Distilled in Santa Cruz—now that’s a seductive phrase for inquiring visitors. But those of us who live here are the real winners. Besides our obvious embarrassment of riches in other departments, we can now boast two makers of distinctive distilled spirits right here by the sea.
A one-man crusade for local, organic, high-proof, hand-crafted, small-batch gin, aquavit, whiskey and agave, distiller/entrepreneur Sean Venus has been patient about winning over California liquor laws. And his patience paid off. Weekend visitors to his distillery and its tasting lounge can sample Venus’ complex, herbal-laced liquors and purchase bottles on the premises. Venus is very new school in his approach to ingredients, and the enchanting results offer nuanced, action-packed gins inflected by a vibrant roster of fragrances and flavors. Juniper, you bet. But cardamom, coriander, lavender, and even ginger and fennel dance through Blend No. 1 and oak-aged Blend No. 2. Venus Spirits’ award-winning aquavit is another tasting highlight. Truly an only-in-Santa-Cruz tasting experience, and perfect for hipster out-of-towners and their in-laws.
In the “Old School meets New World” category, the fine Cognac-style brandies from
Osocalis are nothing short of amazing. They should be, since the hand of top winemaker Jeff Emery is in the mix. “We’re going on our 30th year,” Emery says of the artisanal labor of love he shares with founding distiller Dan Farber and their partners. Though the name stems from an indigenous word for “Soquel,” where the distillery is located, the line of brandies is available for sale at Emery’s Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard tasting room in the Ingalls Street complex.
“It’s been a long process, without profits so far,” he jokes. “But it’s more fun than an IRA.”
Brandy, by the way, is any spirit made from fruit, and in a quick tasting I started with the youngest, Rare Alambic Brandy, a fruit-driven charmer with plenty of spice tones. Colombard from Suisun Bay is the backbone of the blend, but there’s also a lot of Pinot Noir in the brandy’s origins, Emery explains. The Osocalis XO is an older version of the 10-year-old Alambic. Thanks to micro-flora on the barrels in which it ages, this beauty offers miles of length, butterscotch and caramel.
More feisty still is the 30-year-old Heritage, an opulent and beautiful creation. Osocalis’ top-selling apple brandy is full of appealing angles. The apple brandy is “hotter and has more edges than the grape-distilled brandies,” Emery notes. “But it’s very popular. We can’t keep it in stock.” Perfect for that handcraft connoisseur on your gift list.
Venus Spirits, 427A Swift St., Santa Cruz. Tasting is 1-7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Cocktails are served 5-7 p.m. Friday. venusspirits.com.
Osocalis, at Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, 334 Ingalls St., Santa Cruz. Tasting is Noon- 5 p.m. Monday-Friday and Noon-5:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. santacruzmountainvineyard.com.