When the mercury soars—and boy, has it been doing that a lot this summer—it’s time for some liquid refreshment. Fortunately, we’re about to hook you up with some exotic and exciting spirits, worthy of even the fanciest shaker. Or, just pour over ice and add a sprig of mint, a slice of blood orange, or a wedge of lime. Whether you like your drinks simple and straightforward, or as complex as a Matrix movie, we have something to whet your whistle. These decidedly distinctive distillates are all made by spirited ladies who happen to live in California’s Napa and Sonoma counties.
Let’s meet the makers, shall we?
Napa Valley Distillery
Lusine “Lulu” Hartunian of Napa Valley Distillery tells us, “My husband [Arthur] has always been a self-described ‘cocktail geek’ who makes some of the best cocktails I’ve ever had. We’re both just pursuing our passion. Our first product was a California organic Meyer lemon liqueur.”
Then creativity really kicked in, and they began experimenting, letting the flavors come to them. Thus was born Old Hollywood Ginn, a classic homage to the Hollywood glamor of yesteryear.
“It’s spelled with two n’s to differentiate ourselves from other gins on the market, because our old Hollywood Ginn is so different than modern gin made today. It’s made in the same way gin was crafted back in the mid-1800s,” Hartunian explains. It’s crafted from nine botanicals and should evoke a red carpet scene of elaborately attired men and women, exuding confidence, elegance, and fine French perfume, she says. It’s their most popular product: “There is no other gin in the world that has the same flavor profile.”
And then, there’s Summer Sequel Gin (Old Hollywood No 2), inspired by the desert oasis of Palm Springs. It, too, is a concoction of nine botanicals, including yellow mandarin and geranium, plus sweet notes of peach and raspberry. I can imagine it as the basis for a morning martini after a pre-breakfast swim on a brilliant summer day.
Hartunian’s favorite cocktail is The Vesper. “It’s the classic cocktail created in the James Bond movie, Casino Royale. Made with our Distiller’s Blend gin, vodka, and kina, which is like a dry vermouth.”
Napa Valley Distillery also offers a series of pre-made cocktails, bitters, and other spirits.
Hanson of Sonoma Distillery
For Alanna Hanson of Hanson of Sonoma Distillery, life is better when shaken up and strained into the perfect glass. As she tells us, the entire Hanson family is involved in the distillery: “My brothers, Chris and Brandon Hanson, were influenced by the growing craft spirits movement and saw an opportunity.“Our family grew up in wine country, and about 10 years ago, we started thinking about how to use an abundant local resource—grapes—to make a unique vodka for the spirits market. We specifically wanted to use Sonoma grapes to create a high-quality spirit focusing on all organic ingredients, which was less common in the spirits industry. One hundred fifty-five batches and many years later, using different grape varieties, various distillation methods, and even different stills, we came up with the formula we use today for our original vodka. It’s still our most popular.”
The Hansons credit their neighbors, the Ceja family (of Ceja Vineyards), with helping them begin this distilling endeavor. Additional flavors are made by infusing original vodka with bright, sassy flavors like Meyer lemon, boysenberry, espresso, and mandarin orange to offer a panoply of cocktail-perfect bases.“I love our habañero-infused and cucumber-infused vodkas. We hand-cut fruits and vegetables—never chili powders or fruit syrups—and infuse them into our vodkas for anywhere from three weeks to a few months.” The habañero makes a mean Bloody Mary. It’s also a great way to hot up a martini. Use two parts Hanson Meyer lemon vodka and one part habañero for a true taste of summertini.
The ginger vodka is my go-to as an after dinner sipper. Just pop it in the freezer along with a shot glass. It’s also pretty fun mixed with the Prohibition Spirits’ Jack’s pink gin for a modern take on a spirited Wall Streeter. If you’re feeling ultra adventurous, shake up two parts of ginger vodka and one part of Leon Ancho brandy, along with a bit of simple syrup or cherry juice. The possibilities are endless.
Amy Groth and her husband, Fred, were living in Boulder, Colo., with busy careers as an event planner and an environmental consultant, respectively, when a vacation to Sonoma County opened their eyes to the wine country lifestyle, with a twist. A twist of lemon, actually.
“Fred and I had been making limoncello for the past 23 years as a hobby. We discovered it during our first trip to Italy. We not only fell in love with the product itself but we fell in love with the artisanal, small batch boutique aspect as well,” says Groth.
“Everyone has a limoncello story. It creates an incredible jovial atmosphere and usually friends and family are involved. When we moved to Sonoma we realized that no one was producing limoncello, and we knew how, so why not? That’s when we jumped in and become the first distillery in Sonoma County since Prohibition.”
Groth continues, “Fred created the melon mint gin for me as a gift. I’m not usually a gin fan because of the strong juniper taste. I asked if we could do a little something different and that’s exactly what he did. It’s my absolute favorite gin and I love how it changes people’s perception of juniper-forward gins. It’s one of our most popular products. There’s nothing out there like it, which is so cool”
Jack’s melon and mint gin is a palate pleaser for melon lovers: so very melony, but also quite chocolate-minty at the same time. The texture is rich and unctuous, and can be made more so by freezing. Just serve cold in small shot glasses with a sprig of mint.Jack’s pink gin glows like dawn’s early light: It deserves the finest crystal martini goblet you have. Shake it up with ice and you’re done, or splash in orange or rhubarb bitters to make the color pop.
Sonoma Coast Spirits
Jill Olson says spirits are in her blood. “My great-grandfather owned a distillery in Santa Rosa [Calif.] before Prohibition and made grappa.” What’s more, she says, “I grew up on a vineyard in St. Helena, and my sister owns a winery. It just sort of came about naturally.
“The pivotal moment came in May 2010, when I was creating cocktails for parties and events, and my lemon drop was especially popular. Everyone asked me to bottle it. My husband and I ran the business until he passed away in November 2018; now I run it with the help of my adult children. My sons, Carter and Grant, manage production, and my daughter, Caroline, runs our social media. My other son, Blake, helps when he can [he also works for a winery in Santa Rosa].”
I tried the two that Oprah chose to feature in the July 2018 issue of her magazine, which brought Olson nationwide recognition: citrus basil and jalapeño lime.
A mellow infusion that leans towards orange with a hint of basil, citrus basil vodka makes a great martini with a basil leaf and slice of Meyer lemon. Or, mix with soda and a squeeze of fresh orange. It’s also righteous mixed with her jalapeño lime vodka for a really joyous summer celebration. Try it with Prohibition Spirits’ melon and mint gin for a chocolate orange creamsickle sensation.
The jalapeño lime vodka is a potent potable that makes a wicked twist on a Bloody Mary (no need for hot sauce). It’s also swell with tonic and a squeeze of lime. To really amp it up, and add a touch of sweetness, add a splash of Hanson of Sonoma’s habañero vodka and a squeeze of Meyer lemon for a very spicy vodka and tonic.Of all their vodkas, Olson says, jalapeño lime and espresso are the most popular. “Our espresso vodka is made from cold brewed espresso from Petaluma Coffee and Tea Company and is 80 percent decaf, so you don’t have to worry about drinking it at night. We’ve featured it in affogatos [an Italian coffee-based dessert] at several events and restaurants: It’s poured over ice cream, topped with whipped cream, and drizzled with chocolate. So yummy!”
All four of these spirits producers offer delivery or shipping, and the first three have tasting rooms where you can sample and purchase their wares. Let’s heed the advice of these daring damsels of distillates and find new and spirited ways of reveling in the seemingly endless warm days of summer, before they slowly melt into fall.