Sporting a portfolio of spirits resonant of the Eastern Sierra, Shelter Distilling, the first distillery to open in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., launched in mid-December. The small-batch craft distillery and brewery is in the heart of the Village at Mammoth — just steps from the main square and the gondola leading to Canyon Lodge, the ski lodge nearby. So far, the operation counts three types of gin, rose-hips-infused white dog whiskey, vodka, apple brandy, blue agave spirit and an ongoing series of one-off beers to its name — and many more libations to come.
Spearheading the distillery's operations are a trio of owners who moved to Mammoth at the turn of the century to ride out their passion for snowboarding. Karl Anderson, who is originally from Northern California, and Jason Senior, from Pennsylvania, were in charge of the brewing process at Mammoth Brewing Co. Anderson, who was lead brewer, worked there for seven years; Senior, who was head brewer, worked there for 10. The third owner of Shelter, Matt Hammer, lived out a professional snowboarding career before retiring 10 years ago to open Black Velvet Coffee, the premier coffee roaster and coffee shop in town, with his wife, Gracie. Since then, they've added an upstairs wine bar to their sleek, minimalist space.
Anderson and Senior met Hammer over a few coffee beer collaborations, when they began exploring possible new projects together. "We had wanted to have a little side project distillery in the plan, which came about only because our wives wanted us to make gin," Anderson says.
Furnished with a grain mill, CARL copper still system from Stuttgart, Germany, mash tuns and more in-house, Shelter, a name chosen to be evocative of a refuge from the trials of life, is well positioned to take advantage of the plentiful foot traffic in the Village. It's also well timed.
"What sold us on the idea of doing spirits was the passage of AB-1295, the Craft Distillers Act in California," Anderson says. "It basically made being a distillery in California a viable business plan."
The act went into effect at the beginning of 2016, enabling customers to purchase up to 2.25 liters directly from small-craft distilleries (that is, those that produce less than 100,000 gallons per year), bypassing the previous requirement of buying spirits through a distributor or an onsite store operated by a separate party. This gave small distilleries the same selling capabilities only vintners and brewers had previously enjoyed.
"With Matt's business acumen and our brewing and fermentation talents, it seemed like an awesome new challenge," Anderson says. "So we started drinking spirits, a lot. Then we went to a distilling school."
As with their previous experiences in beverages, the three keep true to their ethos of creating local expressions in their spirits — profiles reflective of the High Sierra. With all three of their wives being avid gin drinkers, it's only natural they became muses for the three gins at Shelter, which are citrus-, botanical- or floral-forward. Local, handpicked pinyon pine as well as sage are pronounced notes in these spirits, coupled with gentian root, heather flowers and, of course, juniper berries of the Sierra. Shelter's apple brandy is made with apples from Apple Hill Ranch in nearby Bishop, and rose hips are picked creekside and infused into white dog whiskey. All water is sourced from snowmelt from nearby Lake Mary.
Beer and cider are in Shelter's portfolio, but without the pressure of consistency that comes with the name recognition that Anderson and Senior were responsible for at Mammoth Brewing. Currently, they count a lavender wit, an East Coast IPA, Black Velvet Coffee cream ale and blackberry cider among their offerings. You can get a flight of all four or take them home in growlers. And there's more incentive to do just that.
"Once we're done with a beer or cider, it'll be gone. We can just let it go," Anderson says. The team is also working on a vermouth.
The focal point of Shelter Distilling is its wide, expansive bar space — none of which is wasted. One side is used to conduct spirit tastings, the other length of the bar is used to serve craft cocktails, as in accordance with the Assembly bill, which now allows spirit samples to be served as an ingredient in a cocktail. Bitters used in these drinks are made in-house by Anderson's wife, Heather. A short food menu consisting of patatas bravas, sausage pizza, poke tostada and blackened shrimp tacos is available.
Shelter Distilling is just one outcome of California's recent leveling of the playing field for craft distillers. In their first two months of operation, Shelter has sold more than 200 cases (or 2,500 bottles) of spirits, equaling 10 batches, with the most popular seller being Whiskey Rose. Shelter also has sold more than 4,000 liters of beer and 1,500 liters of cider.
More craft distillers in the vicinity are following closely. Owens Valley Distilling, owned by husband-and-wife team Dave and Brittany Holman and another Mammoth Brewing alumnus, Adam Floyd, opened in Bishop, a town southeast of Mammoth Lakes, on Jan. 5. On the eastern end of Mammoth Lakes, the Mendel family will be opening its tasting room at Devils Creek Distillery to the public in May. They've begun barrel-aging their whiskey as well as producing a light rum.
Distilling is infusing new vitality into the area, which is heavily reliant on tourism. It also allows visitors to carry a bit of Mammoth home. After a tasting, cocktail and/or pint at Shelter Distilling, you can take away a bottle or growler, so that no matter where you are, you can taste the Sierra mountains.
100 Canyon Blvd., Suite 217, Mammoth Lakes, shelterdistilling.com