“If I wanted to ferment something, how much of my process could I do here?” I asked Adam Nelson, part-owner of Two Mile Wines and founder of its sister company, incubator-distillery Oakland Spirits Company (OsCo). I recounted to Nelson how I attempted to make cider this past summer using the fruit from my plum tree. The result was less than satisfying. I like to make things for myself, but sometimes I need a little help.
“You could do all of it,” said Nelson.
“Could I order bottles and make labels and everything?”
“Yeah. I could help you order bottles and make labels and get label approval. And you could ferment here, unless you have some specialized process that we can’t handle.”
“I could just come in?”
“Well, you should call first,” Nelson chuckled as both of us imagine what might happen if the distillery had an open-door policy with all of Oakland. “I’ve always encouraged my investors to come in and do a project. Come up with something that you’re passionate about and we’ll help you do it.”
It’s not the sort of offer you usually hear from someone in the world of spirits, an industry in which secret recipes and undisclosed methods abound. Then again, Nelson isn’t your typical distiller. The technology consultant turned entrepreneur believes in the power of open-source learning and collaboration. So when he decided to get into distillation and spirits, he wanted to create an opportunity for others as well as himself. Through his connections and experience in wine distribution, Nelson has met plenty of people who are interested in distillation.
“That’s really what they’re passionate about, but they don’t know how to get into it,” he said. “We give them the opportunity.”
Most of the makers who will walk through the doors of OsCo will know more than I do about the products they want to make and the methodology behind them, but they wouldn’t necessarily have to. The distillery, which we last covered this spring, will start selling its products in January.
It is a training ground for the curious. In addition to producing its own line of gin, vodka, amaro and brandy, the distillery will also host home-distillers who need a space in which to create or who want to collaborate on special projects. Nelson already has a cidery, a winery and a second distillery on his docket, with a few additional small producers waiting in the wings.
Beyond assisting and instructing other distillers, Nelson also wants to use the distillery to educate the community. “The plan is to have this be a community resource of sorts,” he said.
Nelson hopes to offer educational and informational tours that focus on more on distillation process and science than on the spirits themselves. “How to get there I haven’t quite wrapped my brain around,” he said. “We very much want people to experience the making, so we will be open and there will be tours, but there are some regulatory issues around that.”
One of the first things that future patrons will discover is that OsCo products are crafted in and for the local community, using ingredients that are native to the area. “I think craft has to do with the ability for a community and a small food ecosystem to make things,” said Nelson. “We work with a complicated set of ingredients to produce something for ourselves that has experience and skill behind it.”
That experience isn’t just on the spirits end either. In the six years since Two Mile Wines moved into the 25th Street Collective — a collaborative co-working space for various makers in Uptown Oakland — Nelson has formed valuable connections with local food establishments, including Oaktown Spice Shop and Forage Kitchen, a new co-working kitchen that will be opening across the street next year. Those relationships will have a big influence on the products that come from OsCo.
“Each [relationship] is structured differently, but all of them start with basis of friendship and community,” said Nelson, who has known Iso Rabins, the owner of Forage Kitchen, for over eight years. “There’s a lot of trust in that relationship. We really just want to grow one another.”
Nelson plans on partnering with Forage Kitchen for First Fridays and other events in which they’ll pair food and spirits for a tasting experience. “We’re still working out the details, but that’s the plan,” said Nelson. “We’ll produce a one-off spirit that lasts for maybe a month and give their cooks the opportunity to build a bite around that spirit.”
OsCo will also work with Forage Kitchen to maximize shared resources, including foraged ingredients. “There [will be] all sorts of waste that their kitchen produces that is fermentable and delicious,” said Nelson, who is currently brainstorming ways to use those elements.
If Nelson’s aspirations sound a little ambitious, that’s because they are. However, this collaborative approach seems to fuel the distillations he creates. “For most of my inspiration, I go to Oaktown Spice Shop and I just walk around,” he said. “It just fills your whole spirit.”
Nelson tries not to steep himself too deeply in other companies’ spirits. “You don’t want too much exposure,” he said. “It’s like trying to write a song after you’ve heard the same song over and over and over. You tend to copy. Approaching it with a little curiosity and a little bit of myself is the most important thing I do, actually.”
That curiosity is what led Nelson to producing one of his proudest products — a briny Sea Gin made with nori, coastal bay and coastal sage. “Everyone thought I was crazy,” he said. “But I really like umami flavors. I don’t want to be intentionally alternative, but throwing some different kinds of flavors into a gin or brandy is just fun. I don’t want to challenge anyone’s palate too much, but there are ingredients that are very complimentary to food and to the other flavors in gin that are just totally underutilized.”
In keeping with Nelson’s locally-sourced model, all of his nori is hand-foraged and sun-dried by Sully Farms in in Mendicino. “They care so much about their product and harvesting it in a sustainable way,” he said. “They’re fantastic.”
Every week Sully Farms harvests five pounds of nori for OsCo. “Who’s going to buy that volume of nori at a farmer’s market?” said Nelson. “That feels good. We just trust each other.”
In addition to the Sea Gin, OsCo will also be releasing an aromatic, citrusy gin that’s currently coded “Gin No. 5.”
Nelson calls it a Sunday gin. “It’s the kind of gin you’d have playing cards with friends on a Sunday afternoon,” he said. “And it’s amazing with tonic.”
There will also be a sage-based winter gin, a lemongrass brandy and a dry gin that will launch two weeks after the others. Additionally, Nelson is working on a high-proof brandy at the request of local bartenders who want to use a grape-based spirit for making bitters and infusions behind the bar. The final spirit? A California amaro made with local foraged ingredients.
“I’m kind of obsessed with amaro,” said Nelson. “I have a list of 30 different things that grow in California and the season that they grow in and where they grow. You can’t get them commercially, so if anyone brings me any of these things I’ll buy them.”
After sitting in the back room of OsCo’s distillery, I could tell there is still some work to be done on the space. Nelson assured me that it will happen sooner than I think. “The front room will be cozy with a tent-like top and canvas false ceiling,” he said. He compared it to the set of a Wes Anderson movie, an appropriate comparison — the distillery is being built by set designers.
“It wasn’t really a contractor job,” said Nelson. “It was more of a set design job, and it won’t take long since they’re used to building things very quickly for sets.”
The back of the distillery will remain an industrial working space, with an indoor-outdoor contrast going on between the front and back. The full concept and front room won’t be finished until early next spring, but OsCo will start pouring and selling at the neighboring Two Mile tasting room (477 25th St.) once their label passes.
Oakland Spirits Company is at 489 25th St., Oakland.