Ever since the Napa Valley crushed France’s wine dominance in 1976, the picturesque piece of California has been a hub for maverick vintners obsessed with craft, experimentation and achieving the unachievable. Recently, those winemakers have been making room for a young team of distillers bottling their own ambitious dreams along the rolling, oak-studded hills.
The personalities behind Loch & Union Distillery were trained at some of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious institutes, and their meticulous attention to detail, love of tackling challenges and drive to create top-tier products has led to discovering kindred spirits among the wine industry’s giants. The distillery’s founders, Colin Baker and Matthew Meyer, say they’ve learned a lot from these veterans of the vines, including what barrels to use for a cabernet-shaded, single-batch whiskey they’re developing.
Now, with California’s wildfires becoming an increasing threat to Napa Valley’s future, the team at Loch & Union is in a position to pay back the region’s hospitality by helping its wineries find ways to survive.
Loch & Union was born out of a tough moment of clarity. Baker, who’d grown up in Long Beach, CA, was originally trained as an accountant at the London School of Economics. After graduating, he moved home to Southern California to start working for one of the largest public accounting firms in the world. Though doing well financially, Baker had a nagging feeling inside.
“I hated my job,” he admitted. “It finally got to the point where I had to ask myself, ‘What am I doing with my life? How do I keep spending all my time doing something that I really don’t enjoy?’”
There was something Baker did enjoy — homebrewing. He was spending his weekends learning to turn grains into frothy greatness, only to constantly face mood-sinking Mondays when he had to go back to work. Baker decided to upend his life and try to become a professional brewer. He turned to a man in the United Kingdom who knew exactly how he felt. Duncan Sambrook had worked in the London office of the same accounting firm as Baker before walking away to chase his own vision of grist and barley. He opened Sambrook’s Brewery, which became a popular drinking destination in South London. Sambrook understood Baker’s dilemma and offered him a job.
Baker liked working at Sambrook’s, though his work visa eventually ran out. The only way to extend it involved attending one of the United Kingdom’s universities. When Baker learned that Heriot-Watt University, nestled deep in Scotland’s medieval city of Edinburgh, offered a Master’s Degree in Brewing & Distilling, he made up his mind to head north.
Baker says it was at Heriot-Watt that he found his true calling.
“I got introduced to the distilling world,” Baker recalled. “And of course, being is Scotland is prettying conducive to learning to love Scotch whisky. It was one of the best times I’d ever had in my life.”
It wasn’t long before Baker harbored thoughts of starting a distillery in California. He knew he wanted to make single-batch whisky, but not in the traditional way. He’d had a revelation one evening while drinking with the Edinburgh Malt Whisky Society. Someone handed him a glass of the Longrow Red Series, a whisky that’s aged 11 years in a port wine cask. The taste blew Baker away. It also opened his mind to the possibilities of building a distillery in the Napa Valley, where he could work with expert vintners and world-class coopers as he formulated whiskeys aged in wine barrels. One person who believed in that idea was Meyer, who had studied alongside Baker at the London School of Economics. Meyer jumped in as a partner and Loch & Union’s business manager.
By 2015, the duo was finalizing plans for a 6,000-square-foot distillery, which would include 17,000 square feet of storage space, two custom copper pot stills and the largest copper column still that the German maker Carl had ever shipped to the US.
But there was a problem. Napa County was starting to suffer devastating wildfires every year. Local officials wanted to be cautious about allowing something as combustible — in the wrong hands — as a distillery. Baker and Meyer eventually augmented their plan with a dedicated four-inch sprinkler main, secondary containment designs, leak detection systems and a huge amount of ventilation running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, tied to backup power.
Meyer says that overcoming the safety obstacles taught his team patience, which then paid off as it began to perfect Loch & Union’s gin profiles. The distillery released a dry gin, which won a gold medal in the 2018 New York World Wine & Spirits Competition, and a barley gin, which earned a gold medal in the Artisan Awards the same year.
“The build-out process, as frustrating as it was sometimes, was always a new challenge and it was never boring,” Meyer explained. “Even now, it’s a big, dynamic environment that we’re in.”
Fittingly enough, when Baker and Meyer first fired up their stills, they ran rosé wine from a nearby vineyard through them to test the equipment. That was in 2018. Just two years later, the gin from those stills is a cornerstone in the renowned restaurants between Napa and Sonoma counties. It’s also finding an ever-wider distribution in California’s retail market. With gin taking off, Baker and Meyer are focusing on the whiskey they’ve been aging for three years in Cabernet wine barrels. Additionally, the distillery is picking up a good deal of contract work, particularly around making brandy. And that’s where Baker thinks Loch & Union can help Napa County in the years to come.
Since the distillery opened, the wine country has suffered even more ruinous fires, many of which have left heavy smoke sitting on the vineyards for days and even weeks at a time. Some vintners in 2020 decided to let entire harvests go rather than risk bottling polluted wine. Thanks to Loch & Union, this region known for some of the best grapes in the world now has an operation that can salvage those crops.
“With all the fires going on, there’s so many smoke-tainted grapes, and we’re getting calls all the time about it, because instead of having something that is completely worthless, they can have us distill it into brandy and that gets smoke taint out,” Baker noted, adding that he’s eager to help the winemakers who have offered him so much support and mentorship.
“Brandy is the one spirit they’re allowed to sell in their tasting rooms,” he pointed out. “Napa and Sonoma need to start doing brandy in a more serious way. If we’re going to be having fires like this every year, that’s going to really start affecting things. It will mean a lot of people are going to lose a lot of money. Making brandy is the answer.”