Creative. Diligent. Intentional. Three words that encapsulate the ethos of Spirit Works Distillery, in Sebastopol, CA. Three words that founders Ashby & Timo Marshall say really set them apart and help them succeed. Three other words I would add to the list? Passionate, principled, and innovative. On the day of their first Bourbon release, I sat down with head distiller Lauren Patz and co-founder/marketer/distiller Ashby Marshall. It quickly became clear that these six words were a deeply ingrained way of life at Spirit Works. And the foundational “spirit” of their rapid success as a grain-to-glass craft distiller in the middle of CA wine country.
Founded in 2012 by husband-and-wife team Timo & Ashby, Spirit Works Distillery, is the kind of story often heralded as the dream for many nascent craft makers. In less than ten years they’ve gone from knowing nothing about distillation or running their own business to building a well-known brand featuring a unique, impressive portfolio with clear brand identity, and a large, engaged club. And those six little words are the secret to their success.
Timo & Ashby first met working on a ship traveling all over the world doing environmental research. Tight quarters, respecting each other’s expertise, the need to keep things “ship-shape”, an uncontrollable environment, and not being able to get away – even from each other – sometimes for weeks at a time, had them in perfect training for building a business together. Even if they didn’t know it at the time. As they grew closer, Timo shared his passion for his family’s Sloe Gin they made back in the UK and they began to wonder why sloe gin wasn’t popular here in the US. An idea was born.
“We originally thought we would join up with a small distillery, share Timo’s family’s recipe, and bring the Sloe Gin into the market that way. But it was there that we discovered the lack of grain to glass spirits, where our passion came in, and the idea started to grow.” They learned about distillation, took small business classes, and figured out how to bring the idea to life by learning everything they could together from the ground up.
Those early, formative conversations quickly led to the principle of ensuring everything they made was grain-to-glass. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the distilling process learning how to distill is a major undertaking in itself. Committing to sourcing and processing your own grain as well? That’s borderline crazy for newbies. And why so many craft distillers out there today start by simply buying already distilled base spirits.
But Timo & Ashby’s passion doesn’t allow them stop there…not only will they be grain-to-glass, but also use sustainable, organic grains. Sure, why not set the bar a little higher?! “We set standards for ourselves very early on, and it’s been a challenge to maintain the standards, but because we hold ourselves to it, I think it forces some of that uniqueness and creativity out of our distillery.” They discover a local source of California Red Winter Wheat as their preferred base grain and proceed to learn everything they can about the grain, distilling, and starting Spirit Works Distillery. Over the years, this grain-to-glass philosophy continues to drive every decision they make.
For example, the Four Grain Straight Bourbon Whiskey just released on the day I was visiting? One of the most frequent asked questions in the Spirit Works cozy tasting room with expansive views of the distillery in action is, “Do you make bourbon?” They wanted to make a bourbon…but they couldn’t find a source of California grown, sustainable, organic corn. So, they stuck to their principles and waited until they could. And then patiently waited another four years to age that bourbon before releasing it to their club in March of this year, and more broadly on April 8. Sticking to your principles can be a real pain sometimes…but as Spirit Works proves time and time again, it’s well worth the wait!
When just getting started it’s easy to get stuck doing the bare minimum to get your first product out the door, cut corners where you need to, and figure out the future as you go. But that’s just not the Spirit Works way. From the very start they built this business intentionally with their end vision in mind. And that end vision was expansive, exciting, and ambitious.
Considering the initial idea – combining Timo’s British tradition of sloe gin with the innovation known to Ashby’s West Coast roots – was originally for one product, the distillery they built could have been seen as overkill. Or visions of grandeur, to say the least. But not to Timo & Ashby. If they were going to build a business, they were going to build it for what they believed it could become, not for where they were starting.
“That passion behind a family project has given us a lot of motivation to keep going. You know? If you believe that you really are going to make something beautiful and special and that actually happens, then there is a little confidence there where you’re like, okay, we, we did study quite a bit, we can do this!”
Their diligence when it came to their studies and intention is best exemplified by their gorgeous, custom, copper still that guests have the privilege of seeing in action while they sample Spirit Works in the tasting room. They dove deep and learned enough about distillation to be able to invest big in their own custom-designed still. Using that intentionality to build a still would allow them to create a full range of products in the future, have enough capacity to grow, and do contract distilling for others as an additional revenue stream.
Head distiller Lauren, who now uses the still Ashby designed day-in and day-out says, “Ashby designed that. It’s a hybrid pot still. And essentially that means that we can make a variety of different spirits. So, it has the pot that we can distill in, and that’s where we do our stripping runs and our gin and some parts of our whiskey distillations. But we also have a short column, which only has five plates in it. And that’s something that we were glad we learned early on because we use it in a very specific way for condensing our heads and some of our spirits. Then because we want it to be grain-to-glass and we also had to distill our own neutral grain spirit our still also has a 21-plate column, which gives us the ability to distill to just over 190 proof in one run. And that gives us the base for our vodka, which becomes the base gin, which becomes the base for our sloe gin.”
But Ashby’s diligence went even deeper than that. She thought through how she would be using the still, although very new to distilling herself, and how few staff members they would have in the beginning. Knowing that she would often have to run the still by herself she had an idea. “Anytime I was in a distillery I saw them filling the still and they needed one person to stand looking in the still to tell what was going in it and another person running the pump. And it was like, oh, we could just put a little extra window and then I could run the pump and see what’s in the still all on my own. The slant of the line arm, the shape of the helmet, those were all things that we were very particular about. And we also designed the still to be able to handle fruit just in case that’s something we wanted to do in the future, even if it wasn’t necessarily part of the original plan.”
Lauren chimes in that while it looks like a traditional whiskey still, since that’s what it was based off of, “those details have a huge impact of your how an Alembic distillation can due to things like reflux from condensation, how many times it’s running through that system, and things like that. So, there’s like a lot of technical components about just the angle, how deep that angle is or if it’s going down versus back up.”
This diligence has clearly paid off. Ashby brushes it off humbly, “You kind of have to be a Jack of all trades when you’re a small family- owned company because everything needs to get done right. You can’t really just have one specific thing that you’re really good at. You kind of have to be able to do everything.”
One of the earliest challenges Spirit Works found was simply not having enough hands to bottle the amazing spirits they crafted. So, they created a program to allow fans to come in and help them bottle in exchange for a small stipend as contract workers (for-profit companies can’t legally have volunteer workers in CA). Great! Problem solved creatively in a way that also builds interest and loyalty for their brand. “They are very excited and I get it,” Lauren remembers of her early days at Spirit Works and as the person who came up with the idea behind community bottlings, “because I did it at the distillery myself and I was super excited and practically willing to pay Ashby & Timo to let me be there!”
Problem solved. Fast forward a bit and the laws change. If the person doing contract work isn’t actually a contractor in that field (i.e., they’ve been paid to do similar work for others) then you can’t hire them as a contractor. Many in this situation would simply walk at this point. But not the team at Spirit Works. “We had to kind of shift gears a little bit. Instead of having them be contract employees, we’re teaching a class on bottling, so it just ties into that ability to kind of pivot and adapt. You just gotta roll with the punches. You’ve gotta be able to A) know what the law is, and B) figure out a way to make it work. Because we still needed those hands and our community had come to really enjoy those experiences.”
Another major challenge that all craft distilleries in California faced prior to 2016: distilleries couldn’t legally sell product direct to consumer on-premise. They could provide free tastings, but then they’d have to direct them to the nearest store if that consumer wanted to purchase a bottle after tasting. Sound crazy? Yeah…we agree. Now imagine being a distillery in the middle of wine country where consumers are used to being able to walk into wineries, taste a few wines, and immediately buy whatever they enjoy. It seemed crazy to consumers too.
So what’s a craft distiller to do? Complain? Give up? Consider moving to another state where laws are more reasonable? You embrace the Spirit Works ethos: get creative. “There are always going to be problems.” Ashby says, “So it really doesn’t benefit anyone to dwell on the difficulties or the problems in any substantial way. And it really is very helpful to make sure that you focus on solutions and how to make something work, even if it’s difficult.”
So, Timo became the president of the California Distillers Guild in 2015. Obviously. Heading up to the state capital more often than he’d like to admit, he was intent on working with others to figure out a way to drive change. While certainly a team effort across multiple sectors, Timo played an important role and the law was changed in 2016 to allow distilleries to sell up to 3 bottles per person per day. Still not as lax as wine and beer, but a major win for the California craft distilling community.
Creativity and innovation go hand in hand, but when you only make products that have mass appeal in an effort to get broad distribution, both can be stifled. This change to this law not only allowed Spirit Works to sell directly (and serve cocktails as a way to sample!), turning interested tasters into happy paying customers, but it also opened up the door for them to start creating smaller experimental batches to sell exclusively through their tasting room and to loyal club members.
While the first product they launched, Sloe Gin, was indeed innovative for the American market this new environment allowed them to really unleash their innovation. The team began exploring and testing new, exciting spirits that might not be appealing enough yet for broad distribution. In fact, the Bourbon they just released is the first product they’ve released outside of their tasting room since their Straight Wheat Whiskey and Straight Rye Whiskey back in 2015 before this law changed!
Spirit Works doesn’t just make the expected spirits, they experiment and develop niche products they believe in and know others will love once tasted. From barrel aged gin, to barrel reserve sloe gin, to liqueurs, rye vodka, aquavit, and more. And let’s not forget about their music barrel experiment where they “amplify” the aging process (vibration causes the whiskey to move in and out of the wood more frequently and deeply) for select barrels of whiskey playing specific music playlists via large headphones around the barrel for the entire aging process.
While another control barrel ages without the music. There have been barrels listening to Prince, Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin, hip-hop, rap, symphony, and more. Spirit Works’ first music whiskey release was in 2017, one barrel of bluegrass and one of The Nutcracker. From the start, in blind tastings, fans have consistently indicated a preference for the musically inclined whiskey. Available for tastes and purchase through their tasting room only, it’s yet another great example of Spirit Works’ creativity and innovation in action.
Recently launching a Rye Vodka and Aquavit for their club members and tasting room is another great example. The ability to take risks on spirits that are less known by consumers and count on the on-premise education and tastes to turn skeptics into fans continues to fuel their innovation. “A friend of mine made me a loaf of Irish soda bread, and I was like, what is this flavor? I don’t understand what is happening.” Recalls Lauren of her inspiration to make an aquavit. “It’s both savory and sweet. Then I was like, oh, caraway. And when I discovered that there was a spirit that was a caraway forward spirit, aquavit, I was sold.”
But having an idea isn’t enough at Spirit Works…their intentionality and diligence comes into play for guiding innovation as well. “So, part of my presentation – if you want to do something you have to write it up and cover why it makes sense for the business, how you’re going to do it, what it’s going to cost, and what the brand will get out of it – when I was pitching it as a product to Timo and Ashby I was to bring in a loaf of bread from this great local spot, Wildflower Bakery. They make this really dense rye loaf with caraway seeds on top of it. I cut it, toasted it, and put butter on it and brought it in.” Having a good food included in your sales pitch clearly doesn’t hurt in getting your ideas approved either!
“So while the base of all of our other products is our CA Red Winter Wheat Whiskey, the plan was to make the base of the Aquavit a rye-based vodka. So, we did 100% rye fermentation and distillation for the base and since we were going to do that anyway, we also ended up releasing a rye vodka as well; which was surprisingly, popular.”
It’s no accident that Spirit Works rye vodka or aquavit were popular. When you have such steadfast belief in being creative, diligent and intentional and then layer in their team’s natural passion, innovative spirit, and principled approach you’re destined for success.
That success will only continue with their latest twist on the traditional. Their Four Grain Straight Bourbon Whiskey. It’s a proprietary master blend of two bourbons, aged four years separately. The first is a Wheated Bourbon mash bill – 60% corn, 30% wheat, 10% malted barley. The second is a Rye Bourbon mash bill – 60% corn, 30% rye, 10% malted rye. While blending is certainly commonplace with scotch and other whiskeys, it’s less familiar in the Bourbon world.
This has been a particularly fun project for Lauren as she learned about blending to add a new tool to her already overflowing toolbox of distillation techniques. “One thing we haven’t done a ton of, that I really wanted to experiment with, was whiskey blending. This was an opportunity to take a slightly different approach to bourbon. When you add more grains, you can add layers of complexity and some really interesting notes. The key is to make sure that they marry well, that it’s thoughtful, and that you’re doing it in a way that brings them together to be more than the sum of their parts.”
This, my friends, is most certainly a bourbon to get your hands on now that it’s been released beyond their tasting room. You can really taste that spice in there from the rye, and even a slight bittersweet component. And, of course, a touch of sweetness from the corn. It has a pleasantly long finish with notes of polenta maybe with a bit of butter and maple syrup drizzled in along with some subtle chicory and spice. Clearly identifiable as bourbon, but with the signature Spirit Works twist that after reading this article we should all come to expect and excitedly anticipate.
Have you visited Spirit Works Distillery or tried their spirits? Share your favorite sips and stories about this amazing craft brand below. Having a hard time finding their spirits near you? Head on over to their spirits finder to make that tasting glass or cocktail happy. And next time you’re in CA wine country make sure to make time to stop by for a tasting experience you won’t soon forget.