Raising the Bar at Humboldt Distillery
● By Jordan Venema
Lift Your SpiritsFebruary 2016
By Jordan Venema
Photos by Tim McBroome
For many of us, a little bit of drink can sometimes lead to bad decisions, but for Abe Stevens, one good decision led to making lots of drinks. After a diverse career that took him from the chemistry lab to a seat at tournament poker tables, the Fortuna native returned home where he began Humboldt Distillery, specializing in small-batch organic spirits.
“I always kind of wondered why all these microbreweries were popping up everywhere and doing well, and you’ve got hundreds, thousands of wineries but only half a dozen brands of liquor,” muses Stevens, who long entertained the idea of starting a small, local distillery. “The more I looked into it, the more I realized it could be an actual opportunity.”
That the booze business was an “actual opportunity” for somebody like Stevens had as much do with his professional education as his roots in the brewery bevy also known as the Northern California coast. For Humboldt locals, dabbling in small-batch craft brewing seems almost a prerequisite to residency. But following high school, Stevens left Fortuna to study chemistry in Chicago, after which he began working in the pharmaceutical industry doing “research and development type work,” he says. While pharmacies and distilleries ultimately deal in drastically different kinds of medication, the underlying chemistry was always an allure to Stevens.
The pharmaceutical business took Stevens between the Bay Area and New York, and he even considered pursuing a PhD before abruptly changing course. “I thought I would take a little time off to travel the country playing the professional poker tournament circuit,” Stevens says casually.
For two years, Stevens made that circuit, playing at tables in different cities across the country. It was a rewarding experience (beyond the winnings), but “you kind of get burned out a little bit. A lot of traveling, you know? LA one day, then Connecticut the week after that, then Mississippi after that. Not to mention long hours sitting at a table, without much physical activity but lots of high stress levels.”
For Stevens, a career in poker just wasn’t in the cards, and he and his wife missed the outdoor activities found closer to home in Humboldt County. But the chemist-turned-card-slinger wasn’t entirely ready to settle upon a career without some kind of speculation, and took to real-estate investment. “But getting back into the corporate life, well, it wasn’t that appealing,” Stevens admits.
Summed up, “the distillery was an opportunity to move back to Fortuna and create my own job.”
Humboldt Distillery wasn’t just the Stevens’ gateway back to Humboldt, but also Humboldt’s door to locally crafted spirits. It is almost surprising that the region, virtually awash with the suds of locally crafted brews, had yet to produce a small-batch distillery for liquor: Humboldt Distillery was the first of its kind in the area.
“We were the first here on the North Coast,” says Stevens, in what appears to be a quickly growing industry. “There used to be only a handful of distilleries in the state,” though now he guesses there may be 40, maybe even 50 in California alone.
Though Humboldt Distillery “opened” in 2012, it didn’t sell its first bottle until April 2013. It took about year to set up the business – “paperwork, licensing, all that stuff” – plus the time to age and distill the liquor.
That process, distilling the spirits, “got back to some of the reasons why I started chemistry in college to begin with,” says Stevens. “I enjoyed that type of work, and it’s somewhat related. As a kid I always wanted to have my own laboratory, and now I do.”
Humboldt Distillery bottles and sells certified organic vodka and organic rum, as well as seasonal eaux de vie style pear brandy and apple brandy, which can be bought at the distillery.
The organic vodka, the distillery’s most popular seller, costs between $16 and $24, while the organic rum costs “generally about a dollar, maybe two dollars more than the vodka,” says Stevens. Locations that carry Humboldt Distillery can be found on its website.
“It looks good, it tastes good and it’s priced modestly,” says Stevens, who hopes to begin selling his spirits outside California. It helps to have a product that catches the eye. As homage to the area in which he distills, Stevens has designed his bottles with “local icons” – a crab on the vodka and pelican on the rum.
According to Stevens, California law prohibits distilleries from selling liquor directly to bars and retail stores, and must sell through a distributor. But, says Stevens, “starting in 2016, we’ll be able to sell up to three bottles per person in the gift shop,” which offers even more incentive to make the trip inland to visit the small town of Fortuna.
735 10th Street • Fortuna