I frantically flipped through pages of handwritten directions, unable to tell my designated driver the way to the next winery. The repeating scenery — rolling golden hills dotted with grapevines growing in straight rows — made it difficult to tell one dirt road from the next. With little to no cell reception, GPS was not an option.
We drove down California Highway 46, just north of San Luis Obispo, home to most of the wineries. A decade ago you would have found 35 wineries here. Now there are 180.
But I wasn't here for wine. I was here to taste spirits.
The craft distillery movement is gaining such momentum that there are now eight distilleries in the area. Most operate out of existing wineries.
To make brandy and their versions of vodka, gin and vermouth, they are using grape juice discarded in the wine-making process. Think of it as sustainable liquor.
The distilleries have banded together to form the Distillers of SLO County, and they are designing their own distillery trail, which will launch later this year.
But why wait? With five currently pouring and three more aging their first batches of brandy, I decided to embark on my own spirits trail. Like laid-back Paso Robles itself, this group exhibited not an ounce of pretension, but I found plenty of passion for the product among these fledgling distillers.
The California Legislature isn't making things easy. Unlike distilleries in Utah, Oregon and other states, those here cannot sell products distilled from anything other than fruit juice, which excludes spirits made from grain.
I learned this the hard way after asking to buy a bottle of gin made from rye at KroBar, one of the distilleries in the area. I was refused, and a mini-meltdown ensued.
California Assembly Bill 1295, which is making its way through the Senate, would, if passed and signed into law, allow California distilleries to sell up to three bottles of distilled spirits per day per customer.
Until the law is enacted, the pours at distilleries I visited were enough to fuel a weekend in Paso Robles. I felt as if I had finished a course on making spirits and barrel aging. I wonder who could say the same after a trip up to the Napa Valley.
I also drove home with a trunk full of very good brandy.
Five distilleries in the Paso Robles area that offer tours and tastings
You'll want to get in on the Paso Robles craft distillery movement before the hipsters take over. With all the small-batch artisanal liquors in the area, it's only a matter of time. Here are five distilleries offering tours and tastings as well as selling brandy.
KroBar: This tasting room is as cozy as it gets, with a vintage bar, handed down through generations of co-owner Stephen Kroener's family, an antique piano and furniture. I visited the distillery, behind the tasting room for the Silver Horse and Barton Family wines property, to taste Kroener's and fellow distiller Joe Barton's brandy, gin, barrel-aged gin and rye whiskey at the bar ($15 for tasting). The two are more like mad scientists showing you their lair than distillers, making their own aperitif wine, vermouth and bitters as well. Open noon-5 p.m. Fridays-Sundays or by appointment. 2174 Highway 46, Paso Robles; (805) 467-9463, www.krobardistillery.com
Pendray's Distillery: Here is where I met Ethyl, the 500-liter German pot still owners Steve and Lola Glossner use to make their brandy. I tasted the liquor in the PasoPort Wine Co. tasting room (no charge), then asked to see where the brandy is aged in port barrels. I was lucky enough to catch some brandy infusing with fresh green walnuts in one barrel and another full of brandy and plums. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays-Mondays. 95 Booker Road, Templeton; (805) 239-2229, www.pasoportwine.com
Re:Find: Re:Find, which operates out of the Villicana winery, makes limoncello, gin and vodka, all distilled from grapes. I tasted the wine and spirits ($10 for both), and got a crash course from owners Alex and Monica Villicana on everything I ever wanted to know about distilling alcohol and barrel aging. Alex walked me through his trials and errors, and I learned why his cucumber vodka tasted so much like its supposed flavor. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. 2735 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles; (805) 239-9456, www.refinddistillery.com
Red Soles Stillhouse: In a corner of the tasting room at Red Soles winery, owners Randy and Cheryl Phillips, along with son Cody, are making limoncello and two brandies, one with cinnamon. Randy proudly shared the stories behind the hundreds of ribbons and accolades for the wine and spirits on display in the tasting room while Cody introduced me to Patience My Dear (the still) and poured the booze ($10 spirit tasting). 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. 3230 Oakdale Road, Paso Robles; (805) 226-9898, www.redsolesstillhouse.com.
Wine Shine: When I bellied up to the tasting counter, my pours of brandy, watermelon vodka, pluot brandy and whatever else co-owner Patrick Brooks had cooking in the distillery ($10) also came with some laughs. Behind the bar, Brooks has unlabeled bottles of his current projects. Ask to sample those too. noon to 4 p.m. Fridays-Sundays, or by appointment. 3604 Limestone Way, Paso Robles, (805)286-4453, www.wineshineinc.com.