In the rapidly-growing world of artisanal spirit production, with money flowing in from big brands and investors eager to grab a piece of the market, it can be easy to lose sight of the reason anyone started distilling in the first place: to make phenomenal booze. For some producers, though, like Berkeley, California-based Mosswood Distillers, there’s never been any question that the most important part of their business is what goes into their bottles.
While they’re still relatively new on the scene, the husband-and-wife duo behind Mosswood have spent the last three years or so perfecting a truly inventive line of American and Irish whiskeys, aged in everything from Pinot Noir casks to sour ale-infused ex-bourbon barrels. Despite their fairly unconventional methods, the final products hold their own alongside the best traditional whiskeys we’ve ever tasted.
Who Needs a Still?
Unlike many other craft distillers, though, Mosswood isn’t actually in the business of doing any, well, distilling—at least, not yet. “Our ultimate goal is to be distilling ourselves, which we hope to be doing within the next year or so, but in the meantime we’re very open about the fact that we do source our whiskey,” said Mosswood co-founder Jake Chevedden during a tasting and tour of their Berkeley facility.
It’s not the typical way to go about starting a spirit brand, but for Jake and his wife, Therese Agnew, it was a no-brainer. Whiskey has been their passion for years, and being limited to white spirits off the bat didn’t appeal to them. “It’s part of the reason why we started this way, as opposed to starting with a distillery and making something clear, and then moving into whiskey later due to the aging constraints. We wanted to stick with where our hearts were,” Therese said with a chuckle.
Instead, Mosswood sources their whiskeys from a number of other distillers—they start with seven-year-old American whiskey and four-year-old Irish—and “finish” them in their own barrels. The resulting flavors are impressive, and each barrel imparts a bold, unique set of characteristics to the spirit.
“I always think of it as kind of filling out the flavor profile,” said Chris Restivo, Mosswood’s Director of Sales and Distribution. “A whiskey has certain places where its flavors spike, and then you bring in these other components from the cask enhancements, and whatever deficits it might’ve had can be filled in. So you end up with a bigger, longer arc to each sip.”
Whiskey—American, Scotch, Irish, or otherwise—has been the Mosswood team’s passion for much of their lives. “I think it was just being a mischievous kid that got me into whiskey,” Jake told us with a laugh. “My family didn’t really like whiskey until I did—they were all wine and beer people. It’s funny watching my parents get really into cocktails now. But yeah, it’s been my drink of choice for as long as I can remember.”
“That was pretty much me, too, being a mischievous woman, since it doesn’t tend to be a stereotypically feminine drink,” Therese said. “I’ve always been a little bit of a tomboy, and I just liked it. My whiskey world opened up tenfold when I met Jake, because I’d never had all the various types of scotches, which really blew my mind. And Japanese whisky is just incredible. It intrigued me that it wasn’t just about heavily-wooded bourbons.”
Chris, too, has a history with the stuff. “I got into whiskeys towards the end of college. I studied clinical psychology, and I had a little stint where I was doing some case management work after I finished my undergrad degree, and it was really heavy stuff. It probably wasn’t the best self-care practice, but one of the things I would do is I always had a really nice bottle of whiskey. I would drive back home, have a drink, and make dinner, and that’s how I would decompress.”
A Working Relationship
Jake has a background in the retail side of the spirits industry, but Therese found her way into the business a little less traditionally. While studying graphic design in college, one of her professors taught her how to make moonshine using a converted water heater—it’s not a technique we can recommend, but apparently it got the job done. After she met Jake, the two of them discovered their shared interest and started playing around with various spirits.
“When we were coming up with some early recipes we lived across the street from Mosswood Park over in Oakland, and that’s where the name comes from,” Jake said. “In between tinkering sessions we would head over to the park to take a break and collect our thoughts.
“In the history of American whiskey, people tend to name their products after people, but we wanted to do it more like Scotch and Irish distilleries and name it after a place. So for all of our products, we try and incorporate some kind of local element into them.”
From there, the project blossomed into what would eventually become their business. It was also a large part of what brought the couple together. “The start of Mosswood and the start of their romance couldn’t really be teased apart,” Chris told us, as Jake and Therese giggled a bit uncomfortably in the background. “In working together and in collaborating, they really fell in love. The two are sort of inherently linked.”
“When people ask, how do you balance work and play? I tell them the work kind of came first,” Therese piped up. “But, you know, I’ll put work in quotes. It’s always been fun and a passion for us. At least we knew that we could work together first.”
“I think what makes it work so well for us is that this job often means long hours, or doing something that takes a lot of time and is really boring if you’re doing it by yourself,” Jake said. “So having someone who you care about and can have a conversation with there with you all the time helps a lot, in every aspect.”
Therese continued, “Something repetitive like bottling and distilling is nice, though. It’s a time where you can go through these motions and let your mind wander. We’re all so busy all the time now, and there’s all these distractions, it’s almost meditative to do the tedious stuff.”
Thankfully, all that tedious labor seems to have paid off. Mosswood’s line of whiskeys, consisting of four American varieties and one Irish, is one of the more creative we’ve ever encountered.
Much of their inspiration comes from fellow craft companies in the Bay Area. When possible, they source their barrels from local producers, as well as the spirits, wine, beer, and coffee used to season them. Their sour ale barrels, for example, are produced with the help of a few rotating breweries, including Berkeley-based The Rare Barrel and Bay Area mainstay Drake’s in San Leandro.
Coming up with their recipes has always relied pretty heavily on experimentation. Therese described a particularly jarring misstep with their early attempts to make a stout barrel-aged whiskey, saying “It came out tasting like coconuts! I couldn’t think of anything else, and I thought, this isn’t balanced at all, I can only think of coconuts. This isn’t a rum! This isn’t Malibu! So we went back to the drawing board and we said, okay, let’s try a lighter beer. Let’s try a red ale.”
Since they didn’t get their hands on the new beer until the hectic holiday season, though, the barrel got lost in the shuffle. “So, we found this barrel way too late, and it had naturally soured, as sour beers do when they’re barrel aged, and it smelled great! So we said, all right, let’s put some whiskey in this. Then we approached our neighbors, Rare Barrel, to start the project in earnest with actual sour beer barrels.”
In addition to their sour beer whiskey, Mosswood produces a subtly sweet apple brandy barrel-aged American whiskey (finished for three months), a Pinot Noir cask whiskey (finished for six months), a tangy, almost vegetal espresso barrel whiskey (finished for only a day), and a traditional, but nonetheless delicious Amontillado sherry cask-aged Irish whiskey (finished for one year).
The team doesn’t intend to be limited to barrel-finishing forever, though. Despite some unforeseen hiccups with their application process with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (a family emergency and the death of their TTB agent, to name a few), Mosswood is on track to become the first-ever licensed distillery in the city of Berkeley sometime in 2016.
Thanks to their own experimentation off-site, they’re also primed to start producing spirits other than whiskey. “Whiskey is certainly what we love, so that will be what we focus on, but we like playing around,” Jake said. Their next whiskey-finishing project, for example, is set to use barrels from their homemade nocino, a liqueur Jake and Therese produce from green walnuts that grow in their backyard.
It’s that kind of plucky, experimental creativity that gets us excited about Mosswood’s next steps. What they’ve managed to accomplish with relatively limited resources is nothing short of extraordinary (starting from scratch and managing all of their own distribution, their whiskeys are already available in more than fifty liquor stores, bars, and restaurants), and there’s no indication they’ll be slowing down anytime soon.
Whether it’s a vodka, rum, gin, or liqueur, we’re sure that Mosswood will bring a unique—and uniquely local—perspective to their next project. And in the meantime, we can all sit back this winter with a glass or two of their distinctive whiskeys.
Photos: Will Shenton