Much as it may still seem like a nascent industry, the craft spirits market—at least in some parts of the United States—has become significantly more saturated in recent years than most analysts ever predicted. From a mere 60 distilleries in 2003, today there are more than 760 across the country, with hundreds of others slated to start production in the next few years. Suffice it to say, it can be difficult to differentiate oneself from such rapidly-growing competition.
Like craft breweries over the last two decades (which now number over 4,000 in the US), new craft distilleries are faced with an existential question: what does our business bring to the table that others don’t? Some have answered by building a reputation of artisanal quality, attempting to elevate historically mundane spirits and make them exceptional. Others have gone the route of gimmicks, employing exotic infusions and flashy marketing.
But there is a third group, the relentless tinkerers like Sean Venus and his team at Venus Spirits, from which some of the most impressive innovation has come. These are the producers who, through scientific inquiry or artistic inspiration, are transforming classic spirits into contemporary masterpieces.
A Brewer at Heart
Nestled just three blocks from the ocean in a residential neighborhood of Santa Cruz, California, Venus Spirits initially seems to embody the carefree reputation of its hometown. As we stepped out of our car into the driveway, we were greeted by a dog bounding out of the open bay doors, seemingly intent on a spot in the backseat.
“Don’t worry, that’s just Juniper. She’s friendly,” someone called out from inside. Upon realizing that we weren’t going to take her for a ride, our canine companion settled down and, apparently used to playing tour guide, led us to the distillery floor.
While this casual, homey atmosphere is certainly a part of the facility’s charm, it belies the exacting standards to which Sean Venus holds his employees and products. Originally a brewer by hobby and, eventually, trade, he views the processes of making beer and making spirits as innately complementary.
“The two guys I’ve hired were both brewers, and I like what people with a background in beer bring to the table,” he told us. “There’s a discipline it requires, because you can’t be lazy with beer or else it’ll come back to bite you. We use that approach here for distilling, and we use a very methodical, clean process all the way through.”
The Venus Spirits distillery itself is relatively small, residing at the end of a tall, shallow row of contiguous warehouses. The two alembic stills that form the heart of the operation are situated among stacks of large, wooden casks filled with various spirits, and a fairly substantial tasting room sits in its own corner of the building. After a cursory tour (the open floor plan makes that a simple proposition), we sat down with Sean to learn how it all came to be.
Originally from Connecticut, his journey into the world of spirits began when he was just 18. “I took basically all of my high school graduation money and bought a bunch of equipment, and then my brother and I started brewing. I was going to start at the University of Oregon that fall, and I didn’t really know much about beer, nor that there was a thriving beer scene in the Northwest. So when I got there it was pretty amazing. It was kind of craft beer 1.0.”
He continued homebrewing throughout his college years, taking internships and various brewing jobs when he could spare the time. One summer, he decided to head south to UC Davis, where he took a six-week intensive brewing course that set him on the path to a career in the beer industry. After graduating in 1999, he signed on with Gordon Biersch, where he worked for six years until leaving to start his own consulting company.
“My entrepreneurial spirit kind of took over around then, and my love of whiskey had already taken over,” he said, “So I played with the idea of starting up a distillery. I got my wife’s permission to throw some of our savings into it, and we’re now into our third year of actually shipping product.”
Classic Spirits with a Twist
A brief glance at Venus Spirits’ portfolio is all it takes to know that they’re an adventurous crew. Alongside fairly standard offerings like gin and rye whiskey are several bottles that nearly demand a double-take, like aquavit, barrel-aged gin, and perhaps most surprisingly, a full range of blanco, reposado, and añejo agave spirits.
“I think if you look at everything up there on the shelf,” Sean said, gesturing to the bar behind him, “You’ll see we’re trying to push spirits that are a little bit different. Nothing too off the rails, but we’re the only California distiller to make an aquavit, and there are maybe one or two other distillers making an agave spirit in California, and only a handful in the United States.”
The label “agave spirit” is, much to the distillers’ chagrin, a legal necessity. According to international trade regulations, only agave spirits made in Mexico can be marketed as tequila. “When people can actually get beyond the fact that it doesn’t say ‘tequila’ on the bottle, they really enjoy it,” he explained. “There are those people who are just super conservative and won’t branch out from classic tequila, and their minds are already made up, but people who come at it with an open mind tend to love it.”
So too, it seems, have the critics. The El Ladrón line (Spanish for “the thief,” a wry nod to the perception that their product is a mere knockoff) has won a number of medals at the American Distilling Institute’s annual spirit competition, including a Best of Category distinction each for the blanco and reposado.
Their aquavit, which holds a special place in Sean’s culinary heart, has been similarly well received. “It comes back to my love of food, because it’s a very savory spirit,” he told us. “The caraway just gives it an amazing character, at least for me. When people try it, there’s a wow factor one way or the other. Either they don’t like it at all, or they’re blown away.”
What Venus Spirits has really become known for, though, is their line of gins, which includes one unaged and one barrel-rested expression. The latter is certainly eye-catching due to its unusual caramel color, but both contain impressive botanical blends that have made them fan-favorites.
“I started this company to make whiskey, and gin was something to kind of hold us over until the whiskey was ready. Well, within the first couple of months, we became a gin distillery that also makes whiskey,” he laughed. “At least around this area, and among other distillers, our gin is what we’re best known for.”
That said, their whiskeys are nothing to sneeze at. The Wayward Whiskey line currently includes a rye and an American single malt, with a bourbon on the way in the next few months (which we were fortunate enough to taste straight out of the barrel), all three of which are impressively unique within their categories.
The single malt, in particular, was a standout bottle. “We throw a bit of crystal brewer’s malt in there, which brings out some chocolate and toffee notes, and gives it more depth,” Sean explained. “The wood has a really strong impact on our single malt, but the thing with single malts is that the malt has a lot of character. It’s not like a bourbon or a rye, where the grainy notes get aged out. The malt stays there and dominates it.”
Once again, Sean owes the diversity of his product range to his background in brewing. “We originally set out to make beer and spirits under one roof and pair them together in a symbiotic relationship. Outside of the gin, the agave spirits and whiskey work really well with beer, which is why you always have that combination when you’re making a Boilermaker or having a beer and a shot.”
What’s Next for Venus Spirits
Going forward, Sean has a number of products he’s excited to debut. Older expressions of their whiskeys, new botanical blends for the aquavit and gin, and a few other spirits he still wants to keep a secret. But when it comes to distribution, he’s content to stick with California for the time being.
“We’ve had some requests to sell out of state as well, but the problem is it’s a ton of work to move into a new market. It’s incredibly difficult just to open up new markets within our own state, let alone someplace like New York City or DC. There’s a lot more opportunity here that we’ve yet to take advantage of.”
What’s clear, though, is that Venus Spirits has no intentions of making conventional booze anytime soon. It’s their unique take on otherwise standard bottles that has helped them carve out a name for themselves, and at the very least, Sean’s restless experimentation (he couldn’t resist tinkering with a few casks even as we toured the distillery) seems destined to keep things interesting.
In the meantime, Venus’ eclectic family of spirits remains one of the most impressive we’ve come across, especially considering it’s only been in production since 2014. This is certainly a distillery to watch, and we can’t wait to see what they do next.
Photos: Will Shenton