The sun was just coming out of the clouds when Abe Stevens answered the door to the spacious Fortuna warehouse that houses his distillery. Beams of sunlight shone in through skylights, haloing the small still standing in the center of the building. Bright copper and silver, the still was dwarfed by the expanse of the room, which takes up an eighth of a 10th Street block just off Main Street.
It feels like too much space for one man and a 60-gallon liquor machine, but it allows him to store bottles and ingredients, distill and test his products, have an office, and put together a small tasting counter for what he hopes will be thirsty future customers.
Plus, he's optimistic. "This is on the smaller side," he said. "Hopefully it will prove to be too small."
Stevens is a thin man who looks younger than his 37 years. This April morning, he walks briskly around his distillery, sheepishly clearing off countertops around the shop and fiddling with papers and equipment. The space is clean, but with the clutter of a young business.
Stevens grew up in Fortuna. Went to Fortuna High School. After getting a degree in chemistry in Chicago, he worked in the biotech industry in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. For the last six years, Stevens invested in real estate in Des Moines, Iowa — an opportunity that came his way but wasn't as fulfilling as tinkering with chemistry.
Homebrewing beer had long been a hobby for Stevens, and he had been thinking micro-distilling could also be appealing — then he noticed boutique distilleries taking off around the country.
"I thought 'Uh oh, they're stealing my idea,'" he said.
Stevens had gotten experience distilling — a physical process, rather than a chemical reaction, that concentrates or purifies solutions — in an industrial setting in his post-college career. He hadn't ever tried distilling alcohol until he founded Humboldt Distillery, though. It's illegal without the right permits, in part because it's dangerous. Alcohol vapor is highly flammable.
Stevens and his wife had eyes on Humboldt County since the birth of their daughter, who is now 3. Stevens knew firsthand it was a good place to raise a kid. But when they were contemplating moving back, it was not a good time to find a job in Humboldt County, especially in chemistry. With a dream and visions of empty cocktail shakers in his old neck of the woods, he decided to found a distillery, and the family moved back in January 2012.
"This was a way for me to create my own job," he said. "It's also a fun industry. It gives me a chance to use my chemistry background."
Now he's getting ready to sell his first batch of vodka.
North Coast drinkers have dozens of fine local libations to choose from, ranging from hop-loaded beers to piquant wines. But there's been a notable gap among bottled beverages with the "made in Humboldt" stamp: hard liquor.
Those of us who want a drink with a bit more bite, who want to localize that Sunday morning bloody mary – Woodley Island iced tea, anyone? – have been bereft.
That is beginning to change, though, with two craft distilleries perfecting their products and a third seeking a permit. It seems likely that these are the first legal stills being started up in Humboldt County since Prohibition.
Our mini-boom comes amid a nationwide surge in craft distilling.
Bill Owens — the gregarious founder and president of the American Distilling Institute in Hayward, Calif. — said the number of craft distillers has been rising sharply, sometimes by as much as 30 percent a year. There are around 500 now, Owens said, up from 65 when he began the institute 10 years ago.
Portland, Ore. is home to "distiller's row," an industrial district inhabited by boutique tasting rooms and manufacturers, which has resonated with visitors and residents. Stevens used that as an example, as well as other distilleries in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, when pitching his business to Fortuna city officials. He said he received no negative feedback from the city or its residents.
Richard Stenger at the Humboldt County Visitor's Bureau said he can see the potential.
"The more local things get, the more people like them," he said. Just being open to the public makes for a tourist destination. "People like to tangibly see where the things they eat or drink are being made."
Owens said artisan distilling is a logical continuation of a broader trend.
"Wine went through the renaissance. Then it was beer that went through the renaissance. Then it was bread, coffee. Ten years ago no one would even dream of doing that. The same thing's going to happen with spirits."
As consumer tastes become increasingly refined, Owens speculated that California's alcohol laws may relax with an increasing desire for local, artisan beverages.
"In New York you can sell your gin at the local produce market on Saturday mornings," he said. "I'd have shot of gin at eight in the morning; that wouldn't hurt."
In Humboldt, Stevens is shooting for a May 1 release for his vodka, give or take a few days. Once he's got it in the bottle, he'll be hitting the pavement. He has a local distributor and plans to visit local restaurateurs, "trying to convince them that it's worth it to carry a local brand."
And good news for local sippers who associate "craft" with "costly" or "boutique" with "bankruptcy" — he hopes to keep bottles around $20, give or take a few bucks.
"I'm trying to find a price that's typical for Humboldt County," he said.
With Stevens' Humboldt Distillery well underway, Fred J. Moore III is working on getting a second legal distillery off the ground, after getting a permit in February.
"Abe Stevens — I think he kind of beat us to the punch," said Moore, owner of the (slightly confusingly titled) Humboldt Craft Distillers, which is based in Eureka.
Moore is in the early stages — he was a bit surprised to get a phone call about it — but his motivations are not unlike Stevens'.
He wants to "put Humboldt on the map" for world-class liquor. "This artisan craft distilled line is our passion," he said.
The success of local brewers and vintners motivated Moore, a father of two teenage daughters and the chief financial officer of Redwood Capital Bank.
He touted the "grain to glass" ethos of craft distillers, saying he will focus on local products for his planned whiskey and other spirits. For now, it's too early to early to talk specifics. Jovially secretive, Moore declined to let the Journal see his distillery on Seventh Street in Eureka.
After work and on weekends, he's perfecting his recipes and planning to move into a larger facility.
"I want to have a killer product before we go live," he said.
Jeff St. John, the third hopeful spirits-maker, has secured a federal permit and is nearing state approval.
St. John moved to Redwood Valley (off Highway 299 between Arcata and Willow Creek) in 2005, seeking just the right climate to grow pinot noir grapes, which he had grown for years near Santa Cruz. He got into grapes after more than 20 years as a metallurgist in the airline industry. Like Stevens, he has experience distilling things less palatable than spirits — zinc, for example.
His Rocky's Ridge Winery (it's named after for St. John's horse) hasn't sold a bottle of wine yet, but a tasting room (a collaboration with two other wineries) is opening at Second and F streets in Eureka in several weeks. St. John plans to make port, which is made by combining stronger alcohol with wine. Rather than buy liquor, he'll make it out of his own grapes. He plans to make cognac-like brandies and whiskey but doesn't expect those for some time.
"The smallest time you can age a whiskey and have it be decent is three years," he said.
Distilling is a relatively simple process.
"It's essentially taking a low-proof alcohol and making it high proof," Stevens said.
Proof refers to the concentration of alcohol. Pure alcohol — 100 percent — is 200 proof. Hard liquor — at least the stuff we drink — is typically 80 to 100 proof and comes from the same building blocks as beer and wine.
Whiskey — made with corn, malts or other grains — starts basically as beer, minus the hops (West Coast beer drinkers may gasp collectively imagining such a thing).
Stevens' vodka and rum will both be made from a fermented combination of evaporated sugar cane juice and molasses. Brandies will come from pears, apples or berries.
"With fruit you mash 'em up and add yeast and you end up with wine," Stevens said.
Stevens' still is reminiscent of another age, a Jules Verne-ian bathysphere, a tangle of tubs, gauges and knobs.
Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, Stevens explains, so when it's heated in the first drum of the still, the alcohol vapors rise into the next chamber. The hot alcohol gas moves through three more chambers, where it is re-boiled and further concentrated each time.
At the end of the line, cold water circulates around the boiled vapors, condensing the alcohol back into liquid. It dribbles out of a small spout into a waiting 55-gallon drum.
The original beer- or wine-like slurry, stripped of its sugar and intoxicating powers, is disposed of. "It's not a very pleasant drink," Stevens said, but it still has nutritional value. When he's up and running, he'll be looking for a farmer who can use the liquid.
Stevens distills multiple runs over multiple days to get a usable quantity — he figures six gallons is a day's work. (For comparison, Jack Daniel's sells more than 10 million cases of whiskey — approximately 30 million gallons — per year, according to a 2012 Daily Mail article.)
The alcohol comes out pure — 200 proof. "Everything comes out white and clear from the still," Stevens said. That includes whiskeys, rums and other liquors that are typically sepia-tone when sold. It's the aging process — often done in oak barrels — that adds the dark-molasses to sunny-golden hues.
Stevens adds water to bring his liquor down to the narrow range that's allowed by alcohol regulators. It has to be close to what's advertised on the bottle.
"It's kind of an involved process," he said.
Stevens is starting with a basic organic vodka. Something simple to promote at bars and get his brand going. He's working on an orange blossom vodka and a raspberry vodka (the raspberry vodka he let us taste was aggressively fruity, but not overly sweet, without the artificial-ness of some berry liquors). He's planning for more spirits — brandy and spiced rum — later this year. That rum is a nod to Humboldt Bay's notable nautical history, Stevens said.
It's pretty clear that Humboldt hasn't had an aboveboard distiller since the mid-1800s — maybe ever. County planner Steven Lazar was unaware of any distilleries that his department had subjected to land use review. Local Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control investigator Karen Locken, who fondly calls Stevens "the Mad Chemist," hasn't seen a craft distiller in Humboldt County in the 25 years she's familiar with.
Going further back in time, the county's boozy history mixes politics, melodrama, crime and money. Some of it is outlined in the Susie Baker Fountain Papers — a collection of historical clippings and notes compiled by Humboldt State University's first graduate. They include a long record of boozing, from saloons to breweries, but no registered spirits manufacturers.
Eureka Books co-owner Scott Brown perused old Humboldt County directories and found no listed distillers. Historian Ray Hillman likewise couldn't dig up anything.
"I don't think there were ever any legal distilleries up here," Hillman said. "Grape growing was not anything extensively pursued at all. They brought in all kinds of liquor by steamer from San Francisco — and that would be kind of a hard market to compete with. We had breweries but not distilleries."
Moonshine, Hillman said, was where Humboldt County shone.
"Boy, there sure were a lot of illegal stills all over the place in the 1920s," he said. "Even in what is now Sequoia Park."
Humboldt County was so fond of drink, local legend goes, that General and President-to-be Ulysses S. Grant developed his particular fondness for whiskey during his brief station at Fort Humboldt.
An 1892 tax collector's report showed 178 saloons within the county borders. Mostly concentrated in Eureka, the taverns boasted names such as The Eureka Sample Room, the Empire Oyster Saloon, The Cosmopolitan Club and the Fox's Den, and few familiar names like the Oberon and Vance.
These taverns were popular and successful, offering billiards, tobacco, cabaret and other, less savory entertainment that the newspapers of the day were less likely to discuss. They caused a fair share of problems, as Fountain's crime clippings show. People were accused of intoxicating marks to grease real estate negotiations and other nastiness.
After prohibition of alcohol passed by a constitutional amendment in 1920, Humboldt County, like most communities, suffered the corruption and violence that coincided with an exploding black market.
In One Eye Closed the Other Red: The California Bootlegging Years, author Clifford James Walker characterized the North Coast booze trade as a rough-and-tumble, fiercely independent market where just about everyone looked the other way when it came to a popular illegal intoxicant (sound familiar?).
Timber loading sites on the rocky Northern California coast doubled as ports for sea-borne alcohol shipments. Gangs swiped whiskey on the long, unoccupied stretches of the Redwood Highway between here and San Francisco.
Walker writes that the World Famous Tree House near Piercy (which Highway 101 travelers will recognize) was the first tree padlocked after moonshine was being sold out of it.
Norman Steenfott — a Eureka resident — told Walker he sold booze as a teenager during prohibition.
"I was driving taxi when I was 16 years old. Someone would ask me to get a bottle, I'd go get one just like they'd ask me to get a pound of hamburger in the butcher shop. In those days it was semi legal anyway. ... Everybody violated the law. People sat around and they knew the district attorney and detectives were running their own stills or they had someone running places for 'em."
Walker's history names some complicit county officials, including Eureka attorney Stephen E. Metzler, who — when the battle between the "Wets" and the "Drys" was at a boiling point, and the current DA had a still-smashing police squad — campaigned and won the top lawyer spot on a platform of dissolving the "dry squad."
"Soon, however, he directed the largest bootlegging ring in the county right out of his district attorney's office," Walker writes. "After Metzler took over as D.A., it seems as if Humboldt County went back to the good-ol' boys style of law enforcement with the coastal towns being wide open."
By the time prohibition was repealed in 1933, small-time distillers had largely disappeared and large manufacturers seized the market.
"Prior to prohibition, there were tons of micro-distilleries around the county," Stevens said. "A lot of communities had distillers. Then prohibition came and wiped them all out. It's only in the past few years that distillers started coming back."
Local cocktail curator Amy Stewart — who contributes to the Journal and is currently touring the nation with her new book The Drunken Botanist — said the booze movement couldn't have come to Humboldt County soon enough.
"I think it's a shame that it hasn't been done up until now," Stewart said, calling from North Carolina.
In a 2011 column, Stewart lamented the lack of a local hard cider producer. She repeated that refrain last week, saying apple brandy tops her local spirits wish list.
She's in luck — both Stevens and Moore name-dropped apples. Stevens is planning on creating both pear and apple varieties of eau de vie — a clear, unaged brandy — in the fall.
Humboldt Distillery is certified organic. And Stevens is committed to using local ingredients whenever he can. St. John's wines and brandies will be Humboldt County grown. Moore's ethos echoes that — "grain to glass," he calls it. But that's not always easy.
"Sometimes it can be trade-off between local and certified organic," Stevens said.
For all these new distillers, the science is technical, the paperwork tedious — but they're also the only relatively sure things in starting a distillery. The big unknown is if the liquor will sell.
"That's been the hardest thing to predict," Stevens said.
Owens, the distilling institute founder, said it is no small feat opening a successful distillery. He regularly fields calls from budding drink-makers.
"There's no university classes, there's no books. You're out there on your own," he said. "Usually if someone calls me, I say, 'If you get this up in two years, I'll fly up there and buy you dinner.'"
Cocktail maven Stewart said it all comes down to the men and women behind the bars.
"I hope local bars will embrace it and pour it for people," she said. Giving people an opportunity to try a drink before committing to the price of a bottle is important, and most people are in restaurants more often than in liquor stores.
The will exists — but will a trio of sauce-minded still stars find a way to lift Humboldt County's spirits?
The proof will be in the drinking.