The Elk Fence Distillery was conceived in West Marin. It’s run by two people who live there and its name is a reference to the Tomales Point “elk fence” bordering a field where they once grew barley. It’s about as West Marin as you can get, except for one thing: It’s in Santa Rosa.
When co-founders and co-distillers Gail Coppinger and Scott Woodson originally went to the Marin Civic Center and asked about what it would take to open a distillery in Marin County, they were met with blank stares. Although it wasn’t able to work out in Marin, they were still able to make their dreams come true.
The two met working in the trades — Coppinger is a shingler, and Woodson is a painter — and bonded over his love of homebrewing and her love of cooking (she’s a former professional cook). One summer night in 2014, they got together in Woodson’s garage in Inverness.
“We made a mash together,” says Coppinger, of Point Reyes Station. “I loved the smell and the chemistry.”
“What is going on here?” she asked herself. “I couldn’t believe what was happening.”
By that time, Woodson, a former barley grower, had already started to look beyond brewing.
“I got kind of bored with it,” he says. “So, I started reading about distilling and I realized that you can’t do a distillery in your garage. You’d go to prison. You can make beer and wine in your garage, but you can’t distill.”
The two of them were intrigued.
“We were like newborn babies, we knew nothing,” Coppinger says. “We kind of dove in and said that we were going to put a down payment on a still system. So, we did.”
They ordered a hybrid double pot still from Trident Stills in Etna, Maine, attended tutorials in Pennsylvania and Kentucky, studied up on distilling and began looking for a place to put it. Marin was out, so they looked first in the East Bay before settling on a building in Santa Rosa.
“We did have a time limit; the equipment was being shipped to us. And we better have a place to keep it,” Coppinger says. “You can’t get a license until you lease a location, that’s the difference between every other business and distillation. You must have a location first and then you fill out the forms. You can’t do it beforehand.”
The cost for a type four “manufacturer of distilled spirits” license is a mere $990 whereas an on-premise, full-liquor “sales” license can run tens of thousands of dollars. But the license is not where the investment lies.
“Getting the building turned out to be the easy part,” Coppinger says. “The Tubbs Fire had just happened when we were starting our build-out. We had to get our plans signed off by the fire department. They held us up for 18 months.”
A year and a half of rent on a building they couldn’t use.
“The fire department is serious about what you are producing. And you are producing a high-proof distillate and they want to make sure everyone is safe — as they should,” Coppinger says.
They got their final inspection and opened the doors on March 14, 2020, just as COVID hit.
But all of that is in the rear view mirror now. In the intervening years, they began producing four products: a vodka ($35), a 90-proof gin ($50), a barrel-aged gin ($50) and a 2-year-old Briny Deep unfiltered single-malt whiskey ($140), all made from locally sourced barley. Elk Fence is now in 30 different locations throughout California, and they recently placed third in the USA Today 10Best’s list of best new craft distilleries.
In a super-saturated field of small-batch spirits, Elk Fence’s products stand out. Their White Elk vodka is 90 proof, 10 proof higher than almost every other vodka on the market. Their Fir Top gin contains only three botanicals besides the requisite juniper (coriander, tangerine peel and grapefruit peel) and their whiskey is aged two years not in the heavily charred barrels typically used for American whiskey, but in lighter “toasted” barrels used for wine.
“Char seals the barrel, which makes it harder for the spirit to age out,” Woodson says. “It takes out impurities but at the same time, it’s taking a lot of really good flavors out, so if you are distilling really well, you don’t want flavor to be taken out by the barrel.”
Woodson also contends that many gins are overly complicated. “Sixteen botanicals aren’t uncommon, but your mouth can’t break that down. Most people can barely pull out two or three different things out of something.”
As for their vodka, “We did it at 90 because we wanted it to hold up to ice in a martini. Not get so diluted that you feel like you are not tasting it,” Coppinger says. “Sometimes when they shake and they pour, martinis can be a little bit watery, and we didn’t want that.”
“Most everything in distilling is science: time and temperature,” Woodson adds. “When you are making your cuts (for whiskey), there’s not a finite line between the heads and the hearts and the hearts and the tails. Somewhere in there is a lot that happens.”
And that is where the art of distilling comes in. Elk Fence does what is called “deep cutting.”
“We are probably throwing out some good alcohol, but we’d rather have a really super-pure product than have anything in there we don’t like,” Woodson says.
This results in a deeply full-flavored whiskey literally oozing spice and caramel. It certainly isn’t rye, bourbon or wheat. And, at that price, it isn’t for the novice either, but then again, great whiskeys seldom are.
“We haven’t paid ourselves a dime yet,” Woodson says. “It’s a labor of love at this point.”
Elk Fence’s tasting room is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at 464 Kenwood Court in Santa Rosa. And they will be giving out samples from 4 to 6 p.m. Friday at Vintage Wine & Spirits at 82 Throckmorton Ave. in Mill Valley. More information can be found at elkfencedistillery.com or on Instagram @elkfencedistillery.