April 5, 2024
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Holiday spirits: Liquor for locavores


Ian Cutler, founder of Cutler’s Artisan Spirits in Santa Barbara. (Alex Drysdale /Business Times photo)

Ian Cutler, founder of Cutler’s Artisan Spirits in Santa Barbara. (Alex Drysdale /Business Times photo)


With craft distilleries popping up all over the Tri-Counties in recent years, you can raise a glass to small business with locally made liquors this holiday season.

In addition to creating some smooth-drinking gins, vodkas, brandies and whiskeys, distillers from the region are playing a leading role in lobbying the state government to make it easier for craft liquors to one day be tasted and sold to the public the same way that California’s wines and beers are.

The Business Times reached out to the region’s craft distillers for tips on creating seasonal spirits. Read on to learn about the entrepreneurs behind the emerging locavore liquor movement in the Tri-Counties and their favorite holiday cocktail recipes. While most of their liquors still can’t be purchased directly from the businesses by the public, they are well stocked at stores and restaurants around the region.

Cutler’s Artisan Spirits

Liquor runs in the blood of Ian Cutler, the founder of Cutler’s Artisan Spirits in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone. His family has been in the liquor business in one way or another for four generations.
Cutler nurtured his interest for nearly 15 years before opening his distillery earlier this year. Along with high-end vodka and bourbon, he is offering something unique: Grandma Tommie’s Apple Pie liquer.

“The old still my great grandfather used to bootleg off of is on display in the shop here,” Cutler told the Business Times. “A lot of moonshiners would add apples and cinnamon to mask the harshness. I wanted to modernize that old backwoods trick and create a proper apple liqueur.”

The Drink:  Apple Pie Martini

• 1 oz Cutler’s Grandma Tommie’s Apple Pie
• 1 oz Cutler’s Signature Vodka
• 3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
• 3/4 oz apple juice
• 1/2 oz Agave Syrup
• 1 cinnamon stick
• 1 apple

Instructions: Combine vodka, apple liquer, agave syrup, lemon and apple juice in cocktail shaker with ice.
Shake vigorously for 10-15 seconds. Strain into a martini glass. Grate cinnamon on top and garnish with an apple slice.


Ascendant Spirits

MoonshineWEBSteve Gertman had a promising career in the television industry. Frustrated one day, he jokingly suggested to his co-workers that they leave it all and go make whiskey. They laughed; he did it.

The result is Buellton-based Ascendant Spirits, which offers traditional whiskey, vodkas and gins infused with unique ingredients from the region such as Santa Maria organic strawberries or caviar limes from Goleta. But the big headlines came from the company’s Silver Lightning Moonshine, which won a double gold medal at the New York International Spirits Competition.

“We were one of only four American spirits to win a double gold this year,” Gertman said. “It’s the best moonshine in America.”

The Drink: Moonshine Mule

• 2 oz Silver Lighting Moonshine
• 1/2 oz lime juice

Instructions: Pour in a glass with ice. Top with ginger beer. Garnish with mint and candied ginger.


Ventura Limoncello

orangellocWEBVentura Limoncello is among the oldest maker of spirits in the region.

Founded in 2007 by James Carling and Manuela Zaretti-Carling, it leverages Ventura County’s famous citrus to make premium limoncello, a drink in which neutral grain spirits are infused with lemon zest and them blended with simple syrup. The company makes a similar orangecello.

James Carling has also been active in the leadership of the California Artisanal Distillers Guild, which successfully lobbied for a law change to allow some distillers to start offering paid tastings. It’s a step in the right direction, but the road ahead remains a long one for distillers, he said.

“There’s just not parity when it comes to distilled spirits in the state of California,” Carling said. “Unlike wineries and breweries, the state does not allowed distilled spirits companies to sell directly to consumers.”

The Drink: Ventura Holiday Martini

• 1 part Ventura Orangecello Blood Orange
• 1 part pear vodka
• 2 parts pear cinnamon cider

Instructions: In a shaker with ice, add all ingredients. Shake well. Serve in a martini glass.

Alquimia Organic Tequila

Adolfo MurilloTechnically, all tequila comes from Mexico. But Alquimia Organic Tequila, whose U.S. Headquarters is in Oxnard, is as close to local tequila as you can get.

Adolfo Murillo, an optometrist by day, was born on his family’s cattle ranch in the Mexican state of Jalisco, near the town of Arandas, but he was raised in Ventura County.  When the family ranch back in Mexico fell on hard times, Murillo took it over and began producing bespoke, USDA-certified organic tequila there and importing it.

“When I had the opportunity to take over the ranch I wanted to do something a little more fun,” Murillo said. “When you drive through Jalisco, you see all of those beautiful blue-green agave fields, and I thought that would be a cool thing to do.”

The Drink: 805 Margarita
— (in collaboration with the Ventura Limoncello)

• 1 part Ventura Orangecello Blood Orange
• 1 part Alquimia Reposado Tequila
• 1 part Alquimia’s Margarita Mix (2 parts fresh lime juice, 1 part fresh orange juice and 1 part agave nectar)

Instructions: Mix ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake well. Serve on the rocks. Garnish with a lime wheel.


Re:Find Spirits

refindWEBAlex and Monica Villicana’s Paso Robles-based Re:Find Spirits does something a little different — it makes vodka, gin and brandy from wine grapes. The couple has been making wine for 20 years, and the particular style they work in calls for bleeding off a good portion of the grape juice — between 10 percent and 30 percent — to allow the remaining juice to become more strongly flavored by the skins of the crushed grapes. “To see so much of our production going down the drain was alarming. We wracked our brains figuring out what to do,” Monica Villicana said.

The answer, after much research, was fermenting the excess juice and distilling it into spirits. The idea has been so successful that the Villicanas have started buying the excess juice that some of their fellow small winemakers were also pouring down the drain.

The Drink:  The Re:Find Pomegranate Gin Sling
— (recipe makes two servings)

• 1/4 cup Re:Find Gin
• 1/4 cup pomegranate juice, chilled
• 1 tablespoon agave syrup or simple syrup
• 1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
• 8 pomegranate seeds
• 2 lime slices

Instructions: Combine the liquid ingredients. Divide evenly between two chilled glasses. Divide seeds between glasses and garnish with a lime slice.

[Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the spirits used in Ventura Limoncello’s products. The company uses neutral grain spirits.]