Old World Spirits (OWS)/Kuchan Cellars has pioneered in a number of areas since master distiller Davorin Kuchan launched this Bay Area-based distillery in 2005 with the motto, “Good Stuff Needs No Special Effects.” OWS is CCOF Organic Certified, sourcing ingredients from local farmers, while Kuchan’s Rusty Blade, a barrel aged take on his Blade Gin, was the first barrel-aged gin label approved by the TTB—to much debate, of course—well before the barrel aged gin craze hit craft distilleries across the country.

A Croatian-born, third generation winemaker, master distiller and Berkeley Haas graduate, Davorin brought his craft from family vineyards in the Old World (hence the distillery name) to California where a Mediterranean climate provides him with impeccable fruits and grapes to craft his eaux de vie and Cognac-style brandies, as well as a range of whiskies, absinthe, gin and vodka. Everything is distilled by OWS, grain to bottle, in the small town of Belmont, in Silicon Valley.

Kuchan’s business is truly a family affair. His wife and two daughters help press grapes and fruit, participating with him in their last Friday of the month “Friday Flights”, an open house in their intimate distillery where the Kuchan welcome immediately feels familial and inclusive. One of his daughters even created the charming fairy artwork on his La Sorciere Absinthe labels.

One of Kuchan’s keys to success early on was forming strong relationships with bar managers and bartenders around the Bay Area. Here, he tells us more about that, including OWS’ beginnings and the spirits he creates.

Tell us a bit about how Old World Spirits began.

Old World Spirits’ journey started a long time ago in Croatia, where I grew up. My family had a vineyard, and some of my earliest memories were spending time with friends and family during harvests in the hills north of Zagreb, running through the rows of Chardonnay, Blaufränkisch and Grüner Silvaner grapes. Grapes (Italian blue plums) and fruit were great, but then there was a golden apparatus [a still], which ingested tasty grape skins and when heated, created drips of magic liquid with floral aromas flooding across the hills. This is where I fell in love with distilling, spending time around the 100-year-old family slivovitz and grappa still.

Years later, I moved to the US and started my life in California in 1985.  It reminded me of home: rolling hills, incredible fruit and a gentle Mediterranean climate, identical to Adriatic Coast, where I spent my summers. At the time, home distilling and artisanal distilleries were non-existent, but the dream of recreating family joy of homemade spirits was born.

In 2003, I started my distillery journey by writing a business plan during my graduate studies at UC Berkeley Haas School of Business and extending my home grown distilling skills to a professional level at Michigan State with Dr. Kris A. Berglund, one of the pioneers of the artisanal distilling movement in the US. We finally launched Old World Spirits in the summer 2005, custom designed our still in Germany, and got the operations going with little knowledge of the complex US spirits market.

What spirits do you consider your flagship spirits and why did you choose to distill these particular spirits?

My background is in making wine and fruit brandies: eaux-de-vie and Cognac-style brandies. We made brandies because grapes and fruit were bountiful in our orchards and it was a way to preserve the fruit beyond making jams and drying it—and a lot more fun. Also, my mom, Nada and my Grandma Danica have long been passionate liqueur creators. There were always jars of new liqueurs with grappa as the base, such as walnut nocino (Orahovica), black cherry (Višnjevac) and absinthe liqueur (Pelinkovac). Some of those we produce today with their recipes.

We make two versions: Verte [green] and Bleue [colorless absinthe]. La Sorciere Absinthe is a non-liqueur version of Pelinkovac, which we will be releasing this winter. Wormwood grows wild on the Croatian Adriatic islands and is frequently used to calm digestive ailments; thus my love for Absinthe.

To add my personal passion, I created Blade Gin in 2003 in Santa Cruz. The inspiration was local California fruit and botanicals: fresh, vibrant and playful. Blade Gin is sort of like a Pinot Noir; big, bold, complex yet fruity and approachable. In fact, created flavor extraction—like we do with fruit brandies—captures maximum flavor without over-extraction.

I specifically designed our custom Kuchan still with an external column and basket to be able to extract flavors in a unique three-stage extraction process that simply cannot be replicated using traditional eau-de-vie, alambic, whiskey or column stills.  The gold medals followed and today we have thousands of followers who love what we do.

Keeping to our roots, we experimented with barrel aging of gin, which in 2003 was not heard of. In fact, when we released Rusty Blade, it turned into a unique experience between Cognac, Armagnac, single malt whiskey and gin. Rusty Blade was the first label approved by the TTB for barrel aged gin —and there was much debate on if it should even be allowed to be called gin.

How have you grown your brand?

California has turned out to be a challenging place to be a distiller. Until recently, we could not provide tasting for our customers and still are not allowed to sell spirits directly to our fans. As a result, benefits that local wineries or breweries have to build local followings and brands are not available to small spirits producers like us.

But it is all about people. We started hand selling to bars and stores, hitting the pavement and telling our story, as no distributor wanted to take us on. The good news is that San Francisco is a world-class mixology and spirits talent. Guys like Neyah White, Scott Beattie, H. Joseph Ehrmann and David Driscoll are not only great guys, but also true professionals in their field. We were honored to get their support and advice and get the brands off the ground. Eventually, we developed a relationship with Wine Warehouse, whose talented sales people and spirits specialists help us spread the word.

What advice would you give to fellow distillers looking to get their spirits into bars?

The market is crowded and dominated by large brands. Competing for bar space with Diageo brands is futile with all the programming they can provide. The best advice I could give others is to develop their market locally and grow from there. If California can open up its laws and regulations like 42 other states did, I can envision local micro distilleries with vibrant regional businesses who do not aspire to be national brands, sort of like microbreweries or like wineries in Napa. But start local, develop local following and build your business where you can reach customers personally.

What is exciting you most about the current climate in spirits and cocktails?

Spirits are hot, cocktails continue to blossom and brown spirits are on fire. We will be launching a new Straight Rye Whiskey brand and expand deeper into house made whiskeys. Thus far, we resisted temptation to source and bottle mass spirits made in Kentucky and Indiana like many of our colleagues. We are distillers, builders and craftsmen. We are proud of the work we do on whiskeys in house, from grain to bottle.

Finally, after 10 years of holding back on vodka, we finally created something we are proud to put our name on. We just released our new St. Blaise vodka, both in straight and peach expressions. St. Blaise is the patron saint of Dubrovnik, a Croatian jewel of a city on the Adriatic Sea, where I spend a lot of time.

We are also engineers and inventors. Specifically for St. Blaise Vodka, we created a custom, multi-stage absorption, filtration and sedimenting process. To stay true to our fans, we made St. Blaise just insanely awesome: pure, yet big in flavor, not just another vodka brand. Initial shipments were sold out with incredible feedback, so we now are making more.

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Founding The Perfect Spot in 2007 sharing top recommends globally in food and drink, Virginia Miller is W. North America Academy Chair for The World's 50 Best Restaurants, regular columnist at The Bold Italic and Medium, Distiller Magazine, American Whiskey Magazine, Whisky Magazine, VOICES, Liquor.com, Gin Magazine, etc. She held roles as Zagat SF/NorCal editor, SF Guardian restaurant critic, Table8 National Editor/VP of Content. Published in over 60 international publications, she’s covered global dining, travel, spirits, cocktails, hotels and bars with regular columns at Time Out, Where Traveler, Google’s Touringbird, Food Republic, Thrillist, Travelux, to name a few. She wrote The Official Emily in Paris Cocktail Book. Virginia consults in dining, spirits, cocktails and drink. She co-created Avion’s Reserva Cristalino tequila with Pernod Ricard’s House of Tequila innovation, marketing and distilling teams and is now working multiple agave spirits projects in Mexico over recent years, including cutting edge innovation products and blends for different clients. She consults for multiple distilleries on short-term projects, whether evaluating and providing feedback on samples or products or multiple versions. She helps create various samples and flavor profiles with distilling teams or in labs, edits or writes tasting notes, provides feedback on marketing materials and leads tastings virtually or in-person. She leads tastings virtually for Whiskies of the World and for company parties or private events, educating on a range of spirits. Virginia creates drink menus for Michelin-starred restaurants (like Dominique Crenn’s Golden Poppy in Paris, a multi-month project creating an entire menu of cocktails and non-alcoholic cocktails with stories and photos for the restaurant’s launch). She aids in honing and curating food and drink menus and provides feedback on dishes and drinks. Virginia judges in many international dining, food, spirits, cocktails and bars competitions and awards (including SF World Spirits, ADI Craft Distilling, Tales of the Cocktail, Good Food Awards, IWSC in London, Nola Spirits Comp, Whiskies of the World, etc.) and has visited over 13,000 restaurants and even more. top bars around the world.