Top Sonoma distiller shares favorite ‘quarantini’ recipes
As we approach the one-year anniversary of the stay-home order on March 19, many of us are starting to stir out of our winter hibernation and are ready to celebrate the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.
It’s a watershed moment that calls for a special “quarantini,” made from spirits produced by one of Sonoma County’s top distillers. If the idea of concocting a craft cocktail gives you conniptions, however, there are plenty of mixed drinks that don’t require a trip to the store to search for obscure bitters and expensive liqueurs.
Hanson of Sonoma — which distills vodka from organically grown grapes, then adds farm-to-table flavors from hand-cut cucumbers, peppers and citrus fruits — has perfected the art of the cocktail for those who like their alcoholic elixirs simple and stress-free.
“We try to use grocery store ingredients that anyone has access to and really make them simple and easy,” said Alanna Hanson, a Hanson of Sonoma co-owner in charge of marketing and tasting room strategy. “When you need all the bitters and modifiers, you think ‘Well, I don’t have that so I’m not going to make it.’ ”
Hanson of Sonoma was launched in 2014 by the Hansons, a longtime North Bay family of four siblings and their parents, who have created a line of clean, flavored vodkas that can be turned into tasty cocktails in mere minutes.
You can sample those mixed drinks at their Sonoma tasting room, which opened in 2019 in the old Carneros Brewing Co. taproom on Highway 121 next to their distillery, just five minutes from downtown Sonoma.
“There’s a lot of great distillers doing different things, but we distinguish ourselves because we are in the wine world and the distillery world,” Alanna said. “So we try to create a tasting experience that is different. It’s an educational experience.”
Pandemic requires a few pivots
During the early days of the pandemic, the distillery decided to pivot to produce much-needed hand sanitizer for first responders and health care workers.
“We donated a lot of it to nursing homes and hospitals,” Alanna said. That pivot, in turn, increased consumer demand for their premixed, or pre-batched, cocktails.
“We decided to bottle our cocktails so people could pick up the sanitizer and the cocktails at the same time,” she said. “People were really supporting community, and they came out in force.”
However, the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) initially told the family that the pre-batched cocktails in the bottle were not allowed, so they pivoted yet again to create do-it-yourself cocktail kits. Later, the family found out they were able to sell the pre-batched cocktails after all. So they relaunched that program in mid-April alongside their new cocktail kits.
“We created a lot of new products and worked really, really hard to transition and keep evolving and keep changing,” Alanna said. “That’s what everyone has had to do.”
Food always has been an essential part of their tasting experiences — they do a traditional vodka and caviar tasting as well as a vodka and chocolate truffle tasting — but the pandemic pushed them to deepen their culinary program, both in Sonoma and at their second tasting room in Sausalito.
“With COVID-19, a lot of the requirements changed, and we decided we needed to invest in a pizza oven (in Sonoma),” Alanna said. “Now we have a much more culinary-driven experience, both here and in Sausalito.”
For the caviar tastings, the Hansons work with Regiis Ova, a company cofounded by French Laundry Chef Thomas Keller, which sources fine caviars from all over the world.
“We like to showcase caviars from Southeast Asia, South America and from the Sacramento River Delta,” Alanna said. “That shows people the different kinds of eggs and salinity.”
The family also distills a few seasonally released vodkas that are only available in the tasting rooms, including an Espresso Vodka, Ginger Vodka and Boysenberry Vodka.
Meanwhile, the Hansons added a 4-year-old American single malt whiskey in 2019, brewing the whiskey mash, then distilling it and aging it for four years in bourbon barrels and sherry wine casks.
The Hanson Single Malt Double Barrel Whiskey offers flavor notes of caramel and chocolate. The bourbon barrels impart a blend of soft vanilla and sweet barley, while the sherry wine casks create a sweet, subtle flavor. You can enjoy the whiskey neat, over ice or in a classic Manhattan cocktail.
Brothers led family into distilling
The Hanson siblings grew up in Ross in Marin County, a town located at the base of Mount Tamalpais. Brothers Chris and Brandon Hanson were the ones who first came up with the idea of opening a distillery, where Chris now serves as the master distiller.