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This story originally was published in The Argus-Courier on April 5.

One year after opening its doors, Petaluma’s Griffo Distillery is earning international honors, casting a new spotlight on the upstart spirit maker as it aims for a future including various whiskeys and, one day, a tasting room.

Named for its home on the industrial lane increasingly seen as a center of Petaluma’s de-facto brewer’s district, Griffo’s Scott Street Gin took home a gold medal from judges of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition this month, said Michael Griffo, distiller and co-founder.

The competition regularly attracts spirit makers from around the world, and puts small-batch companies like Griffo alongside huge brands like Seagram’s Gin.

The award gives Griffo a straightforward way to market the quality of its gin at a time when Sonoma County’s craft spirit makers are gaining prominence, the latest beverage industry wave in a region long associated with high-end wine and beer, Griffo said.

“To be able to come in and say we won a gold medal at the San Francisco International Spirits Competition, that’s going to be a very clear indicator that this is actually very good stuff,” he said.

In advance of an official announcement of results in April, judges informed Griffo last week that the husband-and-wife operation took a gold medal in the wide-ranging competition. The accolade meant the majority of tasters ranked the gin as “an excellent product, meeting very high standards,” just shy of a perfect “double gold.”

While the competition is considered highly contentious, Griffo, who holds a doctorate in physics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, said he was confident after years of experimentation that the gin would be a hit. The company submitted the spirit in January, passing on lower-stakes competition and aiming squarely for an event he described as having the highest profile in the United States.

“We’re super excited that our very first entry into the market did so well,” he said.

Now with two batches of between 700 and 800 bottles under its belt and a third on the way, Griffo started full-time production last April using its 250-gallon, Kentucky-made copper still dubbed “Betty.” Whiskey is expected to be available later this year, including an “American whiskey” aged with an unusual blend of French and American oak in collaboration with a winery in Napa, Griffo said.

The company joins a number of craft beverage makers on the short industrial stretch in northeast Petaluma, including nearby Sonoma Coast Spirits, a producer of premixed cocktails that itself took home a gold medal for its Lemon Drop Martini in 2012.

Two of the companies along Scott Street now have their own direct-to-consumer operations — Petaluma Hills Brewing Company and, more recently, 101 North Brewing Company. Across North McDowell Boulevard from Lagunitas Brewing Company, the taprooms have made Scott Street something of a destination in its own right, drawing craft beer enthusiasts and organized tour companies to make a pit stop in addition to a visit to the larger brewer across the street.

Currently providing tours only on a private basis, Griffo said he hoped to join his neighbors by offering his own public tasting room in the future. The operation is likely to include direct sales, something that wasn’t legally possible for distilleries in California until the passage of new legislation authored by Assemblyman Marc Levine in 2015.

While a tasting room could come as soon as this year, Griffo said he planned to move forward carefully due to the impact that associated bureaucratic costs could have on his startup.

“Once we do have a tasting room open, we’ll be able to do a lot with it,” he said.

Direct alcohol sales were not possible at all in the area under Petaluma’s zoning standards until 2012, when officials made a tweak to allow that activity on a case-by-case basis upon discretionary approval of the city’s Planning Commission, said Ingrid Alverde, Petaluma’s economic development manager.

A lack of pedestrian-friendly features was a primary issue, owing to a legacy of light industrial and warehousing uses where room for heavy vehicle traffic took priority over elements like sidewalks and parking.

Similar concerns have impacted Lagunitas, where construction of a large parking area and a new sidewalk along North McDowell were conditions of approval for a recent expansion, she noted. The city will be looking at pedestrian behavior after that lot becomes operational to see whether a crosswalk may be warranted across the boulevard, a major artery in east side Petaluma.

Despite issues in plugging those patron-attracting companies into the otherwise industrial district, Alverde said the city remained highly supportive of the cluster of craft manufacturers that have cropped up in the area around Scott Street. She described the organic growth of those companies as a reliable sign of economic strength, and a sector that the city hoped to promote.

“Right now, it’s mostly about safety. But there have been some early discussions of, ‘How could we look at relaxing that zoning even further?’ That’s a decision the council would have to make,” she said. “That could be a really exciting project. It’s so we could check that box. We already know that would be safe, and that it would work in that area.”

After brewing beer in the area for several years, 101 North opened its own taproom two weeks ago, said John Lillianthal, partner and sales manager. The brewery has largely promoted the opening on social media, drawing on a fan base built through bars and retail sales over the past several years.

Lillianthal described the proximity of both Lagunitas and Petaluma Hills as mutually beneficial, giving beer lovers a chance to sample several brews. That combined attraction would only be stronger with a Griffo tasting room in the mix, he said.

He expressed support for a city-led effort to create a new designation for the area that could allow for joint promotion and coordinated hours of operation, and cited early talk of a name for the strip, “Maker’s Alley.”

“That can’t happen soon enough. That’s something the city could really promote,” he said.

Griffo described Petaluma as a great place to launch a business like his distillery.

“Our glass for our bottles comes from Napa, and our labels come from within 50 miles away, and we’re getting our grains from down the street. We get our barrels from over in Napa — everything is just coming from ‘local.’ It’s a great location,” he said.