When thoughts of San Luis Obispo County come to mind, people praise the area's 250-plus wineries. Wine & Spirits' Top 100 Wineries list for 2021 includes 20 California wineries, 10 of which hail from the Central Coast.
However, the region's distilleries are also making a splash. Numbering fewer than 20, the small group packs a powerful punch, with several award-winning establishments among its ranks.
Standout Willow Creek Distillery, named for its location in the Willow Creek District of the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area, has been garnering awards since its inception in 2016.
- Photo By Cherish Whyte
- PEAR-FECT POTION Approximately 100 bottles of Willow Creek's premier Poire Prissoniere brandy will be available for purchase in early October. "They go fast, and if someone would like to reserve a bottle, we have a list going," says head distiller Kevin Coulton.
Launched by Opolo Vineyards co-founders Rick Quinn and David Nichols, Willow Creek earned gold medals in 2019 and 2021 at the California Craft Spirits Competition for its VS brandy, and fig, cherry, and pear brandies. VS, or very special, is a standardized industry designation for 2-year-old brandies.
Willow Creek also received a double gold medal in 2019 for its Muddy Waters coffee liquor—a collaboration with Coastal Peaks Coffee in SLO—and silver medals for its Malt 'N Oats whiskey and chamomile liquor.
Willow Creek limits its product lineup to 600 cases annually, enabling head distiller and San Luis Obispo native Kevin Coulton to shine.
"He is a bright and talented guy, and we give him a lot of free rein with the distillery," said Nichols, who started crafting spirits with partner Quinn in 2013, before handing the baton to Quinn's son, Paul.
Coulton joined the Willow Creek team in 2016.
"Over the course of the next couple years, I began to apprentice under Willow Creek's previous head distiller, Paul Quinn," Coulton said. "From day one, he had me take out a notepad and write down everything he was telling me about still operations and Opolo in general. It sets the tone for an immersive learning environment where, in my mind, being a sponge was not just expected, but required."
As a former U.S. Marine and Cal Poly graduate with a degree in sociology, Coulton says he brings "a combination of mechanical aptitude and artistic and creative ability" to the table.
"Through daily instruction [with Paul], I quickly gained a love and appreciation for the process," Coulton said. "It's a job that allows me to put my best attributes forward, and that has been incredibly rewarding. I eventually became the lead distiller in 2018, and took over as head distiller in January of 2019 when Paul pursued another opportunity.
"I am not a solo operation, as I have my lead distiller, Ron Panno, running daily operations along with me. No doubt you have met him if you've paid a visit to the distillery. He's hard to miss. He has a good work ethic, positive attitude, and is passionate about making good spirits," Coulton continued.
- Photo By Cherish Whyte
- AMAZING MEZZE Fronting Willow Creek is Opolo's patio café. The casual eatery, helmed by chef Aric Grimes, dishes up pizzas, salads, and various Mediterranean platters—some featuring Serbian specialties such as cevapi sausage.
"We value quality over quantity, and I'd say he shares that same vision."
Spirits in the Willow Creek repertoire range from sweet liquors to French-style VS, VSOP (very superior old pale), and XO (extra old) brandies. VSOP and XO versions are aged four and six years, respectively.
Willow Creek's highly anticipated VSOP was added to its tasting menu in early January.
"This brandy comes from a small batch of 10 barrels that we fermented, distilled, and aged with meticulous care," Coulton said. "It has a smoothness and complexity that can only come from extended aging."
Nichols added that the distillery currently produces just one whiskey, Malt 'N Oats, "but the long-term plan is to have several offerings available, including a bourbon, rye, and single malt."
However, the pièce de résistance for Willow Creek is its traditional-style eau-de-vie—French for "water for life"—a category of brandy that is distilled from any fruit other than grapes.
Eau-de-vie is historically significant in Europe and is referred to as rakija in the Balkans. Rakija is the national drink of Serbia, Opolo co-founder Quinn's ancestral homeland.
Fruit brandies available for tasting at the distillery include plum, cherry, fig, and apricot, according to Nichols. Grappa, an Italian-style brandy made from Opolo's muscat grapes, is on the tasting menu as well.
The king of Willow Creek's fruit brandies is Poire Williams Eau-de-Vie, also called Poire Prisonniere, or imprisoned pear.
The limited-edition product, which runs $150 but is currently sold out, features a pear grown inside an empty bottle at the distillery's on-site orchard. At harvest time the bottles are collected and filled with pear brandy.
- Photo By Cherish Whyte
- SENSATIONAL SCENERY Willow Creek is set among Opolo's approximately 220 acres of vineyards, fruit orchards, vegetable gardens, and a walnut grove, along with a restaurant, inn, and several interior and exterior venues for weddings and special events. Opolo's west-side Paso Robles location is complemented by an additional 200 acres of vineyards in the eastern part of the city.
"The reason why small-batch brandies are a passion of mine is mainly due to the control on quality and the attention to detail that is native to [their] production,"
His favorite flavor is plum, "as it ties into Opolo's and Willow Creek Distillery's Serbian heritage," he added.
"Not only is it delicious, with notes of rich plum, vanilla cream, caramel, and gingerbread spice, but it's a cultural experience as well. Slivovitz, as it is traditionally called, is very close to the hearts of many in 'the old country,'" Coulton said. "Being able to participate in that part of history and culture through its production is truly enjoyable and rewarding."
Pick your poison
SLO County boasts 16 distilleries producing brandy, whiskey, bourbon, gin, vodka, rum, grappa, liquor, and more. Twelve are associated with Distillers of SLO County, a nonprofit trade association that publishes an interactive distillers' trail map. Visit the websites below for more information on all 16 businesses. Several tasting rooms offer visits by appointment only.
- Photo Courtesy Of Willow Creek Distillery
• Autry Cellars: 5450 Edna Road, SLO, autrycellars.com
• Azeo Distillery: 3230 Riverside Ave., Suite 190, Paso Robles, azeodistillery.com
• Bethel Rd. Distillery: 1266 N. Bethel Road, Templeton; bethelrddistillery.com
• Calwise Spirits Co.: 3340 Ramada Drive, suite B Paso Robles; calwisespirits.com
• Donati Spirits: 2720 Oak View Road, Templeton; donatispirits.com
• Foggy Bottom Distillery: 905 Los Osos Valley Road, Los Osos; fbdistillery.com
• Forager by Central Coast Distillery: 5804 Traffic Way, Atascadero; foragerspirits.net
• KROBAR Craft Distillery: 2174 Hwy 46 W., Paso Robles, and 10 Higuera St., SLO; krobardistillery.com
• Manucci Spirits & Distillery: 3775 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles; manucciwinery.com
• Pendray's Distillery: 95 Booker Road, Templeton; pasoportwine.com
• Red Soles Distillery: 3230 Oakdale Road, Paso Robles; redsoleswinery.com
• Re:Find Distillery: 2725 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles; refinddistillery.com
• Rod & Hammer's SLO Stills: 855 Aerovista Place, SLO; slostills.com
• SLO de VIE Distillery: 200 S. 4th St., suite 201, Grover Beach; slodevie.com
• Willow Creek Distillery: 7110 Vineyard Drive, Paso Robles; willowcreekdistillery.com
• Wine Shine and Tin City Distillery: 3064 Limestone Way, Paso Robles; tincitydistillery.com Δ
Flavor Writer Cherish Whyte is nuts about Willow Creek's walnut liquor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.