Santa Barbara County, CA
Why did it take so long for the Santa Barbara, CA area to get its first post-prohibition distillery? It has everything a new distillery would want: (seemingly) perfect climate, unbelievable variety of local produce, and an established wine region to bring in a steady flow of visitors. Thankfully, Steven Gertman seized this opportunity to be first and opened Ascendant Spirits.
Steven makes a fantastic point about opening a distillery in Santa Barbara. It is a unique venture and perfect in the setting. The region’s climate is influenced by its mountain range and the daily temperature fluctuations ocean and mountains create. Unlike most coastal ranges, the mountains around Ascendant run perpendicular to the ocean. This unique topography allows ocean air to come rushing in every night and flow right back out to sea every day. As a result, the daily temperature range fluctuates from a high in the 90s down to the 60s. For agriculture, this micro-climate allows local farmers to grow just about anything. For a distillery, it means spirits in barrels are constantly in motion throughout the entire year. For Ascendant, in particular, it means the distillers can make any variety of spirit, from natural fruit infusions to traditional whiskey, and deliver the region’s flavors to a global market. For the community of Buelton, being home to the only distillery in the region unlocks new tourism opportunities as it can now lay claim to having a distillery, multiple wineries, and several breweries all within its city limits.
When Steven started looking for a location to establish Ascendant, he didn’t intend for his neighbors to be a winery on one side and a brewery on the other. However, fate brought him to Industrial Way in Buelton and the benefits of Ascendant’s surroundings are apparent every day. First of all, because there was already an established liquor production facility on same street, the town was comfortable with alcohol production in the area. Second, because breweries and wineries need bottles and heavy equipment shipped to them, Ascendant has little trouble getting large trucks to its facility when deliveries are needed. Third, a community has been created among the three neighbors. Like a neighbor needing to borrow a cup of sugar, when the brewery’s forklift breaks, they can ask Ascendant for help. If Ascendant needs a pump, there’s someone nearby to help. If the winery has excess wine, there’s a distillery that can make it into brandy. In fact, there’s been a discussion with the city about creating a “passport” to bring more visitors to the area and ensure they visit each facility. Ascendant and its neighbors are showing what opportunity, and not hostility, can mean in real business terms.
Speaking of location, the distillers at Ascendant make an incredible selection of local spirits. To highlight the agricultural bounty surrounding them, they make citrus and strawberry vodkas using local produce. But, they don’t just use regular produce. To get the most unique flavor, their citrus vodka is a natural infusion of caviar limes. Caviar limes are not something that people can readily find in a market, let alone in a distilled spirit. Ascendant is lucky because one of the few American growers of this unique fruit is only about an hour away. The flavor and texture of the lime is so different from a standard lime that it separate’s itself immediately from other lime-infused spirits. The strawberries used in the strawberry vodka are locally sourced, since strawberries are abundant in the area. In addition, they never see the inside of a freezer. They are picked and taken immediately to the distillery, trimmed of their leafy tops, and put in for infusion. With time from field to spirit so tightly controlled, the strawberry flavor in the vodka is fresh and the resulting product tastes like strawberries and nothing else. These two products allow people who will never step foot on a central coast farm to taste produce picked at their its ripeness. Essentially, Ascendant is using flavored vodkas as global agricultural ambassadors.
Beyond their flavored vodkas, Ascendant also makes several variations of whiskey. Like its fruit vodkas, Ascendant’s whiskeys are designed to highlight their natural ingredients. Taking a sip of Ascendant’s Semper Fi white whiskey reveals the unique corn blend that goes into its mash. This spirit is made with red, white, and blue corn and highlights the subtle flavor differences of each. They also have a strawberry infused whiskey, using the same fresh strawberries as their vodkas. Suffice it to say, Ascendant is not hiding anything about their products. The distillers want you to taste the choices they made for every ingredient in every bottle.
There are so many more products that Ascendant bottles, is aging, or is developing. Steven’s ability to see a great opportunity to bring a distillery into an area without one would likely have brought a modicum of success. However, he’s doing more than just filling a niche, he’s integrating Ascendant Spirits into the community and exporting that community to the world. His vision is turning a small liquor brand into an economic engine for his town, a public glimpse into the hard work of local farmers, and a symbol for the gains that cooperation between competitors can deliver.
For more information on Ascendant Spirits visits its website at http://www.ascendantspirits.com/