By Lisa Talley | firstname.lastname@example.org
Lavender vodka. Wheat whiskey with muddled cherry and orange, orange bitters, jalapeno syrup, and a dash of club soda dubbed the ‘Firefall Old Fashioned.’ Original menu items created from and for Oakhurst Spirits. They’re on a mission to create rare and one-of-a-kind flavors because flavors are how a craft distiller is going to grab your attention – to give you something you’ve never seen before. They have to if they plan to stand out and thrive.
“There was a big hole in the market, so when craft brewers came out, they jumped into that hole right away whereas, with whiskey, there’s not. A [craft distiller] has to work to bring something unique,” explains Mike Benbrook, Owner, and Operator of Oakhurst Spirits.
And unique is the word of the day, every day. Benbrook takes to open fermentation, local grains, and barrel varieties during the aging process to create individual, distinct flavors for each of his spirits. But what gives patrons something they won’t find anywhere else is the fact that every drop of Benbrook’s spirits has a taste of Oakhurst in it, literally.
Making any sort of alcoholic beverage all starts with a mash. Mash is the ground-up grain(s) of choice made by the distiller and is the first step in designing the flavor for whatever spirit the distiller is making; barleys for single malts, corn or wheat for bourbons, and rye for, well, ryes. Fermentation is the next step; the added yeast metabolizes sugars in the mashed grain (wort) and converts them into the alcohol we’re all more familiar with. There are two ways to handle the fermentation – open top or closed. In other words, total control over the flavor or letting nature do its thing.
Benbrook throws down some education for us on this topic, “In the initial fermentation the yeast will become the dominant yeast inside the whiskey but later on, you’ll get bacteria or wild yeast. What they do is give different esters to the alcohol – so if you get a butterscotch ester or strawberry or maple – those are all from wild yeast or bacteria. In beer or wine, the mash is your product, but in whiskey, it’s the alcohol from the distilling process. What we have to do is get the esters into the alcohol – it literally chemically changes the alcohol to give you the flavors. Open fermentation is an invitation to whatever is floating around in the air to come and join the party.”
Taking a sip from any of Benbrook’s creations means you’ll also be tasting floral notes purely and distinctly Oakhurst in nature.
GETTING A TASTE
Benbrook pulled no punches and was pouring samples of his spirits for me to taste at 10:30 in the morning. To be fair, as a whiskey fan, he wasn’t exactly twisting my arm either.
We started light with the vodka and gin.
Usually, when I taste vodka I often feel I could light my breath on fire – that sadistic effervescent rubbing alcohol aroma burns like a thousand suns. But that didn’t happen here. It was light and airy, certainly not what I’d usually expect from drinking vodka neat. The lavender was an accent that swept in and kissed the palate before disappearing altogether.
Fun fact: the lavender is sourced locally from a woman affectionately known as ‘The Lavender Lady.’
Double fun fact: the ‘Gingery Lavender Gimlet’ cocktail at Oakhurst Spirits is one of their more popular drinks. It’s made with the house lavender vodka splashed with Rose’s sweetened lime juice and ginger syrup, club soda, and a garnish of candied ginger.
I’m not a gin expert or connoisseur, and my experience with gin is relatively limited. All of what I can remember about the drink is that it usually tastes like a blended up pine tree in a glass.
Benbrook’s gin is more sweet in flavor than it is pine and more bay leaves than juniper. Like the vodka, it doesn’t beat you over the head to tell you what it is. The flavors are more aroma than punch and full of layers, making it a perfect base for cocktails which is precisely what gin is made for.
CLEAR WHISKEY – 95 proof
It’s clear because it was pulled straight from the still, skipping the barrel aging process. All whiskey is, by default, clear and earns its color from the barrel.
Benbrook keeps a few bottles of clear whiskey around, and it’s usually of the variety he’s making at the time – for this tasting, it was rye.
The clear rye didn’t clamber out of the glass demanding my attention with its aroma. It was airy with a full-bodied taste that was sweeter than I expected and finished with the trademark floral note.
“Initially, when I started, all of my products were clear, but over time I acquired more aging [with the whiskey sitting in barrels] but people like it, I actually have guys who come in and buy a bottle,” says Benbrook.
RYE – 85 proof
Next up was the same rye as the batch the clear whiskey was pulled from but aged one year and finished in a rum barrel.
It carried the same punch as its clear counterpart but smelled closer to a rum than a whiskey – a first for me. The finish went down without a fight, nice and smooth.
SINGLE MALT – 89 proof
This batch started its journey in a rye barrel, but Benbrook didn’t like the direction the flavor was going so he moved it to a wheat barrel which “flattened” the overall taste and eventually moved it to a brandy barrel for at least 3 months. It “rounded it out and finished it off nicely.”
The single malt was a full body flavor, rocketing things up a notch.
BOURBON – 101 proof
Ah, the bourbon. My favorite. The 101 proof is a visible indication of the muscle in this whiskey and to me, is like drinking my favorite coffee black. It’s unapologetic, full of kick and profound in its wood-like notes.
“[This is] a 4-grain. One of the things I don’t really like about big corn bourbons is that they have kind of an oily finish to them and this doesn’t, this has more of a floral finish,” explains Benbrook.
GET YOUR OWN
Oakhurst Spirits products are found in the local market, typically at bars and restaurants: The Vineyard Restaurant and Bar in Madera, Oakhurst Grill, the Narrow Gauge Inn in Fish Camp, the Oak Room and the Golden Chain Theatre. Unfortunately, us Fresnans and South Valley folk have to wait a little while longer to get Benbrook’s creations in our neighborhoods.
Getting a bottle means getting it from the source, as there aren’t any retail options to purchase from – it may be a bit of a drive, but you’ll get to meet the distiller yourself as you partake in a tasting.
“Everything is made here, bottled here, I have a mill, I grind my own grain – plus, people get to talk to the distiller,” Benbrook adds.
Tastings occur on the regular, but the once-a-month events bring an entirely different experience. Local wineries will pour some wine, food trucks park out front, and live music takes place in the garden-like patio. You’ll have to follow Oakhurst Spirits on social media @OakhurstSpirits on Facebook and Instagram or their website www.OakhurstSpirits.com to stay up to date on the next one.
Benbrook also welcomes the custom, individual experience, “We’re open Friday through Sunday, but we’re always working, just give us a call. If I’m working, I usually leave the gate open, and I get people wandering in here all the time – if you want to come, just call and make an appointment.”