Why one local distillery strives to take its time
Winding through the Santa Cruz mountains, it isn't hard to spot a vineyard. And in town, you don't have to search long to find a local brewery. But when it comes to finding local hooch, there is only one place to go. Well, actually, there are lots of places you could go, seeing as state and federal alcohol laws require liquor producers, like Soquel-based Osocalis, to sell their products through stores and prohibits direct-to-customer sales. But forget about that for now.
The point is, when it comes to distilling, there is only one game in town. Santa Cruz denizens Dan Farver and Jeff Emery distill, age and bottle their highly rated, small-batch brandies under the label Osocalis on a small patch of land just off Old San Jose Road in Soquel.
Osocalis, which takes its name from the American Indian word for the Soquel region, is the only distillery in Santa Cruz, and, according to Emery and Farver, one of the oldest micro-distilleries in the state. They make their brandies with California-grown grapes on a hand-hammered alambic still from the Cognac region of France.
"Alambic" is an Arabic term that refers to a specific component on a specific kind of still. And alambic stills are the type of still used to produce Cognac. Using the word when describing their product is a way of letting the initiated know that while Osocalis may not be made in Cognac, it is produced in the same tradition
While we're talking about foreign-sounding words, it's worth mentioning that the brand name "Osocalis" also gives the consumer a clue about just what Farver and Emery are all about. It is the original American Indian name for the region where the two men produce their brandy. Out of Osocalis came the name "Soquel," Emery explains.
Anyway, enough with the etymology. You are probably wondering how the stuff tastes.
The Osocalis brandies are smooth and nuanced. According to Emery, their complex yet easy-going flavor comes from a number of factors involving the passage of time.
"You need time and patience," Emery said, describing how to make and enjoy a good brandy. He and partner Farver have been at this for more than two decades, for starters, and they know what they're doing. They also age the brandy in toasted, French oak barrels for years at a time, allowing the spirit to take on its deep brown hue and develop its distinctive flavor.
"It's a very expensive, very time consuming process," Farver says, noting that when he started Osocalis, he envisioned the project lasting generations.
"It tastes like a fine old piece of furniture smells," Emery says, only half joking. There is a certain class in drinking brandy, which, he added, is meant to be enjoyed slowly. Emery says he often enjoys a couple fingers of Osocalis or another brandy after dinner over a good book. Just a little bit goes a long way.
Another element, Emery explains, is the region. Although he and his partner stick to many of the conventions of Cognac, France, they diverge from them when it comes to the grapes they use.
A quality Cognac will often be described as "spice with some fruit," Emery says. But with Osocalis, he says it's just the opposite — "fruit with some spice."
"With our climate, we get so much more fruit character in the grapes, because it's warmer here," says Emery, who is also the owner of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. The Osocalis line of brandies are made starting with a base wine produced largely from Colombard grapes, grown in the North Bay Area — the Russian River and Suisun Bay regions mostly. That wine is distilled down into a clear spirit, which is then aged.
Farver agrees. "Over the decades we've really come to realize that we're working with truly unique fruit," he says, referring to the Santa Cruz and Bay Area grape-growing regions where he said the cool air make for a much higher acidity than in just about any other place on the planet. And the variety of micro-climates in Northern California means that vintners and fruit growers can quite literally "tune" what they grow.
Emery says he and Farver would like to share all they have learned about making brandy in greater detail, but that it can prove challenging due to those pesky state and federal laws mentioned earlier.
Unlike wineries and breweries, distillers are not allowed to have tasting rooms. However, that all may soon change. Emery, Farver and a group of other micro-distillers from around the state, are working with Calif. State Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner to change the Prohibition-era laws preventing Osocalis from having a tasting room.
"That would be huge," Emery says. "I think a lot of people think that brandy is some weird, peach-flavored thing that comes in a hip flask at the stop-and-rob grocery store. People here haven't had exposure to it, and so there is a lot of plain not understanding what it is and what it can be."
Until the day that Emery can pour flights of Osocalis to eager brandy buffs, you can pick up the locally produced spirit at many retailers in town and around the state.
Osocalis is located at 5579 Old San Jose Road, Soquel. 477-1718, osocalis.com.
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