If you’ve ever sat behind a desk, staring into an Excel spreadsheet and wondering if there’s something better out there … there is.
For Colin Baker, co-founder and master distiller at Loch & Union, that “something better” was building an innovative gin distillery in a place synonymous with a different sort of drink: Napa Valley.
Today, we chat with Colin about he turned a hobby into a ginuine moneymaking venture. Plus: our suggestions for four more Bay Area distilleries worth your time, all offering tours, tastings and superlative beverages.
InsideHook: Specifically in terms of perfecting what you put in the bottle — what's been the hardest thing to get exactly right?
Colin Baker: The defining characteristics of what we put to bottle are subtlety and balance. The process of getting those two characteristics at the forefront — while still having plenty of flavor and robustness — was the single biggest challenge when developing the gin. Getting there took over a year and literally hundreds of lab scale test distillations, with more than 100 different botanicals before finally arriving at the complete recipe.
We became so caught up in the process that knowing when to stop — aka when less is more — was also a challenge. This happened to us when trying to bring citrus into the mix. Since citrus is so common in gins, we tried layering it into the recipe every which way we could think of, but eventually came to the realization that what we had was superb ... better, in fact, without it.
IH: You left a job in accounting to pursue this. Could you share one moment that would really illustrate when you decided to just get out of there and do this?
CB: The process of getting out of my desk job and onto the path that eventually led to this distillery was a gradual one, but there was a breaking point. I was growing more and more disillusioned with the job that I had, and my passion project — at the time it was making beer — was quickly becoming more important to me than my job was.
The moment of truth came when the opportunity for a brewer position in London presented itself, and the stark realization hit me, of just how big the enthusiasm gap was between my job and my love of making booze. Why would I stay in a job that I hated, regardless of how well it paid, when I could do something actually fulfilling with my life?
IH: How’d that feel?
CB: Taking that plunge was perhaps the scariest moment of my life — to go from something stable (but boring) to fun (but completely unpredictable) was like removing the safety net from under my life. Never a day goes by where I regret that decision.
IH: What do you think the appeal of this sort of work is, especially relative to what Silicon Valley has to offer?
CB: I think we’re similar in the sense that we can be innovators. Craft distilling is still young, particularly when compared to craft brewing, and the diverse experience of this team, coupled with some of the best production equipment in the world, puts us in a unique position. We feel like we can make a contribution to how the story of the craft distilling industry plays out. Plus, simply put, distilling is a lot of fun.
IH: What have been the big pros (and cons) of setting up shop in Napa?
CB: The original reason we ended up in Napa was because of the incredible access it gives us to both new and used barrels for future whisky projects. Barrels have no direct connection to the gin, but we definitely have seen a lot of spillover benefits to the location of the distillery. It gives us instant name recognition and ties us to the Napa brand. I can not tell you how many times we’ve been at events, trade shows, etc., where people will come up to our booth and talk to us simply because of where we’re from.
Being in Napa also gives us easy access to some of the best restaurants in the world. I don’t need to tell you the caliber of restaurants we have here, and it’s an easier sell, being from their city than it would be coming from anywhere else. We’re also close enough to the Bay Area that we’re considered local there, as well. I don’t need to say how awesome the bar and restaurant scene is in the Bay Area.
We were able to avoid the main hassle people usually talk about with Napa, mainly because of where in Napa we’re located. American Canyon is much more business friendly than much of the rest of the valley, and the honest truth is I don’t think we would have been able to make it through the permitting process just about anywhere else. Permitting can be the biggest hurdle to opening a business, and the experience can be vastly different depending on where you are.
IH: What’s up next for you guys?
CB: We do have 100% single malt whisky on the way, but it likely won’t be for another three years or so. We will not release a whisky before it’s ready. The moment we release our first whisky [will be] a seminal moment in the course of this business, so we have to do it right. The barrels we currently have maturing are all in first-fill Cabernet Sauvignon barrels from one of true legacy winemakers in the valley, but we will expand the barrels we’re filling to new American and French oak in the coming months. Two of the best cooperages in the world for new oak — Seguin Moreau and Demptos — are right down the street from us.
IH: What is your absolute favorite way to drink one of your own gins?
CB: It may seem a bit simple, but my favorite way to drink my gin is in a gin and tonic. Because the gin is so clean, I generally do about a one-to-one ratio with a quality tonic like Fever Tree. If I’m looking to go a bit more fancy, I’ll do it Spanish style, which basically means putting a bunch of garnishes in the glass like rosemary, mint, pepper corns, juniper, lemon, lime, etc., etc. etc. The beauty of a Spanish gin and tonic is it can literally be whatever you want it to be, and it’s awesome to see just how much the garnishes change the beverage.
My ideal venue is with friends — outside on a warm summer night around dusk at my house in Sonoma, having a barbecue with some old-school bluegrass playing in the background.
And four more local distillers you should try this holiday season (pro tip: local gifts are the best gifts!) ...
Seven Stills: This SF distillery might be the closest thing in the city to a mad inventor’s lab, with craft beers, craft whiskeys made from those finished beers, and their California Courage vodka. The HQ is now in Bayview — but moving in 2019 to Mission Bay.
St. George Spirits: Craft-spirits icon Jörg Rupf built Alameda’s St. George into what it is today — growing from his experiments with eau de vies (made from pears, cherries, kiwis, etc.) into its current, comprehensive slate of vodkas, gins, single malts, absinthe, and more.
Tripp Distillery: Head to Pacifica over the weekend for tastings of head distiller Jason Tripp’s vodka — produced with a handmade, 220 gallon-still.
Image: Loch and Union Distillery