Wine’s nice, liquor’s slicker
AMY AND FRED GROTH, best known for their HelloCello liqueurs, are now operating the first licensed distillery in Sonoma since prohibition.
Sonoma made its name on wine and the miles of rolling vineyards that surround the town are an omnipresent reminder of the Valley’s biggest industry. But two Sonoma families are bucking tradition and hanging their hat on bourbon, whiskey, rum and other distilled spirits.
“Our main goal is to make it kind of a destination spot. We know a lot of whiskey aficionados will seek out these products, they’re hard to find,” said Rebecca Chotkowski of Proof’d, the business she and husband, Christian, opened last week at 19 W. Napa. St.
Proof’d is part beer and wine bar and part high-end liquor shop, with a special focus on rare whiskeys. It is one of two, new family-owned spirit ventures finding a home in Sonoma. Fred and Amy Groth have already made a name for themselves in the industry with their line of liqueurs, such as HelloCello Limoncello di Sonoma and their 100-proof Hooker House Bourbon, but they’ve expanded their capabilities by securing a license to distill their own products. It marks the first distillery in Sonoma County since prohibition – at least the first legal one.
“Previously we could only blend stuff. The bourbon, we don’t make that, it comes from Kentucky. We just change it and enhance it by aging it in pinot noir barrels,” said Fred Groth, explaining that previously they weren’t able to actually distill spirits. “Now we can take something and turn it into something else. We can now take wine and make brandy.”
And that’s just what they intend to do at their warehouse on Eighth Street East, which boasts chandeliers, a stage and brightly colored bar stools making it feel more like a trendy club than a production facility. But production is already under way, the couple are starting out with two different types of rum, one of which is being aged in chardonnay barrels while the other is resting up in white oak barrels used to age bourbon.
“We’re the first to age rum in chardonnay barrels,” beamed Amy Groth. “I think we’re filling a niche, it’s something that is long overdue.”
They plan to call it Sugar Daddy Rum, continuing their theme of paying homage to Sonoma’s history. The name was inspired by Alma Spreckles, wife of sugar baron Adolph Spreckles, who built their mansion in Sonoma and called it Sobre Vista.
“Rumor has it she would walk the property saying, ‘Where’s my sugar daddy?’ She coined that term here in Sonoma for a rich, older man,” Fred Groth said, adding that the antique, copper still they use at the distillery was found on the Spreckles property.
No word yet on when their new products will be available for purchase, but graphic artist Lisa Carlson is already working on packaging designs. In addition to rum, the couple plans to work with area wineries to produce specialty grappas and fruit-flavored brandies.
“We can take all the fallen fruit and make it into something. We can help wineries make all sorts of spirits,” Fred Groth said. “We’re going to just start dabbling over here. Let’s see what happens.”
Find out more at hellosonoma.com or HelloCello on Facebook. The Groths are also featured in the fall edition of SONOMA magazine, available today.
Like the Groths, the Chotkowskis business was a labor of love. Christian Chotkowski was the owner/operator of the Historic Plaza Liquors, which occupied the space until earlier in the summer when the couple launched a major remodel, of both the physical space and the business.
“We designed it all ourselves. We were on a limited budget so we tried to do the best we could with what we’ve got,” said Rebecca Chotkowski.
Wooden beverage crates became decorative shelves for high-end liquors, reclaimed wood was built into a tasting bar and old refrigerator doors were transformed into funky tables, the latter of which Christian Chotkowski made by hand and said customers have already tried to purchase, but they’re not for sale. He wants to bring rare products to the retail side, while offering glasses and flights of beer and wine on the bar side.
“I don’t want products that you can find anywhere. To get really high quality liquor products, before I was here, people usually had to leave town,” Christian Chotkowski said, adding that Proof’d will also stock locally produced products such as the Groth’s Hooker House Bourbon. “We love being a part of the community and helping other businesses.”
Christian Chotkowski spent months researching products to stock in his store, some of which he discovered at WhiskeyFest in San Francisco. He can also take custom orders if patrons prefer a liquor he doesn’t regularly stock.
“If I don’t have something here, and I can get it, I’ll order it for you,” he said, explaining that one patron already approached him about a rare scotch, for which there are only four bottles in the western United States. “The $1,500 price tag was a little too high for his wife, however.”
On the bar side, Proof’d will offer a rotating array of six draught beers, such as Anderson Valley Oatmeal Stout, Sonoma Springs Kolsch Ale or North Coast Brewing Scrimshaw Pilsner, either by flight or by glass. As soon as one keg runs out, they’ll replace it with something new. Most all beers will also be available for purchase on the retail side.
“If that particular beer isn’t available (in bottles), I’ll have other beers by the same brewer,” Christian Chotkowski said.
The bar features all California wines, and the business will offer blind tastings of flights aimed at giving customers a chance to sample without knowing the price, varietal or vintage.
“We’re not going to tell you what it is until you’ve tried all four wines, then you’ll really know what you like, not what you think you like based on the price,” Christian Chotkowski said.
The retail store is open from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; and from 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The bar is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week. Find Proof’d on Facebook, visit proofdspirits.com or call 938-BEER (2337) for more.