By Gregory Daurer | Sep 03, 2020
"It's a really pretty region," Stevens says of Humboldt County, California. "The tallest trees in the world are just down the street from us. All the redwoods, and the coast, and mountains, and rivers." He adds, "There's a lot of natural amenities, but there's not much as far as jobs go." As an example, Stevens notes how the local logging industry has declined in the county since he was a child.
After living away for several years, Stevens -- who grew up in the nearby town of Rio Dell -- wanted to return to the region. But what could he do for employment? Prior to relocating, he'd been a chemist, working in the pharmaceutical industry in the Bay Area and New York. A calculated risk taker, he's also played poker professionally (once netting over $21,000 at a tournament). Stevens ultimately drew inspiration from his trips to Iowa over the years, visiting his wife's family, seeing how one local distillery there has grown and prospered. Looking at Humboldt County, there were breweries and wineries, but Stevens realized, "There was no one satisfying the local cocktail need."
So, in 2012, Stevens put his technical expertise to work, opening Humboldt County's first distillery. Right away, he found a niche by manufacturing his top-selling and award-winning organic vodka, made from sugar cane, and an organic spiced rum, flavored with vanilla, nutmeg, and "secret spices."
Today, Stevens also produces an organic apple brandy and an organic whiskey (using two-row malt, which is usually associated with brewing beer). The choice to go organic fits in with his personal views on sustainability. "As far as the bigger picture goes, organic agricultural production is, in our opinion, better for the environment," Stevens says.
But as Stevens promoted his spirits around the state, he often heard a chuckle when his distillery's name and location arose. He says people would ask him, "'When are you going to put some of the 'local flavor' in your vodka?' Kind of a wink-wink, nudge-nudge kind of thing." Of course, when it comes to Humboldt County, California, Stevens knew full well what they were referring to: "It's also known for being a big cannabis-growing region. Prior to all the legalization efforts, it was more of an illicit black market, one of the biggest portions of our local economy."
Stevens heard the jokes so often, he wondered if -- maybe, just maybe -- there might be something to the idea. And there was. After research and experimentation, he now produces Humboldt's Finest: a vodka infused with hemp seed and, according to the bottle, "natural flavors," whose aromatic terpenes, Stevens says, lend a "fresh herbal quality" to the spirit. "A lot of people think [the flavor] reminds them of hops a little bit," he notes. "A little bit of a hoppiness, but without the bitterness." Poker-player Stevens keeps his cards close to his chest, in terms of how he infuses his spirit with said terpenes.
For now, Stevens purchases hemp for Humboldt's Finest from out of state: Josephine County, Oregon, to be exact. It's his one spirit that isn't organic, since Stevens doesn't presently source USDA-certified organic hemp, although he says it's a possibility for the future. Plus, there's the addition of green food coloring, in order to give the vodka a consistent hue from batch to batch. And while Humboldt's Finest might have started out as a novelty, the vodka has received high praise: In 2017, it took home a Double Gold medal from the San Francisco World Spirits competition. "Craft mixologists, in particular, are just really enjoying it just for the actual cocktail-mixing qualities," Stevens says.
Consumers drinking Humboldt's Finest won't cop a buzz from any cannabinoids. "[The TTB] required us to submit some samples to government-approved labs just to verify that there wasn't any detectable THC levels" -- or any CBD, either, for that matter -- says Stevens.
California accounts for 90 percent of the distillery's sales, with Northern California making up approximately 75 percent of that total. Stevens points out how, according to Nielsen statistics, his organic vodka ranks number six in terms of total vodka sales in California. The spirits can also be found in about a dozen additional states, including Wisconsin, Florida, Texas, Utah, and Colorado. "We have grown each year," says Stevens. "We made a little less than 6,000 cases, last year. And, even despite the coronavirus pandemic, we're hoping to beat that, this year."
Stevens utilizes a column still and three pot stills, housed within his distillery's approximately 7,000 square-foot space. For now, he makes do with a manual bottle filling line -- and, Stevens also likes to point out, a 30-year-old forklift.
The distillery celebrates the "positive associations" people have when it comes to Humboldt County, says Stevens. The region represents "California's natural state," before the advent of "all the parking lots and traffic jams and everything else that are so prevalent elsewhere in the state."
"We're proud of our area," says Stevens, the area's pioneering distiller.
Challenges: The COVID-19 pandemic means "bars and restaurants are not ordering, currently," and retailers "aren't especially receptive to new brands, currently."
In addition to being the head distiller, Stevens is the also the brand's traveling salesman, which "requires me to be on the road more," logging hours and miles away from his distillery's remote northern location.
Opportunities: Stevens says it's "the approximately 40 million people in California -- and the vast majority of them have never heard of us and would be receptive to our products, once we get our message to them."
Needs: "In the near term, we're going to upgrade our bottling line," says Stevens, as well as eventually making other "improvements to the facility, equipment."