Dave Classick is certainly not the first tech veteran to leave the industry in search of a vocation that could survive the ups and downs of Silicon Valley’s economic cycles, but he was probably the first to leave to take up the art of distilling spirits. And if the current cocktail and artisan beverage movements are any indicators, Classick will likely be remembered as a pioneer in the resurgence of craft distilling.
A lifelong cook and baker, Dave grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., where his grandmother and father taught him to bake and make a variety of candies, from fudge to peanut brittle and divinity. At 18, Dave was sent to Vietnam as an infantryman. One year later, he returned to the States, as a highly decorated veteran earning a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Gallantry Cross, at only 19. Because he was still underage when he was discharged, he was sent home to live with his parents, who had moved to Santa Barbara, while he was away.
“They picked me up out of the jungle and dropped me off in Santa Barbara,” he said. “Welcome home!”
While living in Santa Barbara, he entered college and later transferred to the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he met his wife, Andrea. He was a founding member of the school’s environmental college, College Eight, earning a degree in environmental science. After finishing school, Dave moved to Mendocino Country, where he worked as a logger, “until a chainsaw took off part of my knee,” and then as a coastal planner for the county. When he and his wife decided to get married, they moved to Silicon Valley in search of more work, eventually finding themselves in the semiconductor industry. As software began to take off, Dave taught himself how to code and got a job at HP, where he stayed for 20 years.
The longer Dave was in tech, the more disturbed he became by the trend of constant corporate downsizing, something both he and his wife experienced a number of times. Growing tired of feeling like their livelihoods were always at risk, the couple began to long for something that seemed more economically viable and recession proof.
“We decided that if our livelihoods’ going to be at risk for bad business decisions, well, we can make as bad a business decision as anybody—may as well be at risk for your own business decision, rather than somebody else’s, right?” Dave said.
With an eye toward making something of their own, Dave and Andrea started attending small business fairs and began looking at all sorts of options for starting a small business—from running a sandwich shop or button manufacturing to Freon recycling and ATM machines. But none of them quite had the allure they were looking for.
Despite having left Mendocino Country years before, the family had maintained vacation property in the area. While spending some time in Mendocino, Dave stopped into the local grocery store and picked up a bottle of Alambic Brandy. A cognac lover since college, Dave learned from the grocer that the brandy had been made by a local distiller in Ukiah, Hubert Germain-Robin. When Dave opened the bottle and tried it, he says he was “astounded” by the depth of flavors he experienced, rich with hints of vanilla and butterscotch, and the smooth palate it possessed.
Soon afterward, Dave and Andrea decided to make a trip to the Germain-Robin distillery in Ukiah. There they met Hubert, a seventh generation distiller from France, and one of the only small distillers in the Western U.S. At the time, Dave said, there were only six small distilleries from Colorado to Washington. Speaking to Germain-Robin, Dave was fascinated by the distilling process and the legacy the Germain-Robin family had built over 200 years.
Later that year, the family decided to take a trip to France, in part to introduce their two children to international travel. While in France, the Classicks met a family in Toulouse that ran a small bar, with the husband making Muscat and the wife running the bar. “Wow, what a great lifestyle,” they thought. That same evening, at dinner, the friends they were staying with had invited a man over for dinner who was a member of the local chamber of commerce. He happened to bring a brochure with him that advertised a third generation local craftsman whose family had been producing copper stills for more than 100 years.
Having spent a fair amount of time in Europe, Dave and Andrea knew that many different regions each had their own distillers who made regional spirits.
“We thought about it and thought, coffee roastisseries are happening and microbrewies are happening—this was about 1996—but no micro distillery. We live in one of the greatest fruit and wine producing regions in the world…we knew that this tertiary industry did not exist here, and thought ‘why not?’ We’ll start our own distillery,” he said.
With Dave’s cooking skills, he thought that distilling would be something he could do. So he made arrangements with a distiller in Geneva to come work for him and learn the distilling process. “I found I just loved it, so we made an agreement to purchase one of the stills” from the craftsman featured in the brochure, Dave said. To his knowledge, Dave believes Essential Spirits has the only one of those copper stills throughout North and South America.
Dave’s original idea for their distillery was to try to open a storefront on Castro Street in Mountain View, Calif.. It was the dot-com era, and the thought of a distill-pub, much like a brew pub, seemed like something that might appeal to the tech crowd. Zoning regulations put a stop to that idea, in part due to the high flammability of spirits. Instead they sought out a warehouse where they could make their distillery. After two years of permitting, while still working full-time, they ordered the custom copper still from France and began distilling.
Unlike making beer or wine, which are both fairly easy to learn or can be learned through taking classes, the distilling process is one that only other distillers know how to do.
“You can’t get a degree in distilling,” Dave says. “Basically it’s like a craft guild, you have to be taught by someone who knows—everything else is self-taught.”
Distilling is a fascinating process. First, a fermented liquid containing alcohol is put into the still and brought up to a boil. Because alcohol boils at 173°F, it begins to vaporize in the still before the water in the liquid boils (at 212°F). That vapor is then captured and run through a line or pipe into a condenser containing a cold water bath. When cooled, the alcohol turns back into a liquid from the vapor, thus producing the spirit. The alcohol content can be controlled based on the temperature of the still and by measuring the alcohol content of what’s coming out of the still and tasting throughout the process. According to Dave, you don’t usually ever want to keep the very first liquid (the “head”) or very last liquid (the “tail”) from the still—it both tastes bad and tends to be bad for you. Rather, you want the “heart” of the batch, which is produced in the middle of the process.
The Classicks use what Dave calls a “pot still” or an “alambic” in French. Dave says that most of the world’s high-end spirits are made in copper stills because they produce a more refined product.
“It’s a complex chemical, mechanical and electrochemical process,” Dave says.
The Classick’s first product was a Bierschnaps—a Bavarian style liquor distilled from beer. The idea came from a master brewer at a local brewery who suggested they distill beer instead of taking the time to ferment grain to make vodka. After giving it some thought, Dave decided that Bierschnaps might be a good way for them to piggyback on the microbrewing craze by offering schnaps made from their beer to microbrewers as a companion product to their beers. They started going to beer festivals and began making Bierschnaps from Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
From there, the business began to branch out opportunistically, with each new product growing out of the need to create something that would appeal to a more mainstream audience. Because Dave’s wife is full-blooded Sicilian, the next product was grappa, which they started making from the grape skins leftover from wine making that they source from wineries in Napa, Sonoma and around Paso Robles. Dave calls the grappa their “Rumpelstitskin” product because they take the skins and “turn them into gold.” These are also sold at the wineries from which the Classicks source the grape skins.
“But grappa is a seasonable thing. It’s becoming more fashionable, but it’s still a seasonal thing, so we decided we needed to go out and create another mainstream product,” Dave said.
Having been to Hawaii a number of times, Dave remembered all the sugar cane produced in the islands. But even though Hawaii produced a lot of sugar, unlike Cuba or other sugar-rich islands in the Caribbean, Hawaii did not produce rum. According to Dave, the reason Hawaii never got into the rum making business was because of its history of being settled by missionaries. The missionaries, of course, frowned upon the “demon rum” so they made a deal with the Queen to forbid her subjects from ever making rum. So Dave decided to start buying molasses from the islands to produce a Hawaiian rum. According to Dave, 95 percent of the world’s rum is made from molasses. Rum agricole, on the other hand, is made from cane juice.
Thus Sgt. Classick’s rum, which has won numerous awards including a Good Food Award, 93 points from the Beverage Testing Institute and a unanimous double gold medal from the World Spirits Competition, was born. Sgt. Classick’s is currently available in both Gold and Silver varieties.
“It was named after me. Sailor Jerry’s and Captain Morgan were already taken,” Dave said.
In addition to their rum, grappa and Bierschnaps, Essential Spirits—named for the essence they leave on the palate and because the Classicks believe spirits are an essential part of life—also makes brandies and does some distilling of vodka and gin for a number of private labels. Many of their private label spirits have also won awards. They are also beginning to age some of their spirits, using oak bourbon barrels. There are plans to release an aged, or añejo, rum called Sergeant Classick’s Old Vet soon. Essential Spirits products are available primarily in California right now. They’d like to find a distribution partner that can help them better expand their presence and recognition in more regions throughout the country.
Dave feels that what he’s building is something that his family can have as a means of livelihood for the long haul. “What were about here, what we’re doing is creating a distilling family dynasty. That’s the intent of Essential Spirits is to create an activity that we can invest in for the long term, then return that investment,” he said.
Unlike in the technology industry where your skills or the technology you’re using are constantly becoming outmoded, distilling is a craft that can be passed down through his family for generations, Dave says. His son, Dave Jr., currently works for the business, and his daughter also has worked for the business, but is currently working as a nurse.
“Distilling is something that is pure physics—it’s been being done the same way for over 2000 years. It’s basic physics—they’re not going to invent a new way of distilling—period. Or at least not in my lifetime anyway, so there’s no technological displacement. Secondly, it’s a product for which there’s a constant growing demand. And frankly, there’s no substitute product. You can’t give people orange juice or water or coconut milk or whatever, they want spirits. So the combination of no technological displacement and no substitute product and constant growing demand all told me that this was an area where we could invest in as a business and would provide a means and livelihood for our kids and their kids for generations. Ketel One Vodka’s been being distilled on the same still for over 200 years. I look forward to the day that my grandchildren are learning to distill on this still.”
What drew you to distilling spirits?
I needed a new avocation and wanted one that was worthy of investing in over the long term and where I’d be able to create a means of livelihood for not only myself but my family going down through the generations.
Rum is our flagship product, and the reason is it’s a mainstream product. Unlike some of the things we do, like the grappas or the Bierschnaps, which are more niche products, rum is a mainstream product. It’s like number three behind vodka and tequila in terms of growth, though whiskeys are gaining. We needed something that was in the mainstream. And when people go to the store, they go with a categorical need—I need more rum, I need more gin, I need more vodka—then when they get there, they decide which brand they’re going to buy. So we wanted to be able to have a presence in that arena. Besides, there hadn’t been any Hawaiian rum before.
Where does your inspiration come from?
It depends. With the pear brandy, we saw an article in the Chronicle about these piles of pears that were on the ground up in Napa and Sonoma because they couldn’t get enough pickers in to pick them. And we just couldn’t bear to see that raw material go to waste, so we went up and talked them into getting us a truckload of them so we could come down and make them into pear brandy and they were happy to do that. Sometimes its opportunistic, in other ways, like the rum, it was more strategic thinking—that there was this category of rum that nobody else was addressing and that was Hawaiian rum. Sammy Hagar sold his Cabo Wabo brand [of tequila] for about $60 million. Now I hear he’s on Maui working on a Hawaiian rum, which is fine with me.
So again, it was opportunistic in the sense that no one else was doing it at the time and it was in the mainstream, so the combination of the two argued that this is something that we could go in and compete with.
Bring your wallet! It’s like the wine industry–they say a good way to make a million dollars with a winery is to start with $2 million!
It takes time, it takes deep pockets and it takes an absolute devotion to the art and craft of distilling. You have to be prepared to spend long, hard hours. And they say that a good distiller saves his best for his customers and drinks all his mistakes.
It takes patience and time to grow your expertise because there’s no schools that you can go to get a professional degree or, there’s very few avenues for professional certification. If you want to go out and become a hairdresser or barber or something, there are licensing boards, schools you can go to. There are no schools like that for distilling and no licensing boards. I’m a Master Distiller by virtue of the fact that I own this distillery, I established it. I don’t mistake that for the mastery of something like Hubert Germain-Robin, who is a seventh generation distiller. Seven generations is a huge amount of subsumed knowledge. So my son had the advantage of whatever education I was able to bring to it. My son and daughter’s children will have the advantage of two generations of distillers to advise them what works and what doesn’t.
And it pays to be a quick study. I became a self-taught computer scientist, but when I started those were the days in which programming—if you could program, you could program. You could go get a job programming. There weren’t any software engineering degrees or anything like that. Now it’s developed into a science, and you need a degree in these things before you can get a gig. [This is] one of the few businesses you can start out and grow your own expertise without the interference of some self-appointed, arbitrary board of overseers.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
Distribution. Success in distribution. They have an absolute choke hold on the access to market by law. There’s very few other products that are that way.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
Where do I start?!?
[Son Dave, Jr. pipes in]: You get to work with me.
[Dave, Sr.]: I get to work with my son, and it’s not like Monster Garage—on most days [laughs].
We’re doing something that has a long-term viability. We can afford to invest our time and effort into it knowing that we won’t be technologically outmoded. There’s no substitute product, there’s constant demand.
[Dave, Jr.]: All the hard work goes to the family so all the sweat equity stays here.
[Dave, Sr.]: In France they have a saying, the grandfather starts it, the father grows and the grandson profits from it. It keeps threatening to be wildly profitable!
Oh, yeah! Actually, it’s hard. It depends on the time of year. I like the pear brandy and the Bierschnaps during the winter. I tend to drink the rum more during the summer. The grappa is more occasional for me. Dave is fond of the grappa more than I am.
[Dave, Jr.]: I drink grappa after every large meal.
[Dave, Sr.]: As a digestive, you know. It really depends on the time of year. My favorite way to have the Bierschnaps is during the winter, I’ll pour myself a cup of Earl Grey tea with real cream and sugar and a glass of Bierschaps, and you take a shot of the Bierschnaps and chase it with the tea. And it just goes down and has this lovely warming effect.
Are there other artisan spirit makers you admire and why?
Hubert Germain-Robin is certainly on that list. Apart from that, no.
[Dave, Jr.]: Well, Davrin’s making one of the best absinthes I’ve had. He’s using his old world Croatian recipe.
[Dave, Sr.]: But I don’t like absinthe.
[Dave, Jr]: Well…
[Dave, Sr.]: [Laughs] Well, the folks at Jameson that are making Midleton Irish Whiskey…
[Dave, Jr.]: But those aren’t craft distillers…
[Dave, Sr.]: Yeah, probably not.
[Dave, Jr.]: The main thing is there’s actually more to talk to now. When we started, there was only six distilleries in the western region of the United States, so there wasn’t a whole lot of camaraderie, there wasn’t a whole lot of anybody else doing what you were doing. And now it’s over 33 in California alone. So, the same thing happened in micro brewing. The doors opened and then everybody gets to try their hand at it, and the ones that don’t make it, fall away and the ones that do make it set the foundation.
[Dave, Sr.]: Struggle to survive and build an industry…
[Dave, Jr.]: And the rest of the people grow on their backs. Now there’s the Distillers Guild, the Distilling.com, American Distilling Institute, which has web forms where you say, ‘hey, I’m having a problem with this, does anybody do this?’ and people that are willing to help, will share their experience and knowledge and that lifts everybody up. You know, folks that are starting out now certainly have it a lot easier than when we started.
[Dave, Sr.]: There’s more equipment, more knowledge…
[Dave, Jr.]: The vendors are more willing to work with us.
[Dave, Sr.]: But any distiller that is devoted to his craft and invests his time and effort into the quality of the spirits they produce has my respect at least. Not necessarily for their results, but for their efforts. Because quite frankly we tend to feel that our spirits are a cut above most of them. I find very few that can compete with the quality we produce.
[Dave, Jr.]: And we’ve been around longer.
[Dave, Sr.]: When we started out Jorg Rupf of Hangar 1 and Hubert Germain-Robin were probably the best distillers in the business. Jorg’s retired now, Hubert’s retired. Within five to eight years, I’ll retire and hand things over to Dave, but we’ve still got a number of things we’re going to accomplish before then.
If you had to choose your last bottle of rum or spirits, what would it be?
Oh, boy, that’d be hard. I think Sergeant Classick’s Old Vet might be it. The añejo rum—soon to be released—it’s just mother’s milk.
Favorite Bay Area resto or food to pair your spirits with?
I’d ask Dave that question—I’ve done all the cooking for the family for years, so I can get a better meal at home than I can usually get out. My favorite restaurant of all is the Akane Japanese restaurant over in Los Altos. Best Japanese restaurant ever. But they are typically serving sake rather than any distilled spirits.
[Dave, Jr.]: The problem with pairing spirits is that you can do it with desserts, but sipping a straight alcohol while eating a meal is pretty overwhelming.
[Dave, Sr.]: It’s usually before or after. I mean a martini before dinner or an Eau de vie afterwards or maybe cleansing your palate between courses. The grappa or pear is good for that. The pear goes awfully well with dessert or cheese and chocolate.
[Dave, Jr.]: They also make good ingredients. The rum for example, we use in several recipes. The pear brandy, you can do flambé, or in desserts in addition to pairing with cakes.
[Dave, Sr.]: The family has a pineapple upside down cake recipe where I substitute Bosc pear for the pineapple and make a pear upside down cake, and then warm from the oven, you splash some of this pear brandy over it, it’s killer.