ThePourFool

“Cali” California Whiskey: A Golden State of Mind

Back in mid-June of 2015, just as our condo in Bellevue, Washington, was about to go on the market and after the construction of our new house in Tacoma was mid-way finished, I was about as exhausted, in body and spirit, as I had been in three decades. I took on the whole job – as in “every damned thing that had to be done” – of readying our condo for the impending sale. I painted and repaired doorways and appliances and did plumbing and electrical work and installed new wall heaters and on and on and on. Into this morass of fatigue rolled two boxes that, with no exaggeration, had as much to do with my getting through that time as any other factor. One was a box of four cans that my friend Shaun O’Sullivan, owner and brewmaster of San Francisco’s brilliant 21st Amendment Brewing, sent me of his titanic, game-changing Red Ale, “Toaster Pastry”…and a box of two flavored liqueurs from a thirty-something married couple from Los Angeles who started making infused Vodkas for their friends and quickly saw it get totally out of hand.

Howard and Marni Witkin/photo by JewishJournal.com

Marni Witkin thought it’d be fun to take some plain old Vodka and stick some stuff in it and see what she could do about jazzin’ it up, a bit. Their friends tasted these little creations and said, “Oh, WOW!“, or words very much to that effect. Marni and husband Howard, as opposed to those millions of people who find a spark of inspiration but think “Nah, I could never do that“, got a Big Idea. They began experimenting with infusions, carefully avoiding the clichés of the marketplace and working, first and foremost, on pleasing their own palates – the absolute correct (and really only) way to do anything like that.

What came of it were two shocking liqueurs, Etrog and Besamim, the first a gorgeous, edgy lemon liqueur, made from an ancient, lemonish heirloom citrus fruit called “etrog”…and the latter a vanilla/cinnamon/spice creation, named for the spices used in a Jewish religious ceremony that marks the symbolic end of Sabbath and Jewish holidays and ushers in the new week…an aroma and flavor melange that makes you wonder why nobody else ever came up with that particular formulation. And the umbrella for those two dazzling bottles became a company called “Sukkah Hill Spirits“. My review of these two appears in the archives of The Pour Fool, at this link. If you never read it, I urge you to go there, so that the words “Sukkah Hill”, “Etrog” and “Bessamin” are etched onto the forefront of your mind, next time you mosey into any SoCal liquor seller.

The remarkable etrog.

Even back then, Howard, in a couple of emails, intimated that maybe, possibly, a whiskey was on their radar. Well…you can make a whole career out of just infusing neutral spirits, without even straying into the far more complicated and uncertain (and,lately, crowded!) territory of actually making a properly aged, bonded, all-legal whiskey. Infusions Only has been done and done profitably. You really need not even produce the spirits yourself. You can buy barrels of vodka or rum or anything, really, and have at it. The results are limited only by your imagination…well, that and your judgment, too. I’ve had several friends who tried it and got ambitious and, honestly, the best of that group produced something completely predictable, while the worst was indistinguishable from something you’d use to get barnacles off a boat hull. It took me, with my hyper-educated chef/reviewer palate, five different batches to come up with my house-made Kahlua analog, which I now prefer to the actual Kahlua. I can knock out a half-gallon of it in about two hours, for about four bucks, and use a lot better coffee than the fpolks at Kahlua do. Doing liqueurs that sing is hard and the fact that the Witkins did it in their first two releases is really kinda miraculous.

But Howard and Marni…well, there’s no other way to put this: they have Pulitzer Prize-grade palates. They not only bring their ideas to fruition but those things turn out nearly flawless: everything in perfect balance, utterly delicious and drinkable, and different from any other beverages of their types. I’ll grant you, here and now, that this opinion is supported by only those two, and now three, total products but it doesn’t take any more than that to point out a maker of beverages that is Onto Something. I knew – when I first dropped in, back in 2012, on that second Saturday that Seattle’s brilliant Reuben’s Brews was open for business – that they would quickly become not only Washington’s best brewery but would enter the national discussion of Best in America. Here we are, five and a half years later and that exactly what’s happening. Same with Etrog and Besamim. I knew, don’t ask me how, that Howard and Marni would turn out that whiskey and that it would be something different and special and quite possibly ground-breaking.

And it is.

Cali California Whiskey – or, more properly, as it says in the bottle “A California Twist on American Sipping WHISKEY...well…I’m at least three weeks late writing this because I frankly just didn’t know how to put it all. From that first email that alluded to it, Howard set a goal of making a whiskey that expresses “California“. The Witkins live in LA and love it there. They’re proud of their incredibly diverse home state and wanted to make a whiskey that speaks to that aura, that completely unconventional, quirky-but-majestic ambiance. Well…the idea’s been tried, many times, by lotsa manufacturers; that thing of making beverages that claim to speak to their place of origin. The results have been, to put it charitably, mixed. I was recently sent a line of four wines that their creator intended to perfectly express four different wine regions. And they may have done it – for him. Not one of them said “Walla Walla” or “Barossa” or “Mendoza Valley” or “Provence” to me…and therein lies The Rub.

How do you say “California” in one whiskey? California is desserts, yes, but also coastal rain forest. It’s hills carpeted with high-elevation vineyards…but it’s also that vast central valley, the bread basket of North America, and it’s the floor of Napa Valley, with heat that drives up alcohol and makes fruit explode from your glass and poke you gently, right in the soul. It’s snow-capped mountains and parched southern lowlands. It’s blue-collar, gritty industry and commerce and music and movies and scenery that will make strong men weep.

ALL of that is in a bottle of Cali.

A traditional besamim spice tower

I don’t have the slightest fuggen idea how one normal, amiable, above-average married couple from LA has managed to do this but, from the first moment I smelled Cali – never mind the delicious confirmation of tasting it – I knew they had pulled this off. I promise you that you will not be able to adequately describe the aroma of it. I’m pretty good at dissecting beverages like that and I failed. Failed totally. Every time I thought I had it nailed down, another aroma surfaced. There is definitely cinnamon and it’s right up front but nothing at all like the obnoxious, head-bangin’ clumsiness of Fireball. There is an intimation of nutmeg and a hint of cloves but waaaay back in the profile, lurking, sneaking along next to sumac and juniper and anise and white peppercorns. There is an herbal overlay that reminds me powerfully of my oldest and strongest memory of California, the smells of wild sage and stones and sea salt and wildflowers that hit me in the face when I rolled down the car window on a drive along CA 101, just down the hill from Pepperdine University, almost forty years ago.

Venice Beach

One of the wonders of beverage chemistry is that when flavors are added to other flavors, they almost always spin off residual notes; tastes not added to the mash but occurring naturally and very much by some sort of Divine Intervention. The vanilla of the oak barrels used for aging Cali collides with the spices and spawns baked apples and fresh-baked bread and roasted nuts. The generous use of rye in the mash delivers a powerful, chewy earthiness and savory cooking spices. Stewed cherries arise from somewhere and burnt sugar weaves its way through the whole profile…and all of this somehow adds up to a near-perfect evocation, for me, of a lingering California sunset on the patio at a restaurant in Malibu, where 26-year-old Steve sat and sipped a wonderful Cabernet from a new-ish Napa Valley winery called Chateau Montelena. It also powerfully conjured up my last visit to LA, walking along Venice Beach with a lady friend I have now mostly forgotten.

The question is, “How will other people who are not me be moved by this sinfully delicious whiskey?” As always, that’s unknowable. It’s possible, I guess, that nobody might be affected as I am by this stuff. Maybe native Californians will see it differently but, somehow, I kinda doubt it. The best pocket description I can give you for this innovative whiskey is “…vivid and spicy, sun-splashed liberally with colorful grace notes, and just different enough from anything you have ever tasted that even a complete novice to the task of analyzing beverages will immediately understand they have something on their tongue that hasn’t been there before”.

If this is the future of what “California Whiskey” is going to be, the future is as rosy as that Malibu sunset and as colorful as a drive down Sunset Boulevard. Cali is delicacy and earthiness, poetry and plain-spoken eloquence, as with California’s own John Steinbeck, who had the knack of great ideas in plain wrappings – “A sad soul can kill quicker than a germ” – and it’s Jack London, a Californian who wrung poetry out of the mundane and commonplace but captured both life and his home state in his wide nets:

Every once in a while, in newspapers, magazines, and biographical dictionaries, I run upon sketches of my life, wherein, delicately phrased, I learn that it was in order to study sociology that I became a tramp. This is very nice and thoughtful of the biographers, but it is inaccurate. I became a tramp — well, because of the life that was in me, of the wanderlust in my blood that would not let me rest. Sociology was merely incidental; it came afterward, in the same manner that a wet skin follows a ducking. I went on “The Road” because I couldn’t keep away from it; because I hadn’t the price of the railroad fare in my jeans; because I was so made that I couldn’t work all my life on “one same shift”; because — well, just because it was easier to than not to.

Cali California Whiskey came about because Howard and Marni Witkin Had To. And we are the beneficiaries of their wanderlust and refusal to live a life on “one same shift“.  98 Points