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Bar: Oakland Spirits Company 

Wednesday, Dec 30 2015
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When Adam Nelson left his modest career as a writer in the early '90s to work on a nebulous concept called the internet, his mother said it was "the worst mistake he'd ever make."Two decades later, she held her tongue when Nelson left his successful career as a technology consultant to pursue a longtime side project: making alcohol. That risky move will shortly produce the Oakland Spirits Company (OsCo), an incubator and distillery in the heart of Uptown Oakland.

Nelson's winemaking began in 2003 as a chaotic collaborative undertaking in an Oakland garage. Riding out the hardships of recessions and shifting principals, he and partner Bill Bedsworth eventually moved their small operation (Two Mile Wines) to the 25th Street Collective workspace, alongside other slow-fashion and slow-food artisans and vendors.

"I get blocked creatively when I'm just around wine people," Nelson says. "This is much more multi-disciplinary."

Perhaps some of that creativity rubbed off, because Nelson is expanding his vision into the world of craft spirits. As an urban winery that's fairly small-scale, Two Mile might struggle to stand profitably on its own as a full-time business. But when partnered with (or bought out by) a spirits producer, however, the consolidated company will have the potential to thrive.

"Other people have told me, 'You're crazy to leave tech'," Nelson says. "But real life goods — spirits in particular — are incredibly lucrative if done right."

Nelson's other motivation for departing the tech universe was a vision for the future of education and industry in Oakland. He plans to apply what he's learned to manufacturing, to enable people to earn a decent living by producing something tangible and high-quality.

"The issue with tech is that it creates high-level jobs for people who have high-level education," said Nelson. "Manufacturing can create great jobs for people who come from a true middle class. Kids can aspire to something they can actually achieve. Thinking about Oakland from a manufacturing and apprenticeshipperspective,spirits are really the right choice and far more profitable [than wine]. They create the opportunity for people to earn good wages."

In addition to an interest in increasing trade skills, Nelson is emphatic about collaborative innovation.

"The spirits world is missing that," he says. "You see it in the wine industry, where people crush together and work together, but in spirits people are very protective. Then they become brand and marketing machines."

Key to OsCo is this concept of apprenticeship. The distillery will not only produce its own line of gin, brandy, vodka, amaro, and bourbon under the careful oversight of company distiller Tim Lynn, but will also give home-distillers and newcomers the opportunity to experiment, collaborate, converse, and create.

"We have [wine] clients who have an interest in moving into producing [spirits]," said Nelson. "That's really what they're passionate about, but they don't know how to get into it. We give them the opportunity."

Rosa Lynley and Ian McCarthy of Sharpshooter Cocktails plan to produce eau de vie from apricots, plums, pears, and grapes, distilling under the name Lynley-McCarthy. Other distillers will focus on amaro or vodka, and Nelson is particularly jazzed about gin.

"I can do really interesting things," he says. "The first product I envisioned was a kelp-based one."

Nelson draws inspiration from Oaktown Spice Shop and forageSF, which happens to be opening a co-working kitchen space just across the street. "It's a really good collaboration," he says. "The stuff they have is so fresh and amazing — inspirational, even. I show them what the distillates are like, and we go back and forth."

In the back of Nelson's distillery, a small cement room houses hundreds of herbs and distillations — from seaweed and brush sage to coriander seeds and juniper leaves. This is his lab, the space where many of OsCo's spirits get their start.

"We work together on recipe development and style," Nelson says. "Ideas are tested, tasted, and revised until we find the heart of the drink."

"I think craft has to do with the ability for a community and a small food ecosystem to be able to make things,"he adds. "We work with a complicated set of ingredients to produce something for ourselves that has experience and skill behind it."

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A. K. Carroll

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