Sip and Savor: Paso Robles Distillers explore ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’
Distillery Trail celebrates second annual event
-The Paso Robles Distillers group set a whimsical exploration of Alice’s Wonderland for its 2nd annual Distillery Trail celebration held on Feb. 25 at the Estrella Warbird Museum.
Adventure seekers mingled at a Mad Tea Party grand tasting called “Down the Rabbit Hole,” staged amidst the eccentric decor in a cavernous hangar.
The distillers were short on tea but long on crafty cocktails savored by some 200 attendees.
Preceding the grand tasting, an intimate Queen’s Royal Parlor reception was held at the adjacent automotive museum, founded by Dick Woodland to park his valuable historic cars. Founded in 2009, the 70-car collection ranges from a replica of an 1889 Mercedes, the first and oldest car built, and Nascar racers.
How often does he take them for a spin, I ask?
“I’ve driven some, they’re not daily drivers,” Woodland admitted. But he does give them monthly engine start-ups.
A group of nine distillers set up tasting tables in and around the pricey cars and whipped up specialty cocktails. Among them was Alex Villicana of his namesake winery, who pioneered the local explosion in craft distilleries with the launch of Re-Find Distillery. Villicana started production in vodka and gin infused with botanicals and is now adding bourbon to the portfolio. His 2000-annual case production is primarily vodka and gin, a third of which includes the popular limoncello.
“We zested 10,000 pounds of lemons a week ago,” he said in awe of the 20 people who spent three days accomplishing this task. “It really is a craft movement.”
Why this sudden interest and production of spirits in Paso Robles?
“Consumers want to know where the product is coming from,” Villicana noted. “That is driving the success of the craft spirits movement.”
The spirits program ties in well with Paso’s wine industry, he noted. It’s a by-product of the unused free run grape juice that is generally wasted or transformed into rosé wine.
Villicana explained that 15 to 20 years ago there were a mere 20 distilleries in the US, whereas in the pre-Prohibition time there were more than 8,000. Now there is an explosion with about 1,000 in the US.
Paso Robles Distillery Trail group is comprised of 10 distilleries with one beyond Paso. Autry Cellars is the first to join from San Luis Obispo. This might lead to a sister distillery trail in south county, Villicana added.
Others pouring exotic cocktails at the automotive museum included Bethel Road Distillery’s Tom Lane in character as one of the queen’s soldiers, pouring a brandy crafted from chenin blanc, zinfandel and a grappa made from moscato.
Nearby Steve Kroner who partnered with winemaker Joe Barton of Grey Wolf to launch Krobar Craft Distillery created the Boulevardier, a concoction of Campari, bourbon and sweet vermouth. Krobar started its distillery program with Rye whiskey, said Kroner and soon added botanicals-infused gin, a pink gin aged in Grenache barrels and a soon-to-be-bottled, palate-scorching ghost pepper gin.
Patrick Brooks, owner of Wine Shine offered Paso Mule, a blend of mango,ginger-infused grenache brandy with lime. “It’s from James Berry vineyard,” he said of the fruit. “We get 80-percent of of our juice from Saxum.”
Randy and Cheryl Phillips, proprietors of Red Soles Winery and Stillhouse, stirred up the lime-green Doc Tonic, potent with the 120 proof Absinthe with a splash of tonic and garnished with a candied rosemary branch.
“We are one of four distillers in California to make Absinthe,” noted Randy. The anise-flavored spirit is often portrayed as a hallucinogenic and associated with bohemian culture.
Red Soles is regarded as a spirits pioneers in Paso, but Randy clarified that while they were the first to get the permit, it was Alex Villicana who first made the product.
Randy Phillips is among the few distillers who do not produce his brandy from free run juice. “We treat it like making regular wine, fermenting on natural yeast with no additives,” he noted. After distilling the brandy is barrel-aged for minimum two years.
”We will soon bring out a five-year aged brandy,” said Phillips who will be adding varietal brandies made from grapes such as viognier, chardonnay, grenache and zinfandel grown in his vineyards.
At the grand tasting, there were more whimsical cocktails stirred up with exotic mixes like dried butterfly pea flowers, rose tea syrup and pink peppercorn bitters.
Lola and Steve Glossner, proprietors of Pendray’s, offered shots of walnut liqueur, a traditional Italian degistif and a delicious orange liqueur that would be ideal in a Mimosa or a Margarita. These two liqueurs were mixed with bourbon for Pendray’s concoction of The Orange Nutcracker. Re-Find’s batch of gin and kumquat liqueur made up a cocktail called No Thyme to say Hello.
Then there was Opolo’s blue-tinged, smoke-shrouded drink, The Smoking Caterpillar, stirred with grappa and blue Curacao; and Red Soles’ limoncello spiked with California Hootch, mixed with carrot juice and topped with ginger beer, aptly named Hare of the Dog.
Gianni Manucci, proprietor of Wild Coyote Winery and Manucci Spirits, offered shots of his four brandies, infused with star anise, espresso coffee beans, habanero/garlic and pomegranate. Manucci is another distiller who produces brandies from fermented and barrel aged wine made from Rhone variety grapes as well as tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon grown in his Adelaida district vineyards.
Amongst my favorites was Manucci’s Good and Plenty, a shot of star anise brandy mixed with Bailey’s Irish cream. It was dessert over ice in a glass.
There was plenty of gourmet food as chefs jumped on to whip up goodies such as the mock turtle soup and white rabbit crostini from the Hurricane Kitchen food truck and the Pairing Knife’s bagel dog infused with Krobar gin. There were tri-tip sliders offered by Old San Luis BBQ, a creative tofu and jalapeno ceviche from Crush catering and pizza-makers from Full of Life Flatbread dished out bacon and arugula-topped pizzas from their igloo-domed portable oven.
For attendees eager to recreate the spirited cocktails, there were stacks of cocktail recipe cards to take home.