A fondness for the same rye whiskey brought together the founders of Barber Lee Spirits in Petaluma.
“I met them through their winery,” says 38-year-old Aaron Lee of Lorraine and Michael Barber, owners and winemakers of Barber Cellars. “I literally, as a patron, walked through the door and started talking to them.”
The three began making rye whiskey by first contract distilling a small amount utilizing several facilities in Petaluma. And then in 2019 they opened their own distilling facility at 120 Washington Street, just off Petaluma Boulevard in downtown Petaluma.
“At the time Mike and I met, both of our favorite rye whiskeys was Old Potrero,” says Lee.
Old Potrero (made by Anchor Distilling in San Francisco) is an odd bird amongst American whiskey, making a single malt rye. Malting is the process of letting the grain germinate, or sprout, before brewing it into an unhopped beer, and distilling that beer into whiskey. Malting barley is how the Irish and the Scots make their whiskey, but very little American whiskey is made from sprouted grain, and even fewer use 100% malt.
“Malted grain is very difficult to work with,” says Lee. “It is stickier, it clumps up, but we didn’t want to use an enzyme in the brewing process because it changes the flavor profile.”
Barber Lee’s 100 percent malted rye whiskey (legally, rye whiskey only needs to be more than 50% rye) has a big robust mouthfeel, with hints of light rye bread, maple, and vanilla. It is 90 proof, so it doesn’t clobber you over the head with alcohol. And it has a little something extra.
“We do grain in brewing and grain in distilling, which complicates the whole process because you actually have the physical grain in there, and the yeast needs to work around it,” says Lee.
Grain in production and germinated rye might make things more difficult, but Lee believes the extra work is worth it.
“When you leave the grain in, it is a completely different beast, on both the production side, and on the flavor side.”
Barber Lee utilizes a traditional whiskey pot still, with a scotch bonnet, and a four plate column.
“We are not trying to strip all the flavor out,” says Lee. “We want a little bit of that dirtiness in there, those congeners come through and give it the flavor. We don’t want vodka, we want whiskey.”
Barber Lee does make other products: an 84 proof aged apple brandy using local apples ($30), a 130 proof Absinth Blanche distilled from local wine ($50), and a white rye whiskey which they nostalgically call “Moonshine” ($25). Their single malt rye is $40.
“Our moonshine let’s our customers see the base product vs. the aged product. We also use it in cocktails as a vodka replacement. It goes in sweeter or fruity style cocktails because of the flavor profile of the moonshine,” says Lee.
Typically, moonshine is made from corn in illegal stills. Barber Lee’s Moonshine is their base rye spirit, just filtered, watered, and taxed.
“Our products are an expression of our style, and very much so of our palates,” he says. “We have a manual still, it’s just levers and knobs, we don’t use a computer to tell us when to start and stop the still, and during the whole process we are always tasting through. We feel that creates higher quality products.”
Barber Lee is very small production, making perhaps 500 cases of product a year. Their tasting room also serves as their aging facility, their entire stock of product is on display behind the counter. Although that tasting room is closed right now due to Covid 19 restrictions, Barber Lee’s products are available for shipping online (they do offer Petaluma delivery) and they will soon be offering curbside pickup. The Barbers and Lee are also working on an “heirloom” corn bourbon and an aged rum.
“We put our name on the door for a reason,” says Lee. “Because it is just us.”
On sale distribution is through Pacific Edge Distributors. Retail sales and shipping can be arranged online: www.barberleespirits.com