By Eric Peterson | Jul 05, 2020
"We were actually the first distillery in Oakland since Prohibition," says Brown. "It's quite possible it was the first legal whiskey ever made in Oakland."
Brown and Wright grew up together in Humboldt County, California, then took separate career paths. Brown worked in affordable housing and development, while Wright became a tugboat captain.
During shore leave, Wright "learned to moonshine," says Brown, a whiskey aficionado since his college days in North Carolina. Wright subsequently interned with wineries and got a crash course on distilling brandy from grapes.
"I was homebrewing at the time, and also getting pretty tired of the politics and work of affordable housing and for-profit housing development," says Brown.
It follows that Brown and Wright devised a business plan, leased (and later bought) a 5,500-square-foot industrial space in Oakland, and installed a 250-gallon still from Vendome Copper & Brassworks in Kentucky. "We had production going by the beginning of 2015," says Brown.
The timing was right, he adds. "It would be impossible for us to start up here now. Things cost twice as much."
The distillery's first bottle release, a rye, hit the shelves in 2016 after about 13 months in the barrel. The bourbon and rye are now released after about two years in barrels.
"For us, we chose to take it slow," says Brown. "We make everything from grain to glass. So we didn't source whiskey from someone else and call it ours. The only stuff we've put out is made from grain in-house."
The catalog includes a number of whiskeys as well as white and aged rum. "[The white rum] is a unique product with black strap molasses, pot-distilled white rum without any filtration or sweeteners added, so it's a really clean, rich, heavy flavor," says Brown, dubbing it a great match for daiquiris and mojitos.
The small-batch method is based on "Pennsylvania-style whiskey-making tradition" (versus Southern-style or Maryland-style), says Brown, largely due to the use of a modified pot still instead of a column still. "I think it's going back to tradition, maybe pre-industrial distilling tradition a little bit," he notes. "With the rye, we don't have any corn in the mash bill. It's Pennsylvania-style rye."
Wright & Brown also defies industry norms by fermenting and distilling on grain. "You get a lot of interesting, heavy flavors out of that," says Brown. "When you're cooking and mashing and distilling on grain, you get a lot of interesting microbial activity."
"You get a little more grain-forward spirit off the still," he adds. "It really makes quite a different style of whiskey."
As the distillery ages, so do its whiskeys. Wright & Brown's bottled-in-bond single malt "was only the second-ever bottled-in-bond American single malt," says Brown. "Bottled-in-bond has to be at least four years old, released at 100 proof, and mane by the same distiller in the same distilling season."
The supply chain includes exclusively non-GMO grains from Irish and German malthouses as well as an increasing amount of California-grown barley and rye. "We use a wide variety of grains," says Brown. "The plan is to grow into using mostly local grains. Grain farming didn't exist much in California when we were getting started. There's rice farming up on the delta of the Sacramento River, but not much cereal grain farming left in California by the 2000s. It's starting to make a little comeback because you have a lot of breweries and bakers and distillers who are excited about using local grain. There's been a little bit of a learning curve on the farmers' side, too."
Some of the distillery's rye is grown on Brown's parents' ranch in Humboldt County, and the bourbon includes California-grown grains in the medley of corn, rye, and barley.
Wright & Brown relies on several barrel suppliers, including The Barrel Mill in Minnesota, Seguin Moreau in Napa, and Independent Stave in Missouri. "We go about 50/50 [with California and out-of-state cooperages], and that's just because we didn't want to put all our eggs in one basket," explains Brown.
Brown says the distillery has enjoyed "consistent sales growth." The growth curve has involved bigger barrels, bigger releases, and a growing catalog. "Our first rye whiskey release was only about 800 bottles, and that was out of quarter casks," says Brown. "Now our current releases come out of 30-gallon and 53-gallon barrels."
But it all comes back to what's in the barrels, he adds. "You've got to make great product and just gradually grow with that."
Challenges: Distribution "is probably the biggest challenge," says Brown. While COVID-19 opened the door for California distilleries to sell directly to customers -- "a huge help," he says -- the state still requires distributors for retail and restaurant accounts.
"By the time we were scaling up our batches, there were dozens of small, local producers," says Brown. "The bigger distributors aren't taking on a lot of small, growing brands." He calls the push for self-distribution "an uphill battle" in the state.
Price can be an issue: A bottle is the cask-strength rye retails for $89, and the single malt is around $95, as other whiskeys and rum are closer to $50 to $60. The rum "is still too high-priced to compete with the Caribbean guys," says Brown. "It's hard to compete in the cocktail world."
Opportunities: A tasting room, something the distillery has not had to date, is in the works. It will help provide a public face to the adjacent residential areas, as well as hire employees who can double as sales reps. The construction permit is pending, but COVID-19 is causing city approvals to go into "slow motion," says Brown.
Then there are upcoming releases, like the four-year Heritage Rye and a brandy, as well as packaged cocktails. Bottled cocktails made with fresh juices will be available at the distillery in summer 2020, says Brown, and shelf-stable canned cocktails could be next.
"Just watching the way consumers are excited about local product" is a big opportunity, he adds. Here in the Bay Area, there's a real localvore, foodie tradition. We feel like we could get great community support, and so far it's borne out here in Oakland and the Bay Area at large."
While Wright & Brown has limited out-of-state distribution in Oregon and potentially Iowa, California is the primary target. Brown notes, "You want to win on your home turf first."
Needs: Equipment. Brown highlights needs for a rotary separator to process spent grains that go to local farms, a 600-gallon still to match existing fermenting capacity, and a bottling and labeling line to supplant manual processes. Handling spent grain "is extremely time-consuming," he notes, and there would be a quick return on investment for a separator.