OAKHURST — Rather than retiring, Ally and Mike Benbrook say they’ve decided to reinvent themselves.
That’s a good thing for the foothills and anyone who decides to stop into their new destination location, Oakhurst Spirits Distillery, Art Gallery and Gift Shop.
It’s easy to spend time at Oakhurst Spirits: take a tour of the distillery led by Navy-man Mike, hang out in the tasting room, peruse the fine art gallery lined with Ally’s stunning watercolors and that of other artists, then relax in the garden under shady trees.
The Grand Opening of Oakhurst Spirits Distillery was Saturday, July 1 at 40300 Greenwood Way, located above Highway 41 on the west side of the road. The business is geared toward the agro-tourism movement, says their promotion, “creating another reason for Yosemite visitors to stop and stay in Oakhurst.”
They offer free tours of the distillery, and guests are invited to purchase a tasting of six craft products, served in quarter-ounce pours. For the grand opening, the Benbrooks plan to have a rum, a vodka, and four whiskeys for sale.
The couple hails most recently from Southern California, where the long-time business owners verged on hanging up their hats to live the good, easy life. They’d been coming to Oakhurst on vacation for nearly 20 years.
Meanwhile, they’d fallen in with an organized band of whiskey-sippers, the San Diego Whiskey Enthusiasts. The group met regularly for presentations, invited brand ambassadors, and shared libations from around the world as members returned from travels, bottles in hand.
The more the Benbrooks participated, the more enthusiastic they became. Early in 2015, Mike became involved with the American Distilling Institute, the premiere US trade organization for craft distilling. He took classes, met other distillers, and soon the Benbrooks’ dreaming began to take on some very real properties in the form of quality you can pour.
As Mike puts it, all the stars aligned. Ultimately, they moved to Oakhurst last year, buying the historic old Capitol Pipe building redesigned by architect Patrice Jensen, and set about to create a distillery, plus.
The plan is to focus on bourbons and brandies, along with some vodka and rum.
Part of the Benbrooks’ operation is a mill where the grain they use is ground. It takes about 400 pounds of grain and 200 gallons of water to make 25 gallons of whiskey. They also mill rye, corn and barley, depending on what’s cooking.
When you walk into the quiet and roomy distillery, you may smell what seems like bread in the oven at first, but it’s a little different, perhaps slightly sour, yet pleasant. That’s the process of craft distilling wafting through the air.
Grain and water are mixed together in a kettle, then heated to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, for a couple of hours. Once cooled, the liquid is transferred into a fermentation tank and yeast is added: that’s where the magic happens. Mike explains that the alcohol is a by-product of bacterial yeast eating the sugar.
Yeast is a special delight, Mike says, a one-celled fungus wonder that enables two of humanity’s arguably all-time favorites: bread and booze.
Still, “it’s not about drinking,” their literature notes. “It’s about the experience of savoring the subtle flavors created in small-batch craft distilling. It’s about learning how this ancient craft uses locally sourced ingredients and returns waste products back to local farms.”
A symbiotic relationship with Oakhurst’s local brewery and winery is an example of many ways the Benbrooks have quickly integrated themselves into the community. Southgate Brew Co., for instance, has plans to use some of the distillery’s barrels for aging beer. The beer will pick up the flavor of the whiskey, then Mike gets the barrel back and makes whiskey with a wisp of beer flavor.
Similar ideas are in place for working with Idle Hour Winery. Even the slop that’s left over after the grain and water is converted into alcohol is used by local livestock owner Kandi Steir to feed her critters. No, the pigs don’t get drunk. I asked.
Speaking of pigs, if children are around, they are welcome to enter the facilities and, perhaps while their adults are otherwise engaged, may want to spend time counting Ally’s amazing collection of porcine decoratives. They are not real, but they are everywhere, to the delight of nearly anyone who has ever collected anything.
Back to the barrels. It takes about 14 days to make a clear whiskey, Mike says, then it goes in a barrel to start the aging process. A barrel of whiskey can age anywhere from three months for some flavor to six or 12 years for finer whiskeys.
About 80 percent of the flavor comes from the barrel, continues Mike. His beautiful barrels are made from American oak, with charred staves ideal for imparting a slightly vanilla essence to its contents. Part of the fun in the work is that it takes creativity to make flavors that are cool and tasty, the proprietor notes, and that come exclusively from Oakhurst Spirits.
Last year a new law went on the books that made it possible for craft distilleries that produce less than 100,000 gallons per year to have the same privileges and opportunities as their beer and wine brethren. Among other changes to laws that dated back to prohibition are distillery proprietors’ ability to sell directly to the consumer, hold private events, and give tours.
Seated at the one-of-a-kind bar made from locally harvested, beetle-ravaged pine that’s surprisingly beautiful, one may hear Mike tell the story of where the term “proof” comes from.
It started with the English, he’ll tell you, and involves being able to light alcohol on fire with just a little gun powder added. Also, you can ask him what a dephlegmator is. We’ll let Mike expound on those stories, except to add that Oakhurst Spirits’ spirits comes in at about 90 proof — the sweet spot as far as the bosses are concerned.
Now it’s time to talk about Ally Benbrook, the artist.
Her work in watercolor is the primary focus of the distillery-adjacent 1,000-square foot gift shop and gallery, where other artists are represented, as well. Ally’s work ranges from commissioned portraits of cats and dogs to landscapes, cities, barns and horses.
Among the most touching in her broad range of paintings are those of down-and-out people with their pets, perhaps a change of perspective for the average viewer. Don’t miss a stroll through the gallery even if distilling is not your thing. This is a place with something for everybody, no exaggeration.
As Oakhurst continues to build its reputation as a go-to place rather than a drive-through place, it’s nice to have Oakhurst Spirits. Whether it’s an original Ally Benbrook painting, print or card, a jaunty cap or sporty tee emblazoned with the Oakhurst Spirits name and logo, or a nice bottle with a shot glass on the side, being able to take home a real taste of town spirit is gratifying.
Claudia Chavez contributed photos to this story