Edible Monterey Bay

Edible Notables: Spirits of Santa Cruz


Spirits of Santa Cruz

Venus Spirits rolls out a line of uniquely local artisanal liquors—and a chance to try them at the source  

By Elizabeth Limbach    

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In a warehouse near the ocean on Santa Cruz’s formerly industrial Westside, Sean Venus is busy carving a tasty new notch in the neighborhood’s already impressive belt of acclaimed small-batch and authenticity-minded bakeries, butchers, brewers and wineries.

Venus Spirits, which began distributing in early July and as of press time was set to open the region’s first spirits tasting room, is also the city of Santa Cruz’s only distillery. There is just one other in Santa Cruz County—Osocalis, which makes craft brandies out of Soquel—and two in Monterey County—King City’s Fog’s End, which makes moonshine and whiskey, and Salinas’ Lost Spirits, which produces whiskey and rum.

Like the other artisans who populate his hip neighborhood, Venus wants to provide a local option for area residents and visitors seeking to connect with what they eat and drink— but in a new way.

“People want to have something that represents where they are,” he says, adding, “Santa Cruz has become a tourist destination for beer and wine lovers. I hope that we can do the same thing for people who enjoy whiskey and spirits.”

To walk into Venus Spirits’ tasting room is to be enveloped in the sights, sounds and smells of a distillery. Surrounded by a drop ceiling, doors and other features made from the burnt wood Venus uses in his distilling process, visitors get the sense of being inside the barrel— absorbing and breathing the Venus Spirits essence, along with the aging spirits.

Venus’ offerings include blue agave (only drinks produced in Jalisco, Mexico, may be called Tequila), gin and rum. But whiskeys are his passion.

“I love Irish whiskey, Scotch, bourbon, ryes—I love ’em all,” says Venus, who started out in the beer industry, working as a brewer in a Eugene, Ore., brewery and then at Gordon Biersch in San Jose. For him, making whiskey is a natural step from beer.

IMG_3771“Really, the first part of making whiskey is brewing beer,” he says. The process is the same up until a certain point—using the same sort of grains, mashing them, heating them up to around 150° and creating a wash. “Then, instead of putting hops into it and boiling it, we add yeast to it and let it ferment unhopped,” Venus explains, gesturing to the distillery’s 10-barrel system, which he says is very similar to the setup found at Discretion Brewing in Soquel.

In a country where bourbon is the reigning king of whiskeys, Venus Spirits joins a small but growing faction of American singlemalt challengers. Using 100% malted barley, as Venus does for its Wayward Whiskey line, is unusual, and it shows in its flavor profile, where the grains sing strongly.

“Our tagline [for the Wayward Whiskey] is that it’s an unruly spirit—something that is a little perverse, a little different, a little off kilter from normal whiskeys,” he says. “They are really boldly flavored—that comes from both the ingredients we’ll be using and the way we’ll be aging them.”

While some of the aged spirits will rest for about two years in standard 53-gallon barrels made from American charred oak, a portion will mature in a mere six months in 10-gallon versions (thanks to a smaller surface area-to- spirit ratio).

Adding to their distinct terroir, Venus Spirits’ products are made with entirely organic ingredients sourced from the West Coast.

“For me, it’s about supporting farmers and their families—the people who grow organic products,” Venus says.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 2.22.39 PMThe essence of Santa Cruz is in every sip of Venus’ spirits, but the whiskey, in particular, evokes a strong sense of place.

The whiskey ages in a large, open warehouse space stacked high with barrels, all of them at the mercy of the unique coastal climate, the water used and a 20 degree variance of temperatures from night to day and from top to bottom, among other environmental factors.

“We’re so close to the ocean that we’re sort of calling this ocean air aged. With whiskey, about 50% of the flavor comes from the wood and how it interacts with the barrel. The charring allows the whiskey to come in and out of that wood, and what pulls and pushes that spirit in and out of the wood is the environment.”

Drawing on his experience in the beer world, as well as his more recent tenure with organic food companies including Mamma Chia, Venus is forging a path for his artisanal operation that he hopes can mirror the successes of California’s wineries and craft breweries.

But much of his vision would not have been possible just last year, when distillers were prohibited from running public tasting rooms. Venus joined the California Artisanal Distillers Guild to fight for Assembly Bill 933, which went into effect Jan. 1 and allows distillers to operate public tasting rooms, much as wineries and breweries do. But unlike wine and beer tasting rooms, spirits tasting rooms still cannot legally sell bottles directly to their guests, and the guild now plans to push for permission for that.

During the months that Venus was awaiting final city approval to start offering tastings, the buzz surrounding the place had spurred such curiosity among local denizens that they showed up at the facility, anyway.

“There are definitely lots of people who stop by here,” Venus says, “so we give them a tour and tell them about the products.”

While waiting for the tasting room to debut, interested drinkers can find Venus Spirits at a number of local outlets, including 41st Avenue Liquor, U-Save Liquors, The Crepe Place, Johnny’s Harborside, The Crow’s Nest and many others.

The brand has also been making the rounds at special events. Next, it will be on hand at the San Francisco Craft Spirits Carnival (Sept. 20 and 21) and the 11th Annual Gourmet Grazing on the Green Festival (Sept. 27 at Aptos Village Park).

Still, Venus is excited to finally be able to offer distillery tastings.

“We want to bring people as close to the experience as possible,” Venus says.

Venus Spirits • 427 Swift St., Ste. A, Santa Cruz • www.venusspirits.com

Elizabeth Limbach is an award-winning freelance writer based in Santa Cruz. A version of this story first appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of one of EMB’s sister publications, Edible Silicon Valley.

El Ladrón Spicy Cucumber Margarita

Courtesy Sean Venus, Venus Spirits, Santa Cruz

2 slices organic jalapeño 

2 slices organic cucumber

1 pinch organic cilantro

2 tablespoons organic agave 

1 ounce organic lime juice

2 ounces Venus Spirits El Ladrón Blanco (tequila) 


Combine jalapeño, cucumber, cilantro and agave and lightly muddle in a cocktail shaker. Add lime juice and El Ladrón Blanco. Shake with ice cubes until chilled, strain into an ice-filled glass and garnish with a cucumber. Salted rim optional. 


Blackberry Gin Fizz 

Courtesy Sean Venus, Venus Spirits, Santa Cruz

2 ounces fresh blackberries (roughly 8 berries)

2 tablespoons organic sugar

2 sprigs organic basil

1 ounces organic lime juice

2 ounces Venus Spirits Gin Botanical Blend #1

3 ounces club soda

Combine blackberries, sugar and basil in a cocktail shaker; lightly muddle. Add lime juice and gin. Shake with ice cubes until chilled and strain into an ice filled cocktail glass. Top with club soda.


Wayward Whiskey Peach Mule

Courtesy Sean Venus, Venus Spirits, Santa Cruz

2 slices fresh organic peach

1 ounces simple syrup

1½ ounces of Venus Spirits Wayward Bourbon

Ginger beer

Combine peaches and simple syrup and lightly muddle in a cocktail shaker. Add Wayward Whiskey and fill shaker half full with ice. Shake with ice cubes until chilled and strain into an ice-filled cocktail glass. Top with ginger beer.