July 26, 2017

Napa Valley’s most unlikely grape spirit

In Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, near the Napa River, we came upon the tasting room for the Napa Valley Distillery. I’d heard good things about their spirits, but what first caught my eye was the table crowded with hundred of little bottles of bitters. Among them were 18 varieties of orange bitters, a Negroni bitter from Australia, even a foggy pudding bitter.

The self-described “spirit educator” behind the bar, Tim Johnston, said this outpost of the nearby Napa Valley Distillery had the largest selection of bitters on the West coast, including a couple of antique bottles. He showed me two ancient bottles of Abbott’s bitters, one of which predated Prohibition. “We have two of the remaining 10 bottles of Abbott’s bitters in the world,” he said. And yes they’re for sale: one is $1,500, the other $750.

Then we started tasting the distillery’s spirits, first a vodka made from Sauvignon – Johnston said Napa Valley Distillery is the first to make this clear spirit from grapes, which are distilled twice and filtered 10 times. For reasons that remain less clear than Stoli, in California this craft spirit can’t be called vodka so the distillery calls it “neutral brandy.”

Next my wife and I tasted Napa Valley Distillery’s renowned Old Hollywood gin, made with nine botanicals. Like most gins it had the scent of juniper – Johnston says gin is really the first flavored vodka. But when the Old Hollywood hit the tongue, I could taste the botanicals, including cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom. It sparkled and popped with distinct flavors.

The distillery also makes premixed cocktails, and their Manhattan is good to go, just chill and pour. I would have bought a bottle but it was so smooth I probably would have consumed it in one evening.

We capped our tasting with the Ancho Leon, a chili-infused brandy aged in baby bourbon barrels for six to twelve months. The spices hit just the right notes with aftertastes of coffee and chocolate, which for me makes this the ideal after-dinner drink.

Johnston is easygoing, knowledgable and convivial, a natural bartender. But he’ll only be at the tasting room a few more weeks – he’s enlisted in the Navy and is leaving the distillery next month. I hope that after his years of service behind the bar he gets to take some fine bottles of spirits with him.

Note: Napa Valley Distillery has the tasting room at Oxbox and offers tours at distillery 2485 Stockton St., Napa. For info and reservations, email tastings@napadistillery.com or click here.

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