Put down the cotton candy vodka, the pink lemonade rum and the coconut tequila. If you want a liquor that actually tastes like a spicy stick of cinnamon, a vodka that resembles a crisp cucumber or a brandy that tastes of the wine it was made from, look to Paso Robles.
We know what you're probably thinking: That mostly agricultural region in Central California is known for wine and antique shopping. But there's a growing number of distilleries in the area, and they're making some of the best artisanal spirits in the state. There are currently eight distilleries in Paso Robles operating out of existing wineries, making brandy, vodka, gin and other spirits. And most are using saignée — the free-run juice discarded when making wine — to do it. Here are six you should be drinking now.
Highspire rye whiskey: This rye whiskey is made in Kentucky by Paso Robles winemaker Austin Hope of Hope Family Wines. Hope uses his California wine barrels to age his rye whiskey — made with 5% malted rye and 95% unmalted rye — for 120 days. In whiskey terms, this isn't a lot of time. Turns out, it's just the right amount. You can smell the grain, almost like baked bread on the nose. It's toasty, a little fruity from the wine barrels, but soft and not too overwhelmingly woody. And it sips like smooth, silky caramel. Drink it with one ice cube, on a comfy lounge chair, by a fire. Where to find it: At Bevmo.com, $45.99.
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Krobar brandy: Stephen Kroener and Joe Barton are using grapes from their wineries, Silver Horse and Barton Family wines, to make their own brandy, vermouth, lillet and bitters. It's all good, but if you want to get a real taste of what they're making, try the brandy, which is used as the base for most of their products. It has an incredible, full mouthfeel, with some real weight to it. You'll want to sip this one slowly to really get all the nuances of flavor, with a fruit forward start and a rich nuttiness on the back palate. Drink it on ice, or use it in place of gin or vodka in a Vespa. Where to find it: For prices and availability, contact Krobar Distillery at (805) 467-9463, www.krobardistillery.com.
Pendray's brandy: Distillery owners Steve and Lola Glossner are using 100% Viognier grapes to make their brandy in a 500-liter German pot still from Holstein named Ethyl (yes, they named their still). The brandy is aged in port barrels for at least 12 months, giving the spirit its pale, golden color. The end result is like cognac but less sweet, with hints of vanilla and a smooth, dry finish. Sip this brandy on its own, at room temperature, or on ice. Where to find it: At the PasoPort tasting room in Templeton and online at www.pasoportwine.com/online-store/spirits, $40.
Re:Find cucumber vodka: It's a spa weekend in a glass. No, really, the cucumber flavor is so forward it's like you're smelling a cucumber, getting a massage and sipping a cocktail all at once. To get that intense cucumber flavor, owners Alex and Monica Villicana juice whole, locally grown cucumbers, then mix the juice with the brandy, made with grapes from their winery. Drink it on its own, over ice (we know, dangerous) or mixed with a little club soda. Re:Find also makes a killer, botanical-heavy gin and a limoncello made with Sorrento lemons. Where to find it: At the Villicana winery , $26 or Whole Foods Market in Venice, $35.99 for the cucumber vodka. Full list of locations is available at www.refinddistillery.com/find.
Red Soles Stillhouse cinnamon hooch: This puts a certain cinnamon-flavored whiskey to shame. You know, the one that tastes like artificial cinnamon candy, often found at college bars. (Just think of that scene in last season's "Game of Thrones." "Shame, shame, shame.") Soles' version is made with unaged brandy, distilled a second time with cinnamon sticks in the still. Then more cinnamon sticks are soaked in the brandy. It's spicy but tastes like warm cinnamon apple pie during the holidays. Drink it by itself or use it in your holiday apple pie filling. You could definitely take shots, but you'll want to savor this for the flavor. Where to find it: At the Red Soles tasting room and online at www.redsoleswinery.com/shop, $29.
Wine Shine oaked brandy: Co-owner and distiller Patrick Brooks is infusing his brandy with all kinds of locally grown fruit, but his claim to fame is the oaked brandy. It's made with saignée from a couple of different wineries and aged in 50% French oak and 50% American new oak barrels, giving it the aroma and taste of honey, caramel and toffee. This stuff has a rounder mouthfeel than the neutral brandy and drinks like a fine whiskey, with hints of vanilla. Drink this brandy as you would your favorite rye whiskey. Wine Shine is also making a must-try mango ginger black peppercorn brandy and a bitter orange peel brandy. Where to find it: All of the brandy flavors are available at the Wine Shine tasting room in Paso Robles. Call or visit www.wineshineinc.com for pricing.