Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
Half Moon Bay Distillery owner Ulli Bisono explains how she makes fine liquors such as fruit brandy, whiskey and vodka in her still.
Drawing inspiration from a small Austrian town and an unmarked graveyard near Half Moon Bay, a local spirits distiller is weaving her heritage and coastal history into artisan-crafted vodka, whiskey and fruit brandy concoctions.
Husband-and-wife duo Caesar Bisono and Ulli Bisono began Half Moon Bay Distillery after an inspiring sip of an Austrian farmer’s pear brandy.
Ulli Bisono said she grew up in Austria and despised the traditional fruit brandy moonshiners used to produce as a way to avoid steep liquor taxes and make use of the rotten produce farmers couldn’t sell.
Decades later, Bisono said she was visiting her hometown when she was introduced to a neighboring distiller whose pear brandy forever changed her life.
“I was blown away. It was truly like that magic moment when you hear angels sing on the tip of your tongue. It was really a revelation for me, I fell in love with it,” Bisono said. “It was literally that perfect pear at the most essence of its existence, and he squeezed that into a bottle. That’s what really blew me away. … You can really see that fruit in front of you. That’s what it’s really all about. You want to capture the essence of what you’re distilling.”
Bisono said she knew she needed to bring the quality spirit home but, due to strict liquor regulations, importing it wasn’t an option. Instead, Bisono said she and her husband decided on their own venture. They created their own company and learned from the Austrian distiller who refined his craft by carefully picking fruit in its prime and making it in small batches.
Before she knew it, Bisono said she was browsing Craigslist looking for local homeowners who were offering free fruit from their backyards.
Bisono, an attorney who owns a small successful real estate company, and her husband, an ex-jockey who now manages a large horse ranch in Woodside, spent time with the award-winning Austrian distiller. About a year and a half ago, they opened Half Moon Bay Distillery in Princeton.
Thus far, they’ve distilled small batches of vodka, whiskey and brandy. Anxiously awaiting further permitting and equipment, they expect to begin sales in August or September, Bisono said.
Bisono, now a prohibition buff, said she mixes Californian’s appreciation for locally crafted products with tales of coastal history.
The distillery’s first signature product is Purissima Vodka, which suitably translates to “pure” and is named after the ghost town harboring an unmarked graveyard just south of Half Moon Bay.
“As far as I can tell, I think we’re the only legal distillery on the San Mateo coast ever. So that’s kind of cool and especially with Half Moon Bay and Princeton being this hotbed of booze smuggling history with all the rum runners coming down from Canada. That’s kind of fun there’s a lot of history tied to liquor,” Bisono said.
Somewhat in trend with microbreweries becoming increasingly popular, more artisan distillers have begun to tap into the market. However, antiquated laws dating back to prohibition are still on the books and, as a producer, Bisono said distillers cannot sell directly to a consumer. Purissima Vodka and other Half Moon Bay Distillery products will be available through wholesalers, restaurants and bars, Bisono said.
Although distilling requires navigating more red tape than a winery or brewery, Bisono said they take pride in creating a product that can’t be matched by larger scale producers.
“It goes back to prohibition and during prohibition what happened is a lot of the small distilleries got completely wiped out because they couldn’t make a living,” Bisono said. “So it really concentrated the liquor industry into large corporations.”
It took months to garner the required federal, state and county permits and Bisono said they’re still holding out for one more before they can start bottling. Because they’re located in Princeton just north of Pillar Point Harbor, Bisono said they also had to pay $4,700 just for a permit through the California Coastal Commission.
But Bisono said she’s confident they’ve found a perfect locale, surrounded by people who truly appreciate handcrafted, locally sourced products.
As creative and fun as foraging in people’s backyards for organic fruit may be, and she’s always looking for people who want to avoid letting fruit rot on the ground, Bisono said they eventually aim to work with an orchard nearby.
Bisono said plans to only sell Half Moon Bay Distillery liquors on the coast for the first year and expects a 750 milliliter bottle of Purissima vodka to start around $28.
Whiskey and fruit brandy will likely cost more due to the increased time and effort they take to distill, Bisono said.
Currently, the couple has invested about $150,000 and has a Kickstarter campaign aimed to raise $25,000 to purchase labeling and bottling equipment, Bisono said. She’s established fun ways for individuals to support them such as designing a tile for $75 that will be installed along a wall in their distillery, $45 for a custom engraved flask, $35 to attend their grand opening party or $250 for a unique hands-on distilling workshop.
Although her heart still yearns for the sweet clean taste of an Austrian pear brandy, Bisono and her husband continue to tirelessly evolve their business and highlight the rich history and quality produce the San Mateo County coast has to offer.
“I really think the whole locavore movement got started in the Bay Area and this food culture we have is unmatchable in the rest of the United States,” Bisono said. “There are all these different variables that affect the product. The kind of yeast, the type of process … so all of these things, that’s where the craft element comes in. And I really think you can’t duplicate it with a computer program. But it’s a very sensory art. A true distiller, he’ll smell and taste and touch it as it comes out of the still. You need all of your senses to do it.”
For more information about the Half Moon Bay Distillery and its Kickstarter campaign visit www.hmbdistillery.com.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106