The day opened with a Keynote Address from Jean-Charles Boisset, whose wine empire (with properties in the United States and France) has recently expanded into a line a of premium spirits. He entertained the crowd with outrageous stories, unbridled enthusiasm, and memorable one-liners, including “The more you drink, the more Ideas you’ll have.” After recalling his childhood in the vineyards of Burgundy, the flamboyant Frenchman recounted his first visit to California at age 11, tasting Russian River Valley and Carneros Chardonnay with his grandmother, and embracing her advice that, “in America, everything is possible.” Referencing the years of experimentation that led to his new product line, Boisset encouraged all the makers in the room to identify what makes them authentic, then “Be audacious! Be crazy! Be adventurous!”Later in the day, Boisset and sommelier Christopher Sawyer led a large group through a tasting of the new JCB Collection spirits offerings, which includes three vodkas and a gin, all distilled from wine. “It’s time to treat spirits the same way we’ve [treated] wine for so many years,” Boisset proclaimed, urging makers to pursue premiumization and not be shy about pricing products accordingly.
Sawyer also led a day of lively discussions on topics ranging from the basics of distillation and building a brand to the nuts-and-bolts of California licensing for craft distillers. “Making Spirits Right” focused on microdistillation, with panelists Michael Jones (Scott Laboratories), Abe Stevens (Humboldt Distillery), Lauren Patz (Spirit Works Distillery), and Crispin Cain (Greenway Distillers and others), each emphasizing a different element of the process.
Jones focused on healthy fermentation to unlock aromatics and deepen flavor profiles, while Stevens passed around before (butyric acid) and after (ethyl butyrate) samples to demonstrate a specific chemical change that happens in the distillation and aging process; the decidedly “stinky cheese” aroma was transformed to “floral and sweet”—just one of myriad reactions that transform raw ingredients to spirits.From day one, Spirit Works has been a grain-to-glass producer, meaning it sources raw organic grain from known growers, before milling, mashing, fermenting, and distilling onsite; Patz called the choice “a definer” that offers consistency and defines the character of the brand. Cain stressed the need to understand the entire production process and to embrace all aspects of the business, even record-keeping, which he called “boring but necessary.” The consensus: Be a perfectionist.
“License to Sell” brought experts together to discuss California’s Type 74 licensing, which has been a source of confusion for many craft distillers. Panelists included Matthew Botting (California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control, or ABC), alcohol beverage attorney Craig Rashkis (Farwell Rashkis LLP), and Chris Steller (Dry Diggings Distillery and California Artisanal Distillers Guild, or CADG).Calling beverage alcohol “the most highly regulated consumer product in the United States,” Botting offered an overview of Type 74 as it stands now, debunking many misconceptions about what the law does and doesn’t allow (hint: it’s definitely less than what distillers want). Rashkis followed these comments with the advice to learn about all the licensing options before applying for Type 74. “Every level of licensing comes with challenges,” he said, advising those interested in entering the industry to “know what you want to do and talk to an expert about the best and easiest way to get there.”
Following these cautionary voices, Steller introduced CADG and the work it’s done to ease restrictive regulations in the state, so far passing two major pieces of legislation, with another, SB1164, introduced earlier this year. Emphasizing that, “ABC is not the enemy; well-defined regulations actually make things easier,” Steller encouraged CADG membership: “We are your voice in Sacramento. We lobby for this industry, and it’s a game of numbers. The more members we have, the more weight our negotiations carry.”In “Start Me Up!” panelists with a wide range of expertise outlined some of the basic decisions to be made when beginning a distilling venture. Attorney Bahaneh Hobel (Dickinson Peatman & Fogarty) moved beyond licensing questions to talk about sole proprietorship versus business entities (LLPs and LLCs) and the legal ins-and-outs of facility zoning and permitting, shipping and sales restrictions, and brand protection (including trademarks and proprietary information). Building on her information, David Schueman (CF Napa Brand Design) presented a series of actions to establish your brand in the marketplace. Strategies included honing your brand message, creating a standout package, and establishing a unique selling position. He referred attendees to his blog, drinkwithyoureyes.com, for more tips.
John Beaudette of alcohol import, distribution, and service company MHW shared results of a company survey that identifies several indicators of likely success in the industry. These included having a strong support team both inside and beyond your company (individuals who share your enthusiasm), creating realistic timelines for progress, and developing strong public relations contacts (including but not limited to social media).
According to Beaudette, one driver that’s become increasingly challenging in recent years is identifying a consistent route to market. He pointed to ongoing consolidation among distributors as the prime roadblock and encouraged smaller-scale distillers to reach out to mid-tier companies or newcomers like LibDib, which can offer smaller producers access to tight retail markets. Sawyer interjected his view that, as a sommelier and restaurant buyer, he’s looking for individuality to help set his bar programs apart from competitors, calling it another possible avenue for younger and lesser-known brands to consider.The day’s discussions concluded with Scott Moore (Dalkita Architecture & Construction) and Scott Schiller (Thoroughbred Spirits Group), who teamed up for a presentation that tackled branding from two disparate avenues, combining both the business side and the building side. Touching on everything from defining your brand and developing your business model to locating and building your ideal production space, the two tag-teamed a detailed overview of all it takes to get up and running in the distilled spirits industry. It was a comprehensive and information-packed way to end the day’s seminars. Meanwhile, on the exhibition floor, a mix of suppliers, producers, distributors, and consumers mingled, networked, and conducted business. Of course, spirits was the star of the show, with distributors and distilleries from California and beyond pouring their wares for eager tasters. Selections included flagship offerings (Pasote tequila from 3 Badge Beverage and The Botanist gin from Remi Cointreau, for example), 2017 Craft Distillers Spirits Competition award winners (Moylan’s single malt whiskey, Ada Lovelace gin from Great Women Spirits by Francis Ford Coppola), and new takes on standards (among them Glass Vodka’s infusions, El Rey’s tequilias, Hanson’s organic vodkas, and Treecraft Distillery gins), plus a few mixed cocktails (from Hangar 1, introducing its new Rosé Vodka) and even peach bellini popsicles (Charbay Distillery in conjunction with The Perfect Puree of Napa Valley).
The more than 40 suppliers that set up booths represented many aspects of industry support, including production, branding, packaging, storage, distribution, education, financial, and legal services—all making valuable and necessary connections with distillers new and established. Feedback was positive as the day wound down, with congratulations shared and promises for an even bigger and more inclusive event next year.
Thanks to show sponsors: ATL Events, California Artisanal Distillers Guild, Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty, Glopak USA, Glass Vodka, Hangar 1, LibDib, Talis by Cork Supply, LifeWtr, TricorBraun Winepak, Craft Distillers Spirits Competition, Press Democrat, and North Bay Business Journal