Darjeeling Gin, which is produced by boutique distillery California Distilled Spirits in Auburn, proved that it can hold its own against even the poshest liquor brands when it won best of show at the most recent World Spirits Competition.
The announcement was a welcome surprise to Ed Arnold, who founded the distillery in 2014. “It was a great feeling, particularly for someone who’s brand new,” says Arnold. “Having outside validation—I realize that’s not what’s supposed to be important, but it certainly does help one’s confidence.”
Arnold got the itch to make spirits three decades ago after attending a single malt Scotch tasting put on by grocer and gastronome Darrell Corti. Arnold was as wowed by the range of flavor, taste, aroma, look and feel of the Scotches as he was by Corti’s tasting acumen. “He’s a genius in terms of identifying what the heck’s going on with the flavors of a spirit,” says Arnold. “It really spurred me to taste things differently.”
The experience led Arnold to study up on the distillation and aging process. Distilling is hardly an easy-entry industry, however. Unlike wine or beer, it’s illegal to make liquor anywhere but a licensed distillery. “It was very difficult to gain practical experience,” he says. “A lot of people who start a microbrewery start by brewing beer at home, but you can’t do that with distilling.” Eventually, Arnold took a leap of faith, investing in a distillery operation and testing out recipes.
Gin’s defining ingredient is juniper; the rest is a matter of artistic license and personal taste. At the heart of Arnold’s winning recipe is the gin’s eponymous ingredient. “Just a little bit of Darjeeling tea creates a really nice bass note that softens the alcohol and rounds off the flavors,” says Arnold.
Three decades after that fateful Scotch tasting, Arnold took Corti a sample from his first official batch of gin. “He liked it, and that’s what really got the ball rolling,” Arnold says with obvious pride. “That was my first sale, and he has stocked it ever since.”
There is no tasting room at California Distilled Spirits; by law, distilleries cannot sell directly to consumers, although there are efforts to change that. In the meantime, gin aficionados can find Darjeeling Gin at Corti Brothers, Taylor’s Market, Save Mart and Nugget Markets.
Arnold jokes that he’s “not challenging Bacardi for global liquor domination.” Nevertheless, he has ambitious plans for the distillery, including a whiskey that’s aging in barrels and will be ready for bottling in a year or two.
Whatever the future brings, Arnold wants his spirits to succeed on the merits of flavor. “The local angle is fantastic. This is as local as you can get. But that’s not the reason to drink it,” he says. “It’s the taste and the quality of the product that are key. It has to be deserving. I’d like to think that it doesn’t matter where this was made: People should still like it.”