It turns out making moonshine — and bourbon and vodka and gin — is a family business. That’s what Steve Gertman, president and master distiller at the new Ascendant Spirits, has discovered. Gertman left a career as a television producer for automotive-oriented programs to open Santa Barbara’s first legal full distillery since Prohibition. “I suckered my dad into the business, so like our neighbors Figueroa Mountain, we’re a son-father business,” Gertman relates. “My dad is a several-times-over entrepreneur and had always been pushing me to do that. And with all the playing around with speeding cars, my mother was very pleased I changed to a nice safe profession like distilling.”
The day after he gave notice for his TV job, Gertman enrolled at the American Distilling Institute (ADI) in Northern California. Along the way, he “did more researching, going to other craft distilleries to see how other people skin the cat, so I could steal the good bits.” He also had the good fortune to be on the spot for another’s bad fortune — when one of his teachers at the ADI shattered a leg skiing, Gertman was in Colorado visiting and got to work a full winter as a very hands-on assistant for the esteemed, temporarily hobbled Jordan Via at Breckenridge Distillery.
One of the toughest decisions was settling on a name. “So many names, good names in the alcoholic beverage sector, are already taken,” he admits, “but I chose Ascendant because several of its definitions connect to the distillery. The ascending of the angel from our barrels, the astrological [an ascendant moon] since we are making moonshine, and the idea of being superior because we aim to make a superior high-quality product.” Now he and his 500-gallon copper still from Vendome in Louisville — where else would one find the only U.S. manufacturer of stills? — are ready to work.
He particularly thinks the Central Coast climate will be good for bourbon. “In Kentucky it’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter,” he explains. “When the temperature heats up, the pores of the barrels open up and draw in the whiskey; when it cools, it pushes the whiskey back out. That provides for charcoal filtration and the vanilla and caramel flavors you want. Here we get 30- to 40-degree temperature shifts daily. We think that’s perfect for almost accelerating our aging process, and that should help us get to market faster with a world-class product.”
Gertman is also excited about the bounty of the Central Coast as a way to distill amazing fruit flavor into his American Star Vodkas. One will be a caviar lime with citrus from Goodland Organics in Goleta. A sample of that was smooth yet deeply lime-y without any overly floral, cloying notes; it begged to be made into a cocktail (just add Fever Tree tonic for a perfect V&T). There’ll be a strawberry flavor, also, about which he claims: “We’ll use fruit picked that day within 30 miles of the distillery. I’ve had strawberries go fuzzy on me during the trip from the farmers’ market to home, so we’re going to avoid that.” There’s going to be gin, too, including a “wild harvest of all California juniper berries and botanicals picked as close to home as possible.”
Ascendant will be open for tastings on weekends starting in March, and from the tasting room, one can, as Gertman puts it, “Belly up to the bar and through the window see us still monkeys at work.” They will follow strict California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control rules that only allow three ¼-ounce pours. “I like to think of this street as the Buellton Beverage Center — you can get beer at Figueroa, wine and dinner at Avant, and then spirits with us in between those two,” Gertman says. When I point out, “After that you might have to sneak past the CHP at the top of the street,” he quips, “No, you just go sleep it off at the Marriott across the street.”
Get into the spirits at Ascendant Spirits (37 Industrial Wy., Ste. 102, Buellton), open for tastings Thursday-Monday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday, 4-8 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday, 11am-6pm. Call (805) 691-1000 or visit ascendantspirits.com.