Turning water into wine was a miracle. Turning wine into whiskey has its own set of challenges. Dave Phinney, creator of The Prisoner (now owned by Constellation Brands) and Orin Swift, both darlings of the Napa wine scene, has taken on a new project – bottling American whiskey and tequila under the brand Savage and Cooke. Here he takes many of the same aesthetics that catapulted his wines’ successes – bold flavors, challenging boundaries, precise details and alluring graphic package designs he conceived himself – to the spirits world. For fans of his wine, don’t despair – it’s a separate world, but in many respects it’s kept close to home. Savage and Cooke is set up on Mare Island in Vallejo at Napa Valley’s southernmost tip. It was once one of the largest naval bases in the country, and its historic backdrop and accessibility makes it an ideal place to be producing spirits as well as entertain visitors.
There are bigger plans. For now, Phinney has released four premium sourced spirits which undergo proofing and further aging in various wine barrels at the facility – a reposado and añejo tequila, bourbon and an American whiskey. Tequila and whiskey drinkers are far more savvy these days, and authenticity is a priority. “I have to think like a consumer,” says Phinney. As a winemaker, Phinney is a stickler for quality and complexity, and this is still true of his whiskey and tequila. “There is a certain expectation that I have for myself. I’m lucky to have the luxury to choose what I really like when it comes to what I present to the world.”
Clearly he has good taste. I was admittedly skeptical when I first heard about these products, thinking these might be just another example of a person from the wine world who got bored and wanted to try their hand at spirits. However, it starts with really good liquid – not always the case in these instances – and their subsequent nurturing implementing barrels from his own Napa wine projects really makes a difference. I tasted these along with some delicious Mediterranean-esque bites at the Black Derby in New York City. While I am of the opinion that most spirits are food friendly, these are exceptionally so, perhaps owing to the additional wine cask maturation.
Phinney worked with the Ramirez family (Casa Ramirez) in Guanajuato in the Jalisco highlands to source the juice. The reposado is aged four months in new American oak, then an additional four in ex-Chardonnay barrels. The añejo is aged two months in new American oak, four months in used French oak and six more months in ex-Chardonnay barrels. Agave distillate is extremely delicate, and absorbs aromas and flavors with sponge-like greed. Oddly, neither of these tequilas taste over-oaked, or even too grapey, as so many wine barrel-aged ones do. The new oak lends a gentle spice while the Chardonnay draws out the herbal and citrus peel complexities – and yes, a touch of butteriness.
For the American whiskey and bourbon, Phinney blended whiskeys from already mature barrels chosen for various characteristics, then finished them in ex-wine barrels and proofed them with water from Alexander Valley. Both are packaged in striking black bottles and labeled with the same style of black and white abstract photography that made his wine labels so prominent. Second Glance American Whiskey comes with a 5 year age statement, Kentucky whiskey with initial maturation in ex-bourbon barrels, then finished in ex-Cabernet barrels. Burning Chair Bourbon is comprised of Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana whiskeys aged in new oak for a minimum of four years, finished in ex-Cabernet barrels. The bourbon has a pleasant smokiness with the Cab lending earthy moss tones and fruit. The American whiskey is less smokey owing to the used oak, with a warm caramel nuttiness that reminds of peanut brittle or chunky peanut butter.
Try them in cocktails
These recipes were created by bartender Jared Bailey at SoHo Cigar Bar.
Stir all ingredients with ice. Strain into a chilled coupe or Martini glass.
For now, look for the spirits in select markets around the U,S. The Savage and Cooke facility is set to open to the public in May. Visitors can expect to taste not only the initial four expressions, but distillery-only 12 year old bourbon and 10 year old American Whiskey. Phinney has purchased several additional buildings that are slated to contain a winery, bar and other attractions. Find out more here.
Amanda Schuster is the Senior Editor in Chief of Alcohol Professor and the author of NEW YORK COCKTAILs available from Cider Mill Press. Certified sommelier, former retail spirits and wine buyer - she likes to think of herself as "bi-spiritual." Please don't ever offer her a Pickleback. Complete bio here.