We met Therese and Jake of Mosswood Distillers at the San Francisco Craft Spirits Carnival. We talked booze and tasted whiskey. They were warm, honest, friendly, and all-around great people, so we decided that we had to meet them in their element and see their operation. So on a warm fall morning we make our way from our hotel in Oakland’s Chinatown to Southwest Berkeley. Eric, my wife Amanda, and I stop in at Tomate for a little breakfast before the tour. With these sorts of things you’re best bet is to go with a full stomach. That’s not to say you are going to get drunk—but whiskey and no food at 10 in the morning is something that my middle-aged body begrudgingly cannot do anymore.
After breakfast we stroll on down the street to Mosswood. Nestled in a small office/industrial complex is Mosswood Distillers. We walk through the door into the open yard area and are greeted by Therese. Inside surrounded by barrels we find Jake. Their operation is small and I mean that in the best possible way. They do everything from aging and bottling to labeling and accounting. Therese did inform us they just hired their first employee so maybe now they don’t do everything. As of now what they do is rectify distilled spirits—they are rectifiers.
The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control of California refer to a rectifier licensee as someone who “…is authorized to cut, blend, rectify, mix, flavor and color distilled spirits and wine upon which excise tax has been paid and, whether rectified by the licensee or another person, to package, label, export and sell the products to persons holding licenses authorizing the sale of distilled spirits.” As a rectifier you don’t distill your own spirits. There are many craft distilleries that rectify distilled spirits and you’ve probably tasted their products thinking they distilled their own. This is a subject of great debate within the craft spirits world and worthy of a post of its own, so we will stick to Mosswood for this one. Mosswood sources their distilled spirits and they say so on the bottle. They then take that spirit and finish it one of their select barrels. Right now they have an apple brandy, espresso, California sour ale, pinot noir, and a sherry barrel available, but they have a nocino, and ume barrel in the works. They refer to their barrel finishes as “Additional Cask Enhanced (ACE’d),” which “implore subtle nuances with every sip.” Each bottle is labeled with a color that correlates to the specific barrel it was finished in e.g., red is for the apple brandy barrel and green is for the espresso barrel. It’s one thing to be a rectifier but it is also another thing to be an upstart distillery and we want to know how they got to where they are now. They are open about how their spirits are produced and as Jake says, “There are no closed doors.” That was all we needed to hear to get things going.
The Rituals: Which came first, your business relationship or your personal one?
Therese: We met at our best friend’s and current roommate’s 25th birthday party.
Jake: Yeah, we became friends and tinkered around. After a while we moved in together. I lost my apartment and needed to find a place, she lost her place and needed to find a new place, and our current roommate was in the same boat. So we all moved in together and that was the same time that I was like, “Whiskey business.” Whiskey business! And that resonated with you [Therese] too. I think it’s that we have a lot of shared interests in general and fortunately a relationship bloomed out of it.
Therese: We work really well together and we like to do everything together so that helps. We are lucky to have different approaches.
The Rituals: How long did it take to get up and running?
Jake: A long time. We first applied in April of 2012 and we were approved in April 2013.
The Rituals: Was there an element of wanting to escape from your day jobs?
Therese & Jake: Oh, of course.
The Rituals: Jake, you at one point worked for Tradition Bar.
Jake: I helped put together their barrel program when they opened. They had and do have as many as 40 or 50 barrels at any one time so it was really fun to play around with different flavor combinations and finishes.
The Rituals: Did that help spur this a little bit?
Jake: We had this in mind but it was good to test out unusual things we can’t play around with here. Like we did an Ardbeg wash and put Ron Zacapa rum into the barrel.
The Rituals: Other experimental favorites?
Jake: Another one I liked was a Chartreuse wash that we then put Willet rye in.
The Rituals: I assume you two probably discussed going into business for awhile. Could you talk about that moment when you finally had the impulse to dive in?
Jake: When we met I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I had worked in the retail side for a long time and left with the intention of starting a distillery. I talked to a couple of people who were in the process of starting one up but it wasn’t the right fit for me. Eventually Therese and I met and we were tinkering around for a while. Things kind of clicked in the right way and it felt right to move things forward and start things up as quickly as possible.
Therese: We were lucky to be surrounded by a lot of supportive people. My parents and both of Jake’s parents are entrepreneurs. They said, “You gotta do it!” It’s great because if you make mistakes that’s how you learn—especially when they are your own mistakes! I think that was a lot of it. And Jake’s confidence was a lot of it too.
Jake: Eventually we said, “Well, we can have part time jobs and treat this like a hobby forever or we can actually have this be our life and our business, which is what we got into it for.” That’s when we went full time.
The Rituals: And you came up with Mosswood as a name. What is the origin of that?
Therese: We live in Oakland, so that is where we did a lot of planning for this venture. At the time, we lived right across the street from Mosswood Park. We liked the scotch naming approach, which often is about a location. And besides, Mosswood’s a great name!
The Rituals: Now this is not your original location, correct?
Jake: We were on Treasure Island before. I’m not sure if you’ve been out there but it is the wild west of San Francisco. None of it is zoned, so you can have any business next to any other out there. None of it is gridded so there is free water and power cause they have no way to meter how much you are using. We were really happy to move there to start. The flip side of it is that the whole island is in development and so when you sign a lease there they say that they could give you thirty days notice and you’d have to leave. So after being there a year, year and a half we said if we want to grow this isn’t sustainable.
Therese: We needed some permanence.
The Rituals: How are you perceived by other distilleries?
Therese: For the most part people have been very welcoming. There is a shortage of information—because of Prohibition and federal law there isn’t really a book on how to build a whiskey business from the ground up—so we’ve been lucky to get a lot of support.
Jake: It feels very much like the craft beer movement in the 80s; everyone is supportive of everyone else entering. And as far as the guild [California Artisanal Distillers Guild] is concerned the more of us there are the better we will all be.
Therese: The market is large so the way we see it there is room for everybody.
The Rituals: Being rectifiers you can’t distill alcohol so you have to source spirits from elsewhere. This has been a PR issue lately with some well-known brands. Have you had any pushback because you source your spirits?
Jake: We get sort of a mixed bag of responses within the industry. People are really receptive to how open we are. We say on the bottle where we get our whiskey from and we tell everyone everything that we do. There are no closed doors. That being said there are some people that we run into here in the industry that are, “Oh you source your whiskey,” and are less interested. Okay, but can you just try it? Outside the industry people sometimes relate more. They’ll say, “Oh yeah that happens in cooking. Say you are making a tomato sauce, you’ll source different products and then you’ll take it to someone who will bottle it.” It is interesting to see how other industries do the same thing.
The Rituals: How reliably are you able to source the same barrels?
Jake: It is an issue. With the apple brandy whiskey we were hoping to be able to get barrels from Germain Robin when we needed to do a new batch but we were informed that there is a barrel shortage and they don’t have anything to spare. Instead we will re-season our barrels. In the case of apple brandy we’ll put apple brandy in the barrel, let the wood soak up the flavor of the brandy, then take the brandy out. We do that for the espresso and the sherry flavors as well—shipping sherry barrels over here is ludicrously expensive. The only barrels we get fresh are the sour beer barrels and the pinot barrels we just came out with. With the sour beer barrels, there are enough breweries nearby that are happy to work with us and breweries are always looking for used bourbon barrels so it makes a nice trade.
The Rituals: How often do you reuse the barrels?
Jake: In general, until they leak.
The Rituals: Does that change the aging curve?
Jake: It does to an extent. We’ll get more of the flavors right away in older barrels. The sherry characteristics will come through more quickly in the seasoned barrels, but with newer barrels we’ll get more bourbon characteristics, which we like but it’s not originally what we thought we would get. It’s definitely an adjustment. But I think the longer we use the same barrel its easier to get the desired characteristics we are going for.
The Rituals: So is it difficult to get the same desired product? Is there variance between batches?
Jake: There is definitely variance between batches.
Therese: That’s why we have the batch number and why we have to constantly be tasting. It might be ready before the usual time or it might be ready after. I think that is part of the fun in having something unique in that time or that year or whatever, you know? We don’t want to be robots!
The Rituals: Can you walk us through a typical aging?
Jake: We generally put the whiskey into ex-bourbon barrels then finish in different barrels such as espresso and apple brandy. Schedules are setup for each spirit and barrel combo. Apple brandy barrels typically take three months but we start tasting around the two- to two-and-a-half month mark. Sometimes under, sometimes over—depending on barrel, weather, etc.
Therese: Tasting starts out on a weekly basis then depending on how close it tastes we will taste daily. For new projects we taste daily for a few weeks to see how fast it is developing and go from there. The espresso whiskey takes a day in the barrel.
Jake: It’s fun to chart how differently previous barrels interact with the whiskey. The first time we did the sour beer barrel and the second time as well, it got a real big acid push for the first couple days. And being a toasted oak barrel as opposed to new charred oak there’s a lot of different aging that happens with the whiskey. It gets rounder flavors than bourbon—a lot of toasted oak characteristics like coconut and more tropical fruit notes than, say, the wood spice and caramel flavors you’d get with the charred oak barrels.
The Rituals: What have been your biggest struggles so far?
Jake: We went in with just our own investment so almost everything that is here now we didn’t have. For our first release we only bought 30 cases of bottles, which is significantly more expensive than buying a pallet.
Therese: And we literally drove to the bottling warehouse to pick them up.
Jake: We didn’t have an in-line filter for our bottling machine so we had a funnel and a coffee filter and we were siphoning by hand. We have pictures of friends coming over to help lift carboys. We would lift barrels to siphon into carboys to then filter through the coffee filter. So our first barrel took us about three twelve-hour days of filtering.
The Rituals: Do you intend to start distilling your own spirits?
Therese: Hence our name, Mosswood Distillers. It is definitely our goal and it seems the ball is starting to roll a little faster than imagined. We’ve been meeting with some city officials talking about the process since Berkeley has never had a distillery. We just want everybody to communicate and make sure we are all on the same page.
The Rituals: Are you going to branch out into other spirits?
Jake: Whiskey is our love, but we definitely like tinkering. I’m sure we will distill odd things for fun.
Therese: Part of the reason we chose this model is so we didn’t have to start with vodka or something and be perceived as a vodka bottler when in fact our ultimate goal is whiskey.
The Rituals: Can you talk about some of your whiskeys? The espresso barrel?
Therese: It’s not technically cold brew but it’s the coffee that Four Barrel Coffee uses for their espresso so it’s the more robust kind of South American style, chocolaty. It’s the roast. We take that roast that they grind for us, thank god, and then we cold brew it in the barrel for two days, empty it, and then put the whiskey in.
Jake: We keg the cold brew and spread it around. Some restaurants use it.
The Rituals: Anything new?
Jake: We just bottled one that we did in a pinot noir barrel, which we bottled under a grey color label. All of our bottles have a color. That means a single barrel rotating and when that barrel is done its done. In barrel right now we have three that are kind of coming along. They will be ready soon. One is aging in a High West barrel that had scotch in it previously; one is aging in a barrel that we treated with nocino. We have a huge walnut tree in our yard so we make nocino every year. Then we have another that is aging in a barrel that we treated with ume.
The Rituals: Where do these ideas come from?
Therese: A lot of it is what we like in the moment.
Jake: For me it comes from cocktails initially. If you look at any classic cocktail and you look at the spirits that are going into it, those would probably go together in a finish. I think that is what generally drove us to figuring out what would work. Now I think it is more of what we are discovering and anything new that we like. Food also draws a lot of inspiration for us.
The Rituals: Any inklings of new spirits beyond that?
Jake: We are always tinkering!
This is the point where we taste many of their wonderful whiskeys. I myself love their espresso barrel for its amazing aroma and smooth hint of coffee that blends well with the flavors of the whiskey and the sour beer barrel for the acidic hit that accompanies whiskey all too well. The ume and pinot barrel whiskeys are amazing as well. If you are looking for something new and different I would highly recommend picking up some Mosswood. We are looking forward to tasting new concoctions from Jake and Therese and cannot wait till their distillery is in full swing.
Remember to Ritual responsibly.