As a light aroma of yeast hangs in the air, like that of a loaf of bread freshly pulled from the oven, Michael “Mike” Benbrook looks upon a sort of cauldron inside his Oakhurst laboratory.
Stewing inside that container, and others near it, is an intoxicating hazel liquid, with barley - two row barley, Benbrook notes - bubbling away at the surface.
“That’s bacillus bacteria it’s forming there, and it’s going to impart some real nice strawberry esters,” Benbrook says. “It’s going to give this batch a nice hint of those flavors.”
That concoction has nothing to do with bread, Benbrook says with a laugh. And it’s not moonshine.
It’s one of the first batches of rye whiskey being brewed at Oakhurst Spirits, the first craft distillery, Benbrook says, to ever open in Fresno or Madera County.
“People always ask if I’m a moonshiner,” Benbrook says. “And I say no, I’m a distiller. I’m not sneaking around in the woods. I don’t make moonshine, I make spirits.”
That rye whiskey, as well as Benbrook’s handcrafted vodka, rum and bourbon, will be available as part of the distillery’s grand opening July 1. The event will last from noon to 7 p.m. at its location on 40300 Greenwood Way, off of Stagecoach Road, in a building previously renovated by architect Patrice Jensen.
As part of the business, guests will be able to tour the distillery and learn how Benbrook makes each batch, or sit and sip up to 1.25 ounces - the legal limit for distillers to provide - as they chat with others or attend future events.
Alongside that, customers will also be able to enjoy the paintings of Ally Benbrook, Mike’s wife, and other Mountain Area artists in a connected art gallery.
That connection between Mike’s longtime brewery experience, and her art, is what makes Oakhurst Spirits such a unique business, Ally says.
“Both making spirits and art are very creative,” Ally says. “The style of each painting, or each batch of spirits, can be very different. It’s not like you’re buying Jack Daniels, where you get the same thing every time. It’s about having that one-of-a-kind flavor that provides a very unique experience.”
“She’s the artist, not me,” Mike adds with a smile.
Mike, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, has been brewing beer since the 1990s. He said he’s forming partnerships with Oakhurst’s South Gate Brewing Company, and Idle Hour Winery, to cycle the barrels each company uses - responsible for 80% of a liquor’s overall taste, he adds - to help inject additional flavors into each drink.
“So they can age some beers in the barrels we use, and then I’ll get it back and pull some of the flavors from their beer or wine into my whiskey. It’s a real synergistic grouping, where we’ll be able to trade flavors.”
The Benbrooks, who were inspired to move to the area after visiting Yosemite National Park for some 16 years, said they plan on potentially distilling everything from limoncello to honey-infused whiskeys in the future.
Mike said the Mountain Area public was welcome to come enjoy a classy experience at he and Ally’s new business.
“This isn’t a place where you’re going to come here to do shots,” Mike said. “It’s about enjoying the flavors and creativity of what we make to find the right drink for you. You’ll be able to see the whole process here, and you’ll get to taste some truly special spirits.”
Future plans include hosting both community and private events as well as starting a special Whiskey Club for members to enjoy new releases before they hit the shelves for regular customers. A gift shop is also available at the store.