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Sacramento is hyper-local. We drink local coffee, buy local art, eat at local restaurants. We boycott the chains that roll into town (except In-N-Out because, balance). We wear our Kings hats and carry our local coffee shop mugs with pride in our hearts. But truth be told, when a local option isn’t available (or let’s be honest, aesthetically pleasing), all bets are off.
Up until recently, picking up a beautiful bottle of local gin or vodka just simply wasn’t an option. Enter J.J. Pfister Distilling Company, a family distillery that crafts quality organic spirits in Sacramento. We recently stopped by the distillery for a visit and to taste the spirits for ourselves. We talked with owner, Kevin Keck, about J.J. Pfister, the company’s namesake, the knitting industry in the 1800’s, bottle design, and potato vodka.
CS: Tell us about the J.J. Pfister and the history of the company.
KK: J.J. Pfister learned the knitting trade in Switzerland during the late 1800ś and wanted to come to the United States for more opportunity. He read about the transcontinental railroad in Zurich newspapers and wanted to take the train to San Francisco. He did that in 1869 right after it opened. He opened a one room shop in San Francisco and sold garments up and down Market Street. The business grew and he made a variety of knit goods and sold them all over the US, Cuba, South America, Hawaii, and Alaska. The factory in San Francisco burned down in 1906 in the Great Fire and he relocated to Berkeley. The signature garment was the full body swimsuit which kept you warm in the cold ocean waters and in Sutro Baths. He created highest quality products at a fair price. There is a great display of all this at the J.J. Pfister Distilling Company in Sacramento.
CS: Do the stories of J.J. Pfister and how he rebuilt his home and factory after the 1906 earthquake inspire you to work harder for what you want for your company?
KK: What is remarkable is the earthquake in San Francisco was in April 1906 and he had his factory up and running by November that year. He had a “can do” entrepreneurial spirit which we follow.
CS: How did you guys get into the spirits industry?
KK: Brian Keck [master distiller] decided in his senior year of college he wanted to study chemistry and completed that major in just one year. He went on to graduate school studying Chemistry at UCLA. He loved making beer and ciders and decided winemaking was his passion. He entered the UC Davis Master’s Program in viticulture and enology looking to be a winemaker. He was presented the opportunity to get into the craft spirit business and realized the tremendous potential of making spirits with the craftsmanship of a winemaker.
CS: While starting J.J. Pfister Distilling Company, what were your initial thoughts for the company’s direction?
KK: We knew the craft spirit space was new and we wanted to get in early. We wanted to have gin, vodka, bourbon, whiskies, and brandy. In addition, we knew we could make limited edition spirits like our honey spirit, Drakas.
CS: Tell us about J.J. Pfister’s potato vodka. Why did you decide to use potatoes instead of the regular use of corn, rye, wheat etc.?
KK: We use potatoes because of the unique flavor profile and smoothness. It is harder to make but it’s worth it. That said, we are also going to offer a rye based vodka which is the base for our gin. It is also superb.
CS: What is the creative process of creating spirits? Do you feel pressured to create something new and different every time?
KK: Our gin story is a good one. The distillers created about thirty jars of vodka into which they placed one botanical such as coriander, cubeb, juniper, lemongrass, etc. Out of the thirty, they selected nine. Each of the nine botanicals were then made into a single botanical “gin”, i.e. just fennel, just lavender, just angelica. They then blended the nine to create the perfect gin. There is a lot of art in this.
CS: What would you like the company’s impact to be? What would you like your company to accomplish in 5 years?
KK: We want to have a high quality product we are proud of and our customers enjoy. We want to be known just like J.J. Pfister as producers of the best and we want to do this at a fair price so our products can be enjoyed by all.
CS: What made you decide to leave Oregon and move to California?
KK: Sacramento is our home. We enjoyed our decade in the Portland area and wanted to come back home.
CS: Do you believe you have carried on the legacy of hard work and determination that J.J. Pfister left behind?
KK: We certainly have. J.J. Pfister would be proud of what we are doing. He was a prominent San Francisco philanthropist and always giving back to his favorite charity, YMCA. He would be proud of our sustainability story of giving back to the birds of the Pacific Flyway by donating to create measurable habitat in the Klamath Basin.
CS: What’s the spirit/vodka climate like in Sacramento? Is it growing?
KK: We are finding great acceptance of our spirits. The market is looking for something unique with a story. We are providing that. Our quality is highly accepted and our customers routinely note the tremendous quality compared to production spirits.
There you have it! Local, organic, family owned and operated, and beautifully designed spirits. Pair their potato vodka with Preservation & co. Bloody Mary mix and behold, the ultimate Sacramento cocktail.
Stop by J.J. Pfister Distilling Company’s tasting room Friday from 3pm to 6pm or Saturday from 12pm to 6pm. You can purchase bottles at the tasting room or look for their spirits at Total Wine & More and Nugget Markets.
J.J. Pfister Distilling Company | 9819 Business Park Dr, Sacramento, CA 95827 | Tasting room open Friday 3pm-6pm and Saturday 12pm-6pm
Stay connected with all things Sacramento and beyond.