Redwood Empire: The Rise of California Whiskey

June 15, 2022

In the drinks world, California is far and above the top winemaking hub in the US, both in sheer volume and acclaim. And while the Golden State is no stranger to craft distilling, particularly with brandy production, California whiskeys are few and far between. Now, though, that is beginning to change. California whiskey producer Redwood Empire has been making an impact both here in the States and in a few countries abroad.

Located in the heart of the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, Redwood Empire distilled its first drop in 2016 and today is led on the production side by Master Distiller Jeff Duckhorn and Head Distiller Lauren Patz. From the name of the brand to the bottle labels, Redwood Empire certainly takes inspiration from the Northern California coast — which you’ll also discover in the glass. “We have many goals as a company for our products, ” says Patz. “But I think one of our biggest ones is to kind of be a benchmark for California whiskey.”

Blending Sourced and Own Distillate

Like so many new American whiskey distillers, Redwood Empire sources whiskey to supplement its core whiskeys.  Starting in 2016, Duckhorn and owner Derek Benham began selecting and transporting aged barrels of whiskey from Kentucky and Tennessee back to Sonoma County.  At the same time, they began to distill and lie down the equivalent of 20,000 9L cases each year.  It’s worth noting that Redwood Empire now has the largest inventory of whiskey in barrels in the state.

California Whiskey: Master Distiller Jeff DuckhornMaster Distiller Jeff Duckhorn /Photo Credit: Redwood Empire

By blending its core whiskeys, it allows the brand to increase its footprint here in the States as well as the flexibility to reserve more of its own distillate for 100% grain-to-glass California whiskey expressions. But even if the whiskey sources change over the years, the goal is to maintain consistency. Duckhorn explains, “Our sourced whiskey is continuing to evolve as we partner with different companies. But our goal is to keep them as consistent as possible. Lauren and I do a lot of tasting when we’re blending to try to keep in that direction so the goal is subtle changes over time rather than drastic changes from batch to batch.”

Three Core Whiskeys

Redwood Empire has three core straight whiskeys in its portfolio. This includes Pipe Dream Bourbon, Emerald Giant Rye and a “ryebon” called Lost Monarch. Pipe Dream Bourbon is made from a blend of bourbons aged 4-12 years old and displays a spicy, toasty finish. Emerald Giant Rye is made from a recipe featuring 95% rye, and has a sweet, spicy and herbal profile. The Lost Monarch, “ryebon” is a rye-dominant bourbon blended American whiskey. It’s full-bodied and has a depth a flavor making it a great base for cocktails.

California Whiskey: Pipe Dream Bourbon, Emerald Giant Rye and The Lost MonarchPipe Dream Bourbon, Emerald Giant Rye and Lost Monarch /Photo Credit: Redwood Empire

The blended American whiskey category has been much maligned in years past as some producers have taken advantage of the neutral grain spirit allowance in the bottle. However, Redwood Empire’s version includes only straight whiskeys up to 12 years of age in the blend. “There’s a real momentum in putting American whiskey and blends more on the map again,” explains Patz. “And that’s something that’s really fun for distillers to play with. Yes, we can play with mash bills and barrel entry proof and barrel treatments, but that’s not enough. Distillers always want more, and so this is another area where we grow our ability to grow as blenders and have really honed our flavor profiles that really come through on the finished product.”

Grain to Glass

In the fall of 2021, Redwood Empire released its first 100% distilled in-house whiskeys: a bourbon named Grizzly Beast and a rye named Rocket Top. Each one was distilled in the spring of 2016 and they were both bottled-in-bond expressions. But instead of the required 4 years of aging, the whiskeys were aged for 5 years. These whiskeys were the first that Duckhorn and Patz got to collaborate on after Patz joined the distilling team in March 2022.

California Whiskey: Head Distiller Lauren PatzHead Distiller Lauren Patz /Photo Credit: Redwood Empire

Aged entirely at the distillery, it’s clear that these California whiskey expressions were aged in a cool climate. The barrel influences are less intense and the whiskeys are more nuanced.

“I think it’s really important as a manufacturing space and distillery that you can and should put out a [grain to glass] product otherwise people don’t really have a strong sense about what you’re doing on the distillation side,” says Patz. “Like we say that blending is its own art form and you can create really beautiful products with blending and we do. But this is really one of things as a distiller, not just as a blender that you have to put yourself out there and be a little bit vulnerable with and it also just kind of proves that you deserve a space in this community.”

The Future

The brand is currently working at full capacity and plans to add an additional still in the near future to help increase those numbers. “We want to be able to do bottled-in-bond and also to do barrel picks and a ten, or maybe a 15-year someday, so we’re really trying to hold back as much as we can,” explains Duckhorn.

The bottled-in-bond California whiskey expressions will be back in the fall of 2022 and there are plans for a larger release than the first batch. The particulars are still being worked out for the rye, but the bourbon will increase from 26 to 70 barrels.

Beyond the aforementioned offerings, the distillery is also open to experimentation. “We do have a barrel finishing program and in the first couple of years when the distillery was in operations it did some brandy distillation of grape, apple, and even a little Asian pear brandy…So we’re going to do some finishing of that apple brandy that we made in house and I’m pretty excited about that,” says Patz.

Going Back to Its Roots

Redwood Empire also pays tribute to its environment by contributing back to Mother Earth. The brand has partnered with Trees for the Future and have committed to plant a tree for each bottle sold. It has recently hit its first major milestone of planting 500,000 trees and plan on doubling that number as early as 2023.

It’s worth noting that each of the whiskeys are named after trees in the Redwood Forest. In fact, the striking labels designed by Stranger & Stranger include even more details about the trees themselves. This includes facts such as the tree’s height, age and even GPS coordinates so you can visit them if you so desire — perhaps with a flask of Redwood Empire whiskey in-hand to drink among the giants.

This article is sponsored by Redwood Empire.

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