The Ethics of Cider

Experimenting with small cider batches in their barn sparked an even greater passion for cider and the apples that make it possible. This led the Lawtons to the Permaculture Skills Center in Sebastopol, where Ryan Johnston was a program director actively working with local community organizers and organic growers. Johnston had gathered over 60 varieties of apples to share with the community. Now Johnston is the orchardist and cider maker for Ethic Ciders.

“Having grown up in West Sonoma County, Ryan brought a focus on regenerative agriculture and a strong connection with the local community,” Lawton says. “We bonded quickly over our passions for all things made of apple. Soon after, we began assessing the viability of building a cider business that was sustainable from both a farming perspective and also a financial perspective.”

Making quality cider is just one part of the Ethic Ciders philosophy. Lawton and his team are focused on connecting with people and keeping the area’s orchard traditions alive.

“When we think of community, we really see Ethic as a part of many communities that come together here in Sonoma County,” Lawton says. “It’s local farmers who grow the ingredients for great ciders.  It’s our fellow cider, beer and wine makers that share the passion and techniques for creating amazing beverages with one another. And it’s the grass roots organizations like Slow Foods, Rare Fruit Growers, Farm Trails and many others that support local makers like us here in the county.”

The name Ethic Ciders was inspired by Lawton and Johnston’s belief that “making top quality ciders comes from staying true to the fruit.” They start with the highest quality organic ingredients and then ferment slowly, stirring every day to preserve the apples’ delicate flavors and aromas. Every apple variety is fermented separately then blended after fermentation, to let the fruit’s unique character shine. Ethic uses local heirloom apple varieties such as Gravenstein, Johnathan, Golden Delicious and Rhode Island Greening apples along with wild berries and botanicals — all sustainably grown in Sonoma County. On their farm Ethic has also replanted a dozen varieties of traditional cider apples and the planting continues.

“Our goal is not year-to-year uniformity, it’s beauty and balance, which starts with ecological orchard management” Johnston says. “These practices are labor intensive and time consuming, but as makers it’s our way of respecting and ultimately celebrating a sense of place that expresses through flavor.”

Ethic’s ciders are available to ship direct to consumers in 36 states and sold at over a dozen local stores, including Whole Foods and and Oliver’s Market locations. And the company is growing … in a slow, deliberate way.

“Our growth plans are firmly rooted in the idea that we will continue to release ciders that are reflective of the local fruit and character of Sonoma County as well as working to have a tasting room at our farm in Sebastopol to further connect our community at large,” Lawton says.

Stillwater Spirits

Photography by Michael Woolsey

Production and Styling by Alexis Scarborough

Visiting Stillwater Spirits on a Friday afternoon feels like walking into a party in progress. Blues music booms from wall-mounted speakers. Local brewers wander in to grab a drink and share their latest beer. The distillery dogs greet people who walk by and wonder what they’re missing. But there’s serious business happening inside those barrels.

Ever since Brendan Moylan opened Stillwater Spirits at the Petaluma Foundry Wharf in 2004, the awards have been pouring in — including best in show and best in category at this year’s New York World Wine & Spirits Competition for Moylan’s cask-strength single malt whiskey finished in port barrels and a Gold Award from the American Distilling Institute for Moylan’s cask-strength single malt whiskey.

Long before the first barrel rolled in or out of the distillery, Moylan was already a big part of the Bay Area beverage scene. His brewpubs Marin Brewing Company and Moylan’s Brewery & Restaurant have been local favorites for decades.

Distiller Tim Welch is working with Moylan to make a big name for this little distillery, even though they’ll produce only 50 barrels this year. In addition to single malt whiskies, Stillwater also makes bourbon, rye, vodka, gin, liqueurs, grappa, brandy and beer schnapps. Most of this is put out under the Moylan’s name, although about a quarter of production is dedicated to making spirits for other companies, including grappa for next-door neighbor Sonoma Portworks. 

Welch is experimenting with mixing a whiskey finished in sherry barrels with their award-winning port finished whiskey. He and Moylan treat the barrels like they’re living beings and not containers of product.

With Ralph Steadman murals covering the walls and a steady stream of blues music playing after hours to keep the barrels company, Stillwater isn’t just a place that makes good booze. It’s also a second home for people who are passionate about spirits.

Capturing Local Flavor 

Photography by Michael Woolsey

Production and Styling by Alexis Scarborough

Griffo Distillery

Distilling the essence of  Sonoma County

Mike and Jenny Griffo, founders of Griffo Distillery, are crafting spirits in Petaluma that are impossible to make any other place. That’s because one of the key ingredients doesn’t come from a supply company or farm  it floats into the distillery with the breeze.

Yeast is a key ingredient in any batch of whiskey. These little single-celled organisms feed on the sugars in the grain mash to make alcohol. Most distilleries use yeast they purchased or developed in a lab.

By using what’s called open fermentation, Griffo is capturing the area’s essence as part of their spirit-making process. Yeast-producing neighbors include Lagunitas Brewing Company, Petaluma Hills Brewing, Alvarado Street Bakery and Della Fattoria.

Local ingredients play a big part in connecting Griffo to the area, but relationships in the community have cemented the distillery’s commitment to Sonoma County. Griffo meets regularly with other distilleries, breweries and wineries in the area. Neighboring breweries bring over beer that’s gone wrong and team up with Griffo to try distilling it as an experiment. When the Griffos finished making their gin, other craft beverage producers volunteered to help with the first bottling.

Griffo’s rye, bourbon and American whiskey still need more barrel time before they’re available. But the distillery’s Scott Street Gin is for sale at Bottle Barn, Willibee’s and Charlie’s Liquor as well as at Petaluma bars. In a couple months, you can try the gin (along with a few cocktails using it) at the Griffo tasting room and bring a few bottles home with you.

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