Poised to release its first three products, the Ventura Spirits Co. is breaking new ground in small-batch distilling. Its Wilder Gin is distilled with native plants harvested in Southern California. Its prickly pear spirit, called Opuntia, is the only one of its kind available domestically. For its whiskey, Ventura Spirits will be the first to use Kernza, a perennial wheatgrass, in any type of commercial production.
The company’s founders are brothers-in-law Henry Tarmy and James Greenspun, along with brothers Andrew and Anthony Caspary. Their distillery is located in the basement space of a manufacturing building on the long stretch of North Ventura Avenue that runs parallel to Highway 33.
Outside, under the baking noon sun, oil derricks lift and drop in tireless rotation. But down here, where the air is a bit cooler, the conversation revolves around the healthy give and take of sustainable, place-centered business.
In the center of the room stands the stainless steel and copper still that the Caspary brothers designed and fabricated. Anthony built their first still in his early teens. His intention was not to produce alcohol; he wanted the challenge of building the intriguing machine outlined in blueprints he had stumbled across online. Once completed, the still sat dormant for years, until a use was sought for gallons of an unpalatable wine that their father had tried to make at home. Poured into the virgin still, the wine soon transmuted into a grape brandy. Thus began the brothers’ hands-on education in distillation.
On their office table is a collection of small, spherical glass bottles filled with various types of plant matter. Wild harvested in the surrounding mountains, these are the key ingredients that will distinguish their gin and link its essence to California’s Central Coast.
“This is California juniper,” Henry says. “Purple sage, yerba santa. When you smell these you can actually imagine how a bottle of gin could taste like walking through the hills of Ojai. If we combine them correctly, that’s exactly what you’ll get.”
These bottles also represent an essential step in a long R&D process. The goal, as Andrew explains, is to create “something new that comes from here, is inspired by here, but is a unique play on a traditional gin.”
A strong foundation in the production of traditional spirits, paired with an observant, naturalist sensibility, has allowed the company the freedom to experiment with the flora surrounding them. These traits helped guide them in the creation of their prickly pear distillate, Opuntia. The opuntia cactus, also known as nopales or paddle cactus, grows abundantly in its native Southern California. Its fruit is the bright fuchsia prickly pear. Though delectably sweet, it is often avoided because of its needle-like spines. Harvesting them was, at first, “brutal,” but the company soon developed its own technique for gathering the fruit. The spirit produced is delicious, worth getting past that initial spiny impediment.
“It’s unique, but it’s not unique just to be different,” Henry says. “It is like the tequila of the Central Coast. It’s a fruit you see everywhere around here, there’s a tradition behind it, but no one else has made it, and it happens to be very good.” Though there does exist a traditional drink called colonche, made when prickly pears are boiled down and allowed to ferment naturally, no other distiller in the United States is using the fruit to derive alcohol.
“We want to do things a bit differently,” Andrew says. “We don’t want to feed into the industrial-agricultural machine in which the bottle of vodka that you’re drinking comes from massive fields of subsidized GMO corn.”
The practice supporting this ethos is clearly seen in the company’s use of the Kernza grain. Kernza is a perennial wheatgrass developed by the Land Institute, the nonprofit research and education center founded in 1976 by Wes Jackson, a respected leader in the sustainable agriculture movement. Kernza’s roots can grow to over 10 times the size of typical wheat roots. Unlike wheat, soy or corn, Kernza is a perennial crop: no yearly tilling or reseeding required. The use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers is decreased, soil run-off is minimized and those big roots retain nutrients and water. The goal is for this crop to become available as an alternative to wheat within the next decade. The company hopes that its whiskey will help introduce the grain to consumers and assist in making it commercially viable.
On wooden pallets next to the still is their first ton of Kernza, sent directly from the Land Institute, ready to be distilled into the aptly named Grass Roots Whiskey. Henry points out an additional benefit to using Kernza: “It’s got a unique character: It’s floral; it’s a little bit spicy. It is going to be a new and a very worthy addition to the world of whiskey.”
Currently, Ventura Spirits has 10 acres dedicated to growing their Kernza at an agricultural research station in Minnesota that has joined forces with the Land Institute. Of course, the company has already begun to experiment with growing it in Ventura County.
The Ventura Spirits Co. is a family affair. The partners hope that through their work, their uncompromising ideals and passion, they will establish deep roots that can nourish a thriving community.
“Look where we are right now,” James says. “We’re in a basement surrounded by oil derricks, but we’re pulling beauty out of this place.”
A more detailed picture of what these brothers aspire to create begins to take shape: “There is the vision, down the road, of the place where the Kernza is growing, where we’ve got prickly pears all around, where there are a couple stills, where there’s music and art being made. It’s not just where you’ve got a still and you’re making alcohol. This is the seed that is allowing us to start.”