Sonoma is synonymous with wine, but this area was also once famous for its distilled brews. One Sonoma family aims to bring the pre-Prohibition era back to life. Fred and Amy Groth are excited to announce they've met their fundraising goal for a big new still that will arrive at their Hello Cello Limoncello di Sonoma at the end of February.
The business operates with two names--Prohibition Spirits and HelloCello--because of the different nature of their products.
"Hello Cello is kind of a fun name for the limoncello, hence the bright yellow business cards," Amy Groth said.
"That didn't really work for rum and whiskey, so we use Prohibition Spirits for those," said Fred.
In keeping with Prohibition style, they sell their white corn whiskey in Mason jars.
"The idea is to pass it around and drink the whiskey right out of the jar," Fred said. "That's what people did in the Prohibition."
"We were really thrilled to find out that one local business owner buys it and does just that with his friends," Amy chuckled. Her dad grew up in the hills of Kentucky, she said, so she has heard a lot of moonshine stories over the years.
"We like to include a little bit of fun history with our products," she said. "We also like to include a bit of community. How often can you say, 'I helped peel the lemons for that drink'?"
Peel parties and bottling parties are the name of the game at this boutique-size operation. Family and friends visit the warehouse on East Eighth Street for social events to see who can make the longest peel from thousands of lemons that go into the lemon flavored brandy product. The lemons themselves go back with friends to make favorite recipes or they get delivered to a local restaurant.
"Nothing's wasted," Fred said.
The Groths moved from Colorado with their young children to set up the spirits business in Sonoma, after a vacation here. Amy is a former wedding planner and Fred worked in the environmental engineering field, in the oil and gas industry.
"We just fell in love with the place," Fred said.
They were inspired to make limoncello after tasting it during a vacation in Italy years ago. They've been producing limoncello, orangecello and figcello for about three years and selling it to The Girl and the Fig restaurant, Sonoma Market, Whole Foods, Broadway Market and about 200 retail clients in San Francisco.
All those connections have paid off.
In January, the Groths used the online Kickstarter program to fund their new still. They raised $22,689 in pledges, with the help of some fun rewards—well over their goal of $15,000. Check out their Kickstarter video, which includes images of the shiny behemoth of copper and stainless steel.
The still will actually cost about $28,000.
"We wanted people to know we're committing our own resources too," Fred said.
What made their campaign so successful?
"I think it shows people believe in what we're doing," Amy said. "Also, we're an existing business. Most of the pledges are from people who already know us. There were some family and friends but also companies that support our business."
The couple's limoncello took the silver medal at the World Spirits Competition in San Francisco in 2010, Amy said.
"It was the highest awarded limoncello. We beat out the Italians and some New Zealanders."
Their Hooker's House bourbon won platinum—the highest award for small batch bourbon—at the Sip Awards in San Diego in 2012 and silver at the World Spirits event in 2012.
The Groths buy the whiskey and bourbon and finish it in wine barrels to add unique flavors.
"The bourbon originates from Kentucky and is finished here in Pinot Noir barrels," Fred said. "The rye is aged in zinfandel barrels.
"I think that makes it more smooth," Amy said.
Fred and Amy plan to release light, amber and dark rums by the end of February. Each of those will get different wood treatment too.
The new still should be in place by then. The Groths plan to use it to help local producers come up with some novel concoctions, which have yet to be announced.
The still has a footprint of approximately 6 x 7 x 9 feet.
Who will polish all that shiny metal?
"The kids probably," Amy said with a chuckle.
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