“Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” — Mark Twain

Wine has long been a staple of the Central Coast. From Ventura to the border of Monterey County there are literally hundreds of wineries and fields of grapes, ready to be harvested to turn out the quality wine the Central Coast is famous for. However, the making of distilled spirits — whiskey, gin, vodka, and the like — is relatively new to the Tri-Counties. But there are now 14 distilleries in San Luis Obispo County alone, and more are sure to come.

Stephen Kroener is the co-owner of Krobar Craft Distillery. With locations in San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles, he is feeling good about the future of his business. A “master distiller,” he oversees all aspects of the distillation process, from selecting the all-important white oak barrels the spirits will age in, to “mashing” the grain to be used in fermentation.

Along with his friend Joe Barton, he opened his distillery in 2012. Stephen also acts as the spokesperson for the “Paso Robles Whiskey Trail” — an association of “spirit enthusiasts” who are determined to “craft world class distillates” in our region.

The process of making quality distilled spirits is not an easy one to master. But that is part of the challenges that master distillers like Stephen enjoy. “You can be much more creative with distilled spirits than you can with wine or beer,” Stephen says. This is echoed by another distiller, Michael Craig of Goleta Red Distillery in Goleta. A science enthusiast and a former chef, he loves experimenting with various ingredients in order to get different flavors from his award-winning spirits.

Human beings have been enjoying alcoholic beverages like beer and wine since civilization began. Distilled spirits took a little longer.

There are differing accounts as to when the process of distillation began. 1405 saw the first written record of whiskey being drunk, in Ireland, and in 1500 a German alchemist, Hieronymus Braunschweig, wrote a book called “The Art of Distillation.” (As an alchemist, Hieronymus was probably looking for ways to turn lead into gold. He never succeeded.)

European immigrants — mainly Scottish and Irish — brought their knowledge of distillation to the New World. The first known distillery in the U.S. was established in Kentucky, in 1783, by Evan Williams, whose brand of bourbon is still being enjoyed today.

Whiskey and other spirits have long played a role in American history. Whiskey was used as currency in the American Revolution. In 1794 Pennsylvania farmers staged the “Whiskey Rebellion.” President Lincoln wanted to know what kind of whiskey General Grant preferred so he could send it to his less aggressive generals.

Michael Craig opened his Goleta Red Distillery three years ago, and has never looked back. Unlike other distillers, however, Michael is not making whiskey. He specializes in vodka, gin, rum and liqueurs. His Sterling Silver Rum won a Gold Medal at the 2020 American Distilling Institute’s International Tasting of Craft Spirits, and on the day he spoke with me he was informed that his Amaro had won Gold at the John Barleycorn Awards — another international competition.

Michael’s enthusiasm for his craft shows through with his every word. “It’s an honor to represent Goleta,” he says, with his high quality products. He does everything himself, from fermentation to bottling, and his products are sold in seven Goleta establishments. His “Goodland Gin” was created to “honor Goleta’s agricultural roots.”

“Whiskey is liquid sunshine,” George Bernard Shaw quipped. With the enthusiasm distillers like Michael and Stephen have for their work, perhaps liquid sunshine from the Central Coast will someday be imbibed in all parts of the world.

Mark James Miller is an English Instructor at Allan Hancock College and mark@pfaofahc.com

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