel's former business partner introduced him to the distilling craft by teaching Spiegel how to make alcohol. “We set out to create top-tier American whiskey, because we found what was out there nationally and locally to be a big box, boring and unimaginative,” Spiegel said.

In 2010, the pair co-founded their distillery in Rohnert Park. Over time, their longterm visions of the brand began to split and so Spiegel bought out his partner. In 2013, the rebranded Sonoma County Distilling Co. was born.

Since then, things have been rolling for Spiegel. He hired former brewers from around Sonoma County to make his distillery's beer. All whiskey actually starts out as beer — grain, water and yeast. Spiegel said he also found invaluable help and consultation from veterans such as Hubert Germain-Robin, who makes exceptional California brandy with the same direct-fired stills that Spiegel chose to use for his whiskey.

Spiegel likens himself to a student who is constantly growing his passion and hopes to become a master distiller like Germain-Robin one day.

“This is a skill that has been passed down for generations from father to son, teacher to pupil. I've got a ways to go but in 10-15 years, my mentors will tell me I've arrived as a master distiller,” Spiegel said. “This is a lifelong pursuit. I don't have all the answers. So I'll get a bunch of masters that will help me out. Whiskey, especially, is not a short-term game.”

Spiegel has grown the distillery from 150-200 gallons a month to 700-plus gallons. The company's space in an industrial lot is also growing, with approvals from the city of Rohnert Park to allow for potentially five 250-gallon copper alembic stills. Spiegel currently runs just one.

While creating his distillery's beer, Spiegel uses open-top fermentation tanks without sparging (separating grain from liquid) to capture the true essence of the grain. Think of it as a four- to five-day steeping of a teabag. Spiegel uses Old World processes normally found in brandy houses.

He prefers to use small, new charred American oak barrels for a minimum of one year, then moves the fully rounded spirit into used rye or bourbon barrels to allow them to slowly but surely age and oxidize without overoaking the finished product.

“Using European-style stills, we figured we'd use a European-style approach to making whiskey,” Spiegel said.

At the heart of his operation is his Sonoma Rye Whiskey, which is made from a mash of 100-percent rye, a “grain to glass” spirit that's young with hints of vanilla and allspice that truly allow the grain to shine.

We sat around a picnic table outside his distillery, going down the line of his products, including his soon-to-be-released West of Kentucky Bourbon No. 2, with a mashbill of corn, wheat and barley.

Spiegel's whiskeys can be found throughout the Bay Area, and he even distributes in parts of Europe and in Singapore.

“Its a very rewarding thing to make a product from scratch that's uniquely Californian, borrowing techniques and traditions from a variety of regions and industries to make some handcrafted spirits I can be proud of,” he said. “It's incredibly gratifying to give back to my hometown of San Francisco.”

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