Therese Agnew, 31, co-founder of Berkeley-based boutique spirits brand Mosswood Distillers first developed an interest and taste for whiskey in college.
“I love how big of a span the category is,” she said. “There’s so much history and culture in every glass.”
As an art major at the University of San Francisco, Agnew had a professor who “utilized biology as his art form,” and taught her the art of distilling. “It wasn’t part of the curriculum,” she joked.
Around this time she met Jake Chevedden, now 35. While working at D&M Wines and Liquors in San Francisco, Chevedden had lots of spare time, since the store, which specializes in champagnes and brandies, stays open until midnight. Which gave him lots of time to read.
“After college, I worked in different aspects of the food industry, on a farm, in distribution, in a grocery store. Finally, I came around to spirits and I wanted to learn more about winemaking and spirit production,” he said.
During those late nights, when business was slow, he studied. “I immersed myself in learning everything I could about making and tasting wine and spirits,” he said.
So by the time he bought a five-gallon still to try and make his own, he felt ready to take on the challenge. He invited Agnew over to help.
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” she told him.
In the beverage industry, which is very much still a man’s domain (“Usually, he gets all the questions, people talk right over me, but that’s definitely changing,” Agnew said), many men could take umbrage at this, but Chevedden was smart not to. By letting Agnew teach him what she knew, he gained not only a business partner but eventually, a wife, too.
“I have an advanced olfactory system,” said Agnew, “with a very sensitive nose and palate. While everything is a mutual decision, I do a lot of our blending, and it’s one of my creative releases, given my background in art.” She designed the labels as well.
“[We] spent the next five years figuring out the different flavors we liked and the process of distillation,” said Chevedden, “and what kinds of flavors transfer from pure mash to a finished spirit, and what flavors appear in fermentation. We tinkered for a long time until I had the thought about starting a spirits company.” They got their license in 2012.
At that time, they lived near Mosswood Park in Oakland, which is where they came up with the company name.
“A lot of American whiskey companies are named after people, and we wanted to draw upon the Scottish tradition of naming it after a place, so we could remind ourselves that the goal was for it to taste of a place,” explained Chevedden. Given Mosswood uses barrels from local producers (including San Leandro’s Drake’s Brewing Co., Berkeley’s Rare Barrel Sour Beer Company, and Oakland’s Bicycle Coffee), its whiskeys taste distinctly like the East Bay.
While the brand’s name implies Agnew and Chevedden distill their own whiskey, they do not yet make their own (eventually, they hope to). Their label has gained notoriety for its finishing, meaning they source the whiskey from other distillers — in Mosswood’s case, it’s from the region where much of the nation’s whiskey is made, in Indiana. They finish it in barrels here in Berkeley, aged anywhere for a day up to a year.
It’s the barrels that give their whiskey its distinct flavor; as a boutique company, they don’t use any kind of additive or sweetener or artificial flavor.
“We wanted to put our own thumbprint on the characteristics of the final product, and we saw barrel finishing would be a good option for us, as we saw what the barrel can add to a spirit,” said Agnew. While reusing barrels for different spirits is a common practice in Europe, according to Agnew, it is less so in the U.S.
“Here bourbon is so popular, for which you have to use new charred oak barrels,” she said. “We recognized there’s a real opportunity here with the barrels that people can’t reuse. There’s so much life left in them.”
Chevedden said Mosswood’s flavor palate has been inspired by cocktail ingredients.
“Part of our process is to ask what ingredients do you find in a classic cocktail that pairs well with whiskey?”
Their current line-up includes whiskeys finished with apple brandy, espresso and sour ale. They are working on releases of nocino, an Italian liqueur made from green walnuts, and one from umeboshi plums. And now, Mosswood Distillers is introducing a new spirit to its product line: rum.
“We had a few requests and when we looked into it, we realized tiki bars are kind of fun, but also we like a good challenge,” said Agnew.
Commercial brands of rum almost always have sweeteners added, not Mosswood’s.
“The typical rum drinker is expecting a certain product that is sweet,” said Agnew. Rather than add a sweetener, the couple has aged their rum in wine barrels that previously held Vin Santo, a type of Italian dessert wine.
At this time, Mosswood does not have a permit for a tasting room. “We go out and do events, that’s how we connect with the public, either in-store tastings or events at bars where we present and talk about our product,” said Agnew.
Mosswood Distillers will be introducing its Day Rum (light rum) to the public at The Kon-Tiki in Oakland on Oct. 4 from 6 to 9 p.m.
Mosswood spirits are sold at bottle shops carrying boutique brands (like Ledgers Liquor in Berkeley and Alchemy Bottle Shop in Oakland) and at many local bars. Check the Mosswood website for exact locations.