SOQUEL -- In a way, Daniel Farber is an alchemist.

The brandy maker squats next to his copper boiler as he clutches a tasting glass of clear 143-proof brandy. A steady drip of the high-alcohol liquid, which will later be distilled to have 35 to 60 percent alcohol content, trickles below into a $1,300 French oak barrel, where it will then age for at least three years for color, flavor and complexity.

There is a gentle hum in the distillation room, with temperature gauges vacillating, depending on the time of production.

"Fire heats steam, and the steam heats the still," Farber said on a recent Monday at Osocalis Distillery, deep in the Soquel Hills off Old San Jose Road. "Distilling changes the character of the brandy."

All of this equipment goes into creating the perfect spirit. Since the early 1990s, Osocalis has pumped out a variety of brandies, including rare Alambic and Extra Old, putting in the proper time and care to create a smooth, refined spirit.

"People in the U.S. have gotten into big flavors instead of balance," Farber said. "With brandy, you want complexity, elegance, length, balance and finesse."

Background

Farber, with co-owner Jeff Emery of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards and assistant Owen Laine, produces about 2,000 cases of brandy per year and sells about 1,000 cases. The distillery focuses on four different types of brandy: Rare Alambic, which is at least 7 years old; "XO," which is more than 14 years old; Apple brandy, which has aged for at least 15 years; and "Heritage Alambic" brandy, which is more than 14 years old.


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Since Farber has been making brandy since the 1980s, he's just now starting to sell the Heritage selection.

Osocalis is the only distillery in the U.S. that focuses on brandy alone, which Farber cites as influencing quality.

"If you look around at a lot of other distilleries, they're a jack-of-all-trades," Farber said. "Because we only do one thing, it means we're geared toward the optimization of that one thing."

While people may initially experience sticker shock when glancing at the price of brandy -- Osocalis prices range from $45 to $150 per bottle -- consider this: it takes about 10 barrels of wine to produce one barrel of brandy.

And that's why there are so few distilleries in the U.S. According to the American Distilling Institute, the leading artisanal distilling organization, there are 240 registered distillers in the U.S. Osocalis is the only distillery in Santa Cruz County.

"It's a very simple still in use and construction, but complicated because it's time-consuming and expensive to run," Farber said.

Equipment

To make the spirit, Farber uses two alembic stills, custom-made for him in France. Farber estimates that each distillery setup costs $160,000 to $170,000. The majestic copper structures face each other atop brick bases that Farber helped build.

The process of making brandy, which Farber studied in Cognac, France, in the 1980s, is age-old. Wine is heated in a boiler, where rising vapors travel through a pre-heater, then into a condenser where the vapor condenses into brandy. Then the process is repeated, taking about a week.

While mastering equipment and timing may seem daunting enough, producing brandy also takes a keen knowledge of the grapes that go into the spirit (generally pinot noir, marsanne, riesling, syrah, grenache or semillion).

Farber's got a knack for tackling complex studies. He received his doctorate from UC Santa Cruz in geophysics, where he studied the physics of the Earth and its environment in space.

Farber's even created the ideal environment to distill brandy: a cold, concrete building complete with black mold scaling up the walls.

"When I first saw a distillery in Cognac, I thought, 'These guys are a bunch of lazy bastards.' The walls were covered with cobwebs," Farber said. "But the whole process of brandy-making is aging, from the barrels to the building. We like to encourage the spiders to come and protect against the beetles."

Ingredients

While Farber is well aware of France's strict laws including no distillation past April, he enjoys more flexibility in the U.S.

"(French) laws are sort of a protection for quality," Farber said. "For the most part, all of the (U.S.) laws for alcohol production are around taxes."

But the positive aspects of setting up in California goes beyond a longer distilling season.

The U.S. also provides a great deal of produce, particularly California's bounty of apples to use in Osocalis' apple brandy. He's stopped using Pajaro Valley apples for the most part -- "it's lost a lot of variety" -- but chooses apples including Newtown Pippin, Braeburn, Kingston Black and Yarlington Mill.

Farber particularly enjoys the intensity of California fruit, the taste of which he tries to capture in his spirits.

"I think in some cases, the French want the ripeness we get and try to preserve the complexity," Farber said.

Farber looks to wine to add balance to the brandy, mainly using pinot noir and colombard for slight acidity.

"I love colombard because it makes such an uninteresting table wine," Farber said. "But when you use it for brandy, it gives it extreme length and finesse."

Farber also seeks out wines that ultimately add complexity and body to the brandy.

"You want a wine lower in alcohol," Farber said. "If you have a lot of alcohol, you just dilute down the flavor."

Flavor

And flavor is the ultimate goal. Farber sees sipping on brandy as a journey, with the spirt constantly evolving as it mingles with heat and air.

He grew up in New York drinking wine and dabbled in brewing beer in the 1970s, but became fascinated by brandy due to its inaccessibility, particularly in the U.S. Above all else, though, he was wooed by the flavor.

"You taste it minutes after you drink it," Farber said.

He constantly siphons brandy from his 100-gallon barrels (he currently has approximately 250 French oak barrels), looking to make sure the alcohol is aging properly. His 5-year-old dog Patch frequently sits by his side with an orange frisbee dangling from his mouth.

While brandy production takes time and more financial means than most other alcohol, Farber could never turn away from the delicate, albeit finicky, spirit. He always emphasizes the importance of finesse in brandy; it's a nebulous word, but Farber knows when he's created the ultimate drink.

And while Cognac may be at the pinnacle of brandy production, Farber looks to fuse California's produce selections with his extensive knowledge of France, down to the emphasis on locale.

When naming his distillery, Farber settled on Osocalis, the original Native American word for Soquel. He found the name appropriate, particularly to convey the important relationship between alcohol and regions.

"If Cognac is Cognac and Calvados is Calvados, why not have Osocalis be Osocalis?" Farber said.

Follow Sentinel reporter Bonnie Horgos on Twitter at Twitter.com/bhorgos

  • K Wine & Spirits: 708 Capitola Ave., Capitola, 831-475-9487

  • 41st Ave. Liquors: 2155 41st Ave., Capitola, 831-475-5117

  • Crepe Place: 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, 831-429-6994

    Cost: $45 to $150 for a 775-milliliter bottle
    Details: 831-426-6209, www.osocalis.com