Ken Andrus, owner of In Distill of the Night, holds a bottle of Velvet Night before the oak barrels that will hold his product for two years before they are ready to drink. Photo contributed.
Written by Edward Smith
A local distiller endeavoring to make a product to rival French Cognac is finding an established home in a new tasting room in Atwater.
Ken Andrus of Fresno, owner of In Distill of the Night, will be serving Velvet Night Brandy alongside other liquors being offered at tasting room Sweet Potato Spirits when Atwater-based D & S Farms opens the location in October.
The tasting room will feature gin, potato vodka, rye whiskey and brandy where servers can spend time explaining each of the different flavor profiles before them.
“We’re talking about people enjoying an experience and more true spirit-tasting instead of slamming a glass of wine down,” Andrus said. “You’ll be able to see the different character of the spirits and why they have those characteristics.”
Andrus started distilling American Brandy commercially six years ago, sourcing grapes from Paso Robles to Lodi.
Rather than using grapes directly, brandy and cognac begin with un-aged wine that is double distilled.
He liked the idea of distilling brandy because of the proximity to the ingredients in the Central Valley.
Being labelled an American Brandy, as opposed to a cognac-style, means he has more freedom in selecting flavor. In order to be called cognac-style, it has to be made from a list of eight grape varieties. For cognac distillers, developing a unique flavor is more derived from the wood used to barrel the drink than the grape used to make it, according to Andrus. But the brandy labeling allows a broader choice of grape.
The product Andrus is making, Velvet Night, has won bronze and silver awards at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2016 and 2017, respectively. It was also awarded an 87-rating from Wine Enthusiast magazine.
Before the tasting room, Andrus had been handling all of his own distribution and sales. Velvet Night appears in nearly 37 restaurants in the area, including Cracked Pepper Bistro, Hino Oishi and FIVE Restaurant, among others. It is also available on shelves at Fig Tree Liquor, Frank’s Liquor and Total Wine, where he tried monthly tastings until he had surgery and treatment for throat cancer. He’ll go back as soon as his voice returns.
As it stands, customers cannot sample liquor like they would beer or wine, hence the “dry” tasting. People selling their spirits were limited to describing the flavor. But, proposed legislation might allow spirits, beer and wine to be tasted in the same area, allowing Velvet Night to be sampled at places like Total Wine. Assembly Bills 1890 and 1891 relax many of the rules regarding liquor tastings.
“This allows craft distillers to offer consumers the same opportunities for tastings that craft beer and wine manufacturers currently are able to provide,” said Assemblymember Marc Levine (D-10, San Rafael), who proposed the legislation. “This gives the artisanal craft distilling industry more opportunities to showcase their products and increase their exposure to consumers.”