Sonoma Brothers Distilling
October 1, 2016

Sonoma’s artisan ways, now in the distillery


Proud tradition of craftsmanship inspires a raft of small distilleries

A certain spirit is taking hold in Sonoma County, one that the Matthies brothers have embraced.

“We were both born and raised here, we both work here, so we wanted to incorporate that into our bottles,” says Chris Matthies, a Santa Rosa firefighter.


Matthies and his twin brother, Brandon, a Santa Rosa police officer, founded Sonoma Bros. Distilling in 2012, and recently shipped their first batch of vodka. Bourbon is next, made between their policing and firefighting shifts.

The twins and their company are just part of Sonoma County’s craft distillery boomlet. By this fall, the number of small distilleries operating in the county will have grown to nine from three in just a year.

It’s easy to assume this is just an expansion of the region’s rich history of wine and brandy production. But the growth isn’t coming from wineries.

In part, the boost is fueled by a recent change in California law that allows distilleries to legally charge and pour tastings of spirits they produce – a major help with marketing.

But more than anything, it’s coming from entrepreneurs who see a different way to embrace Sonoma’s long history of food and drink artisanship.

Those strong craft roots – for everything from olive oil to cheese – attracted Amy and Fred Groth of Prohibition Spirits to move from Colorado after a 2008 visit. Says Fred: “We believed that if a microdistillery could work anywhere, it would work in Sonoma.”

The Groths started out making HelloCello, an organic limoncello, and have since expanded into wine-barrel-aged whiskies, brandies from fruits like prickly pear, and a Sangiovese grappa.

Michael Short, The Chronicle

Twin brothers Chris, left, and Brandon Matthies of Sonoma Brothers Distilling pose for a portrait in front of bottles of their vodka at their company’s headquarters in Windsor, CA, Thursday, July 10, 2014.

Of course, Sonoma already had a rich history of brandy and grappa production, thanks to wineries like Korbel and Italian Swiss Colony. If those stills ran to economize wine production, this new wave comes via a different route: beer.

The county prides itself on such beers as Pliny the Younger and Racer 5, and many craft distillers got into the business via home brewing – including distiller Jason and Krystle Jorgensen from the forthcoming Alley 6 Distillery, which stands to be Healdsburg’s first small distillery. Their first whiskies should be ready in 2016.

While Sonomans can be downright fanatical about local ingredients, that can be tough when it comes to spirits. But they are trying. Grain, for instance, is scarce is Sonoma, but distilleries like Spirit Works source all of their red winter wheat from elsewhere in Northern California. Distillers Timo and Ashby Marshall say it adds a “unique character” and helps to define their products.

But at least one new distillery, Hanson Spirits, will rely on wine grapes. Its line of infused vodkas begins with high-proof grape spirit made with a blend of Sonoma grapes. Come harvest, owner Scott Hanson and his sons will be as busy as their winery neighbors – making wine as a base for distillation.

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