For most people, Santa Barbara is synonymous with wine. Those people must not know about Ascendant Spirits, Santa Barbara County’s very first distillery since Prohibition and one of the most exciting producers working in craft spirits today.
Founded in 2013, Ascendant Spirits is known for its award-winning whiskeys, so we were thrilled to share a Taster’s Club exclusive selection of its Breaker Wheated Bourbon with bourbon club members. Soft, sweet, and eminently sippable, it’s a great example of the good things that can happen when dedicated craftspeople run the show. We caught up with founder, president, master distiller, and “head bottle washer” Stephen Gertman to learn more about what made Stephen fall in love with whiskey, how Ascendant Spirits came to be, and the crazy coincidences along the way.
The Origin Story
“I joke that I got started in this business because I’m crazy,” laughs Stephen. A former television producer, Stephen had fallen in love with spirits on a trip to Scotland as a teenager, where he tasted his very first single malt whisky. But for a budding entrepreneur, the industry landscape—dominated by multinational firms like Diageo—seemed like a tough place to start a business, especially for somebody without family connections or experience.
So, for a while, Stephen did something else, living in southern California and working as a television producer. But the notion never left his head, and after reading an article in the New York Times about the burgeoning craft distilling movement in the United States, he started to revisit the idea more seriously, even looking into a training course offered by the American Distilling Institute. Finally, he gave notice, signed up for an intensive short course in spirits production in Northern California, and the next chapter of his life was fully underway.
Triumph from Tragedy
After completing his workshop, Stephen hit the road, visiting as many distilleries as he could to learn from others’ experiences. While on an extended road trip in Colorado, which had one of craft distilling’s most robust scenes at the time, Stephen stopped in at the distillery where one of his course instructors worked. The assistant distiller was out of town, so Stephen jumped in to help for the day, figuring there was no better way to learn than by doing.
“We’d hit it off pretty well during the course, but working together, we got along really well, and I knew I wanted to stop by and visit him again,” explains Stephen. So, several months later, he called him up to plan another trip. It turned out his mentor had been in a skiing accident and had shattered his leg, confining him to a wheelchair while the fracture healed. “He really needed the help and I really needed the experience, so I booked my ticket to Colorado and ended up moving in with them,” laughs Stephen. “I got to do a lot of the hands-on work of distilling while he convalesced, and it was great experience. We’re still good friends to this day.”
Scottish inspiration, American design
While Stephen first fell in love with distilling in Scotland, when it came time to choose a still and equipment, he opted to work with an American company: Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Louisville, Kentucky. “They’re really the last large-scale still manufacturer in the United States, and it makes a lot of sense to make American whiskey on an American still,” says Stephen. “And at that time, the only other big still manufacturers were German, and being able to get somebody on the phone with only a couple of hours of time zone difference who speaks very clear English made the process a lot easier.”
After all that hands-on experience in Colorado, Stephen knew he wanted to make some custom tweaks to his 500-gallon still. For one thing, he asked for a slightly oversized mash cooker, since he had discovered that opening the hatch during a boil sometimes meant dodging blobs of boiling hot corn mash. “It’s more like napalm than hot coffee, because it can stick to you and give you a really nasty burn,” he says. He also designed it to include a side-mounted column assembly with a rectifying column, gin basket, and condenser so he could use it to make a variety of spirits. “When you’re a little guy, it helps to be flexible and dynamic,” says Stephen.
Balance Is Key
With experience under his belt, equipment designed and installed, and all the licensing taken care of, it was finally time for Stephen to start making the products he’d been dreaming about
“We want to make spirits with a long, smooth finish to them,” says Stephen. “That applies to our bourbons and our other spirits as well.” For his first bourbon, Breaker Bourbon, Stephen opted for a high-rye mash bill to draw out warm, spicy notes. Yet he didn’t go overboard. “In general, the main approach I’ve taken with pretty much all the bourbons is wanting to have a good balance,” says Stephen. “I don’t want outrageously spicy rye or crazy oak. I want to have those oaky notes, those secondary grain notes, the vanillins, the caramels, and the fruity aspects all displayed.”
After Breaker Bourbon hit the market, Stephen turned his attention to a wheated bourbon, replacing the spicy rye with soft, sweet wheat. Finally, returning to his roots as a Scotch lover, he created a port barrel finished bourbon from the high rye mash bill using real Port wine casks imported by a local winemaker. “He had just been sending them back to Portugal for the deposits, but I told him, ‘Don’t do that. Sell them to me and we’ll have way more fun with them,’” Stephen laughs. The result is a bourbon with fruity notes and a rich, coppery color that still maintains its structure and isn’t overly sweet. He says Ascendant Spirits has other new products in the works, although he can’t divulge the details just yet.
That experimental approach has paid off. Awards keep rolling in, and after just five years in business, Ascendant Spirits is now selling its whiskey in all 50 states. For this fledgling distillery, the sky is truly the limit.
www.ascendantspirits.com. Tasting room open Friday-Sunday, or by appointment.