As one of California’s most notable winemakers, Dave Phinney worked his way up the wine chain, beginning with Robert Mondavi in 1997.
He went on to start his own Napa Valley brand, Orin Swift Cellars, and eventually created the best-selling wine The Prisoner. Now, this wine making powerhouse has turned his sights to spirits making with Savage & Cooke, a distillery he founded and opened in 2018. We asked Phinney how he made the move from winemaker to spirits maker and what’s next for the liquor industry marvel.
Tell us about your new spirits and distillery.
The Savage & Cooke distillery is based on historic Mare Island in Northern California. The location is absolutely stunning. I decided on Mare Island as our home because this place is truly special. It’s a decommissioned naval base with incredible history and architecture. The buildings we occupy date back to 1864. We were able to restore and retain the history in these buildings, while at the same time turning them into a state-of-the-art distillery specifically designed for our needs. We produce The Burning Chair Bourbon, Second Glance American Whiskey, and our soon-to-be-released Lip Service Rye Whiskey. We also have an extremely rare 13-year-old whiskey and 15-year-old bourbon for the tasting room only. I am so excited for people to experience the distillery, as I believe they’ll truly be blown away. I remember the first time I saw the potential of the site, and can’t wait to share that feeling.
What sets these spirits apart in the industry?
I believe there are many elements that make our spirits different and special—the most notable being the fact that we finish all of our spirits in my wine barrels. Through many rounds of experimentation, we came to the conclusion that finishing in wine barrels adds a distinct character to the spirits and really contributes to the mouthfeel. The texture is really important to me and it’s something that I pay a lot of attention to. We’re also blessed with a very unique water source. We titrate the spirits with pristine spring water that comes from one of my properties high up in Alexander Valley. This water has high mineral content and contributes to the texture and overall quality of the spirits. Finally, I think it’s important to know that this is a vision and a dream that is in progress. There are things that we’re doing now to really set ourselves up for the future. Within just a few short years, we will truly be grain-to-glass as we’ll be exclusively distilling grain that we’ve grown in our fields in Winters, about 30 miles from the distillery. This includes traditional and heirloom corn varieties.
What would you like bartenders to know about your spirits?
I want bartenders to know that there’s a lot of heart and soul in these spirits. I take it very personally. We’re not a big factory pumping out spirits all day, every day—we are a small family operation and obsess over every single detail. Things that most people would not even notice, I spend hours agonizing over as I really want to put out the very best spirits possible. There are so many choices available today, so when a bartender chooses one of our spirits to use in a cocktail, it’s one of the best compliments we could ever receive and extremely humbling.
Talk to us about the transition from winemaking to distilling spirits.
It just feels really natural. It wasn’t this big, thought-out plan; it just naturally fell into place, and I think that is often the best way for things to unfold. I love spirits, and I’m fascinated by the process. There are many elements that are similar to wine, but obviously there are many differences, and that has allowed me to learn, experiment, and try my hand at a new craft. Many of the things that are important to me in winemaking—texture, mouthfeel, quality, and making something that is unique—translate to spirits. We are having a ton of fun, and I hope others come along for the ride and enjoy what we do.
As one of the most successful winemakers-turned-distillers, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
I’m just really grateful for the success—sometimes it’s hard to believe. I didn’t come from a winemaking family, so finding my way into wine was honestly driven by passion and a lot of luck. One thing led to another, and I really worked hard to make it in this industry. I had a lot of help from a lot of people along the way. Honestly, though, what I’m most proud of is my family and kids. Making wine and spirits is an amazing profession, but for me, family always comes first.
What’s next for you?
I love having a million things going on and thrive in the chaos. It’s exciting and exhilarating to see this project come to life. Who knows what’s next—time will only tell—but I do have a lot of ideas.