LIVERMORE -- It all started around a campfire in the Sierra Nevada.
Brothers Barry and Ryan Sutherland, along with friend Eric Larimer, had a habit of sharing craft beer and liquor on their annual campouts, each outing carrying a theme. When it came time to sample local craft spirits, they perused various liquor stores and found, much to their surprise, there were hardly any to speak of.
"Sitting up there was when we started talking about (distilling) as something we wanted to do," Larimer said. "Never in a million years did we think we'd be making our own."
But an idea birthed over sips of whiskey in the serene mountain air blossomed into the Sutherland Distilling Company, the first Livermore craft distillery to open since the Prohibition Era and the only one of its kind in the Tri-Valley.
"We all had experience in drinking it," Larimer said with a laugh. "The whole goal was to find something we were passionate about. We didn't set out to be the biggest. We started small, and we want to grow organically and do it right."
Larimer, who met Barry Sutherland while working for an ambulance company, had a background in homebrewing. Ryan Sutherland took distilling classes while Barry studied the business side. About four years after they'd first discussed it, the trio had the keys to their own licensed distillery in an industrial park off North Canyons Parkway.
The enterprise started slowly, as the men discovered a myriad regulations on spirit making in California, holdovers dating back to the repeal of Prohibition. After initial safety concerns -- fire officials had to make sure the new distillery wouldn't pose a safety hazard -- it took about a year to obtain the permits. The crew got their building in June 2013, and the still arrived in December.
"It's been challenging in ways we didn't foresee," Larimer said. "The laws will change eventually. We want to have a foothold."
Due to state regulations, Sutherland couldn't sell their own liquor out the door -- they had to have a distributor. Finding one took months, but Sutherland finally got their Diablo's Shadow vodka and rum in stores in June. It's been full steam ahead since. Their spirits have been selling out in liquor stores and restaurants at downtown Livermore hotpots like The Last Word, Zephyr Grill & Bar, and Paxti's Pizza.
"Really it's an easy sell," Barry Sutherland said. "They know their customers want this."
Since getting up and running, the distillery has produced about 400 cases of rum and vodka. Barrels of aging rum, rye whiskey and bourbon rest in oaken barrels for future sales. Everything Sutherland makes is intended to be enjoyed straight.
By keeping things small, Sutherland has been able to focus on its philosophy: creating handcrafted spirits sustainably using raw, locally-sourced ingredients.
"We call it "soil to spirit," Larimer said. "We're doing something different from craft producers; we go out to the farm and pick out the grains, mill them and cook them in-house, start to finish."
Diablo's Shadow Vodka, for instance, is made from 100 percent local corn sourced near the label's namesake, Mount Diablo. It comes straight from the farm and is milled, mashed and distilled on-site.
"We wanted people to taste the grain," Barry Sutherland said. "We could have made it clean, but that would've made it taste like everyone else's. If you want a unique local vodka, then there's only one."
Sutherland can already call themselves award-winners -- their version of silver rum, made with raw cane sugar, took a bronze medal in April's annual American Distilling Institute conference.
"I think it's a beautiful distillery," said Institute Vice President Andrew Faulkner. "They're off to a good start."
Despite a boom in craft distilling, only a handful of distilleries call the Bay Area home, including Distillery 209 in San Francisco, Essential Spirits Alembic Distillers in Mountain View, Falcon Spirits in Richmond, and St. George Spirits in Alameda. Hayward photographer and brewer Bill Owens, founder of the American Distilling Institute, is building his own distillery in the East Bay. Another distillery in Oakland is under construction.
After searching far and wide for a location, Sutherland found Livermore welcoming and "already pro-alcohol production." The distiller sees Livermore as a future destination for craft spirits, as it is for wine and, increasingly, for craft beer. They're discussing collaborations with local wineries interested in making brandy or port.
In the coming years, Ryan Sutherland said the spirit makers want to lay the groundwork for producing their first loves: whiskey and bourbon.
"We want to be profitable, but we want to have barrels filled," Ryan said. "We want to age stuff long-term. You have to start building a base for that."
The distillery expects to have its aged rum and a higher-proof "Navy strength" rum ready for Christmas. Besides perfecting a recipe for gin, Sutherland plans to add a larger 300-gallon still to speed up production and to do contract distilling for other labels.
"We're very proud of what we make and being first and all the roadblocks we've had to overcome," Barry Sutherland said. "We enjoy this; the five-year goal is to be happy."
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.
The Tri-Valley's only craft distillery, Sutherland Distilling Company, is located at 3189 Independence Drive in Livermore. Tours and tastings are done by appointment only -- tastings are limited by law to six quarter-ounce pours per person. No on-site sales are available. For information on the distillery or where to go to find the finished product, visit http://sutherlanddistilling.com or call 925-447-0873.