There’s a summertime tradition among Eric Larimer’s friends. It involves trout fishing, camping by a secluded lake and nightly rounds of whatever alcoholic beverage they’ve decided to bring. Sometimes it’s IPA beers, or red wine, or single malt whiskey. Their picks lean toward small batch and craft-style booze, made by people who love the process. But they noticed a trend.
“Why are there a million craft beers, and small wineries, but virtually no craft spirits?” asked Larimer, sitting around the campfire with a drink in hand.
The group couldn’t come up with a good answer, so Larimer and a couple friends decided to make their own.
Today, Sutherland Distilling Company makes rum and vodka, and keeps barrels of aging bourbon lined up around the tasting room in Livermore. It’s run by Larimer, of Lodi, and brothers Barry and Ryan Sutherland. Ryan Sutherland works full time for the distillery, while Larimer has a day job working for NORCAL Ambulance, which Barry Sutherland owns.
Larimer grew up in Fresno and earned a biology degree at the University of California, Davis. He and his wife came to Lodi when she got a nursing job at Lodi Memorial Hospital. He met Barry and Ryan Sutherland while Ryan was earning his anthropology degree at UC Davis. The group started those annual camping trips in 2006. By 2010, concrete plans to build a distillery were in place. Ryan Sutherland took classes on distilling in Arizona, learned how to operate a still and offered friends a few samples.
“Everyone we poured for said it was great,” Larimer said. So the team decided to go for it.
The permitting began in 2011, and the trio took over the building in June of 2013. They picked Livermore due to its central location between the three owners. The still was installed in December 2013, and the first shipment finally headed out the doors in May 2013.
Small batches made on-site
The whole enterprise is contained in a sunny warehouse just on the edge of Livermore city limits. An 18-foot table made of reclaimed wood from a train trestle in South Lake Tahoe serves as the focus of the tasting room. Small dishes of corn, barley, rye and sugar are lined up in the center. Corn, barley and rye go into bourbon, while vodka is all corn and rum is made from sugar.
In the corner is the first still the team used — a mash-up of whatever parts could be found. A milk can over an open flame formed the base, while the rest included a laboratory-grade mixer, gear intended for home-brewing beer and pipes from the plumbing department of the hardware store.
Three steps away in the back room, a tall, steaming copper and silver maze of pipes and tanks is the professional still the team has upgraded to. There’s a bottling station, grain mill and fermenters. Distilling is a hot process, so the roll-up back door is often left open to views of vineyards blanketing the foothills of Mt. Diablo.
The line of spirits is called Diablo’s Shadow, a nod to Mt. Diablo on the horizon. The bottles feature an etched map of Northern California, with Livermore and Mt. Diablo marked in gold and three devil figures running around.
“Plus, even if you don’t know what Mt. Diablo is, ‘Devil’s Shadow’ still sounds really cool,” said Larimer.
They’re made with a grain-to-glass process in mind. Some distilleries start with a base alcohol, then add their own blends and flavors. Sutherland Distillery starts with 50 pound bags of raw ingredients stacked on pallets in the back room.
“We wanted to do something we’re proud of,” Larimer said. “If we call it craft spirits, I want it to really be crafted by us.”
In case you’re wondering: Bourbon and whiskey are different names for virtually the same spirit. Whiskey is the umbrella term, while the definition of a bourbon is more specific.
Bourbon must be made from at least 51 percent corn, a mix of rye and barley, then distilled at 160 proof (80 percent alcohol), barreled at 125 proof, and aged at least two years in new American oak barrels.
Their blend has 60 percent corn, 30 percent rye, and 10 percent malted barley for body and sweetness. All that grain comes from California farmland.
“We’ve met the farmers, we’ve seen the crops growing. It’s important to us to know everything that goes in each bottle,” Larimer said.
It take fives hours of monitoring pipes to go from grain mash to something drinkable. Ryan Sutherland likes to sit in a camping chair with a beer in hand, watching the science happen.
“It’s not a fast process, but it’s so cool,” he said.
As it leaves the still, the alcohol hits three stages: The head, the heart and the tail.
The head is basically ethanol. The tail is leftover oils from the grain. The heart is the good stuff, and that’s what gets bottled.
The grains leftover after the alcohol is in a jug are sold as feed to a sheep farmer in Lodi. It’s part of the sustainablility mission, which includes using reclaimed wood to build much of the back room and recycling as much water as possible.
Larimer and the Sutherland brothers are really in this for the bourbon, but the trio makes vodka and rum as a way to keep the lights on while the whiskey ages.
There’s a 90-proof rum made from pure cane sugar, the only ingredient that is imported. That’s more kick than normal, but there’s no burn going down. Their vodka is made from the same corn that goes into the bourbon.
Larimer would love to add gin to the lineup, but the extended distilling process for that spirit means gin production is a few years away.
Not your average salesman
Making the stuff is only half the job. It’s up to Larimer to convince bars and restaurants to buy it. But he has an advantage.
“We’re not sales people selling someone’s product. We’re selling our own product,” Larimer said. “Once the owner realizes we’re making this ourselves, they’re much more likely to talk to us.”
The line is available in Lodi as of this weekend. Lakewood Liquors decided to carry the rum and vodka due to a sense of small business brotherhood.
“We like local people and small companies,” owner’s son Sunny Singh said. “We’re a small business, so we like helping out everyone else who is small like us.”
But some lingering Prohibition-era laws restrict the distillery’s ability to grow.
Tastings are limited to six products per person. The trio can charge visitors for tastings, thanks to a law passed in September of last year, but they can’t add so much as an ice cube to a small glass of whiskey. All sales must go through a distributor, so they can’t sell bottles in the tasting room.
To combat these restrictive rules, Sutherland Distillery has joined the California Artisanal Distillers Guild, a lobbying group trying to get spirits treated in the same way as as wine and beer.
For now, Larimer woos buyers and Southern Wine and Spirits delivers the goods. But they are confident these restrictions won’t last.
“The laws are going to change in California, and when they do, we’re going to be here with a reputation,” Barry Sutherland said.