As college kids in the 1990s, Joe Barton and Stephen Kroener helped their parents start up wineries in Paso Robles.
With the wineries now celebrating their 20th anniversaries, the pair has embarked on a distilling project that harkens back to their early days in winemaking.
“It’s just like the wineries,” Barton said. “We’re learning on the fly. There’s a lot of trial and error.”
Krobār Craft Distillery is one of the trailblazers of San Luis Obispo County’s fledgling distilling trade, producing spirits found on the shelves of the region’s top cocktail bars. (“Krobār” is a mashup of the founders’ last names.) The company also operates a small tasting room behind Barton’s winery off Highway 46 West.
Conceived on a hungover skiing trip to Tahoe six years ago, the idea to start a distillery led to more liquor-filled nights in the name of research — “We tasted all the stuff that’s out there,” Barton said — and more trips, including a journey to Moonshine University in the country’s distilling epicenter, Louisville, Kentucky, to learn the basics.
“We didn’t know anything about it,” Barton said. “It was three years before we distilled even one batch.”
Once they started, however, it was hard to stop. The list of spirits with which they’re experimenting continues to grow.
“It’s like being a mad scientist,” Kroener said with a grin.
Their laboratory consists of the copper columns, pipes and gauges of their Vendome Copper & Brass Works still and a botanical library of jars filled with herbs, spices, roots and fruits.
A meticulous mix of those botanicals flavors Krobār’s gin, made by producing neutral brandy then re-distilling with the desired ingredients, such as a forthcoming four-pepper version. Some of the gin is then aged in oak barrels, giving it the brown tint, slight sweetness and spice of a young whiskey.
Rye whiskey, made with rye, corn and grapes, is a mainstay of the Krobār operation. Coming soon is bourbon, a corn-based whiskey aged eight months in a proprietary accelerated process.
Krobār also uses Kroener’s albariño and Barton’s grenache blanc and viognier to make a white wine aperitif called “Lit,” fortified with brandy and flavored with gentian root, elderflower, fennel, bitter orange and star anise. And the company’s line of Bangin’ Bitters offers high-proof bitter, bittersweet and sour cocktail flavorings.
“We want to make a whole bar and bring it to you — everything you need to make a cocktail,” Barton said.
To help customers make the most of their ingredients, Barton and Kroener are working with local bartenders on a book of cocktail recipes.
The two are continuing to add to the Krobār lineup. Vodka is coming soon, as is a sweet vermouth called “Kamp” and an absinthe-like libation using wine, wormwood and other botanicals, similar to the French Absentroux.
They also want to try their hand at rum and sloe gin. And plums growing on Barton’s property had the pair recently pondering a plum brandy.
To taste Krobār’s creations outside a cocktail bar, follow the signs from Grey Wolf Cellars back to the distillery, which has the feel of a hidden lair. There, you can peek into the copper works, belly up to the bar, perch on a red velvet throne or even tickle the ivories on an old piano.
Afterward, wander outside to the shady patio, find a spot looking over the vineyards spread out before you and linger for a while.
Grain once grew in those fields, not grapevines. It’s a sight Barton would like to see come back; he envisions using local grains in Krobār’s spirits.
Early efforts to get local farmers on board haven’t panned out, but Barton, betting on the long game, is experimenting with planting wheat, barley and rye in the field below his vineyards.
“I dream of building a malt house some day,” he said.
Krobār Craft Distillery
2174 Highway 46, Paso Robles
Hours: Noon to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday, or by appointment
The scene: A cozy tasting room with a speakeasy vibe, wrap-around bar and antique furnishings, with a spacious patio overlooking vineyards shared with Barton Family Wines’ Grey Wolf Cellars tasting room. Lunch offerings from Jeffry’s Catering at Barton’s Kitchen Window.
The offerings: A variety of spirits including brandy, gin, rye whiskey, bitters and a white wine aperitif. More coming soon.
Expect to spend: $15 tasting fee, $5 single taste. $25 for tasting and tour by reservation. Spirits $40 to $60 per bottle.