Craft breweries have boomed in Sacramento. Why haven’t craft distilleries followed?

Legado Spirits didn’t plan to roll out like this.

The women behind Legado, which launched in October, wanted to open a distillery with a possible restaurant attachment. Once they realized the bureaucratic headaches and millions of dollars that would require, though, they opted for plan B: importing cask strength whiskey from Indiana, “proofing” it (adding water) at a Napa County facility and selling it under the Legado brand in Sacramento.

Despite the city’s embrace of craft beer and a locally-produced spirits’ surging popularity around the country, Sacramento is still without a single distillery. There’s a few more in the broader metropolitan area — Gold River Distillery and J.J. Pfister in Rancho Cordova, California Distilled Spirits in Auburn and Dry Diggings Distillery and Amador Distillery in El Dorado Hills — but none within city limits.

“We almost have to have a trailblazer come through, and then all of a sudden we’re going to have one distillery ... and all these other will start popping up,” Legado co-founder Christy Decelle said.

For comparison, there are eight distilleries in San Francisco, the western neighbor with double Sacramento’s population but half its land mass. Eight different businesses make and sell liquors such as baijiu, rum and absinthe on southeast Portland’s “Distillery Row” alone. Trendy little Boulder, Co. (pop. 107,000) has three distilleries, while its big sister Denver has 13 a half-hour away.

At least six people have contacted Dry Diggings owner and California Artisanal Distillers Guild executive director Cris Steller trying to open a distillery in Sacramento, he said, only to be deterred by logistical hurdles. The property they want doesn’t have the necessary fire-resistance rating, or is too close to a school, or is owned by someone averse to a distillery’s risk.

There’s always been something, Steller said. Several people with distillery plans currently in the works have asked him for advice, which is always the same: consult a lawyer, get talking with city and county officials early on and make sure your landlord is on board with the project.

“We see people that will go sign leases and get it all approved, then they find out that no, it’s not going to happen,” Steller said. “Until somebody owns a building or will build a building to the codes that need to be in place, it’s not going to happen.”

Most types of hard alcohol start with the same malting, mashing and fermentation of grain as beer or a similar process involving fruit. The mixture is then heated in a device called a still, causing liquid to evaporate and alcohol content to rise. J.J. Pfister would have only used about 5,000 of its 16,000 square feet as a brewery and taproom, president Kevin Keck said, but needed the extra space for distillation and aging.

Popular dark liquors such as American whiskey, which saw an 8.1 percent sales increase in 2017 per the national Distilled Spirits Council, must age in barrels for at least a couple years to pick up flavor characteristics and coloring. New distilleries can usually only sell clear alcohols such as vodka and gin at the onset, said Keck, whose business opened in July.

“It’s harder to get into distilling than (brewing),” Keck said. “It’s a sizable capital investment and then you have to sit on it for two years before the brown spirits come. It’s not for the faint of heart.”

Stills’ potential to explode means distilleries have to abide by state fire code regulations more applicable to refineries than to breweries. Other necessary appliances such as a spill-catching system — required in case of tank failure — can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece, Steller said. He estimated that building a small-scale distillery in Sacramento would cost $3 million to $5 million, a figure Decelle corroborated.

“That’s not trying to go play with the big boys, trying to be Jack Daniel’s. That’s a small regional player,” Steller said.

Sacramento’s most noteworthy distilling era came during the 1920s, as detailed in Annette Kassis’ 2014 book “Prohibition in Sacramento: Moralizers & Bootleggers in the Wettest City in the Nation.” Kassis tells of a sheriff’s deputy moonlighting as a local Ku Klux Klan leader, illicit distilleries catering to high schoolers and mothers arrested for trying to gin up extra money by selling “jackass brandy.”

The U.S.’ pool of craft distilleries rose 26 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to the American Craft Spirits Association, while the sector’s employment base shot up nearly 50 percent. California has 156 craft distilleries — defined as those that produce less than 750,000 gallons annually and aren’t controlled by a larger supplier — which is more than any other state.

There’s little sign of slowing down, too. Distilleries got state approval in 2016 to sell bottled liquor in-house following a tasting, received a federal tax cut along with breweries and wineries at the beginning of this year and can count on millennials’ interest in trying unique alcohols to boost sales going forward, a SAGE Business Researcher report found.

Sacramento’s appetite for all things local seems to extend to spirits, too. Legado landed a distribution deal with Raley’s 20 days after opening, J.J. Pfister is sold in 80 bars and stores and Gold River’s distribution network spans from Redding to Rancho Cucamonga four years after its founding.

Steller thinks Sacramento’s first craft distillery will open in an office park, where space is relatively cheap and population density is sparse. All five active distilleries in the area have done so, not to mention breweries such as Bike Dog and Big Sexy.

He doesn’t expect a distillery to open up within city limits any time soon, though. Like a freshly-casked bourbon or brandy, Sacramento’s spirits scene needs some time to mature.

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