For most folks, the experience of underage drinking could not be construed as a positive career choice, but there are exceptions to every rule.

It’s been a busy season for Aaron Bergh, founder of Calwise Spirits in Paso Robles, near the Tin City development. On June 9th the company held their Grand Opening celebration with family, friends and investors, and a documentary filmmaker was even on hand to profile Bergh as the youngest master craft distiller in the U.S.

“In high school I had my first taste of hard rot-gut vodka,” the brewer and distiller admitted, “but I started to like spiced rum.”

He added that when he started making his own hooch at college that brands like Captain Morgan had an influence, “In that I didn’t want my stuff to taste like that,” he explained. “I set out to create a more refined flavor.”

While Bergh started with blonde and spiced rums, served at restaurants throughout the Central Coast, the big award winner is the company’s gin. On June 19th, the California Craft Spirits Competition held its third annual blind-tasting event at the California Mid-State Fair and declared Calwise Spirits’ Big Sur Gin their “Best New Western Gin.” The panel had 51 blind-tasted entries to choose from.
Flavored with herbs native to the Big Sur region, the gin joins the trio of spirits intended to evoke a feeling of California. Similarly, the name Calwise is a regional take on “streetwise.”

Accolades for the gin are fitting, a very nose forward concoction started from a locally sourced chardonnay-base, the herbal character comes out as it evaporates easily on the tongue.

It is, says Rebecca Graham, bartender and server at the new tasting room at 3340 Ramada Drive, “a gin for people who say they don’t like gin.”

The spirits sell for $35 a bottle, and until the opening of Calwise’s own tasting room, would-be co-insurers had to go looking for the products on the menu at Fish Gaucho in Paso Robles or Flour House and Novo in San Luis Obispo. Whole Foods, BevMo!, Vons and the California Fresh Markets in San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach (not yet in Paso Robles) also carry the brand. Originally from Ventura, Bergh ended up at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo merging viticulture with brewing and business, working through the Cal Poly Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation ‘HotHouse’ pro- gram to launch the start up.

“The school just got his gears moving,” said Aaron’s father Eric Bergh, whilst enjoying the June 9 celebration, “None of this came from me and my wife [Kathy Bergh].”

While that wasn’t strictly true (after all, the lemons in the fresh cock- tails did come from the family lemon tree, and Eric had been making trips to help his son and Graham burn the midnight oil in getting the venue ready to open), he praised the school’s approach to cultivating entrepreneurs and helping him get investors.

There is deeper family history at work, too.

Above the door leading to 3,000 square feet of workshop and warehouse space hangs a peculiar artifact, a battered dome of copper with gashes punctuating its form. It’s the remains of Eric Bergh’s great grandfather’s moonshine still, wrecked in a prohibition-era raid in northern Minnesota and left buried for 40 years after the family moved west.
Eric Bergh noted that family legend says the bust might have had something to do with competitors ratting out their neighbors for an increased share of the black market. While this generation has “gone legit,” serving up tasteful cocktails with Mediterranean influenced cuisine, pizza, salad, soups, appetizers and desserts, Aaron notes he has something in common with his forebearers in that everyone in the field these days starts off in a garage. He has much better relationships with his neighbors though, which include a brewery and a winery. The variety of products created at all three opens the door to Calwise whiskey and brandy in the future.

Standing in front of a gleaming brand-new custom still—shipped over from China because U.S. manufacturers take two years for such orders—Bergh is equally comfortable discussing business strategy as he is details of production, but he hasn’t lost the experimental edge, explaining the equipment will let them explore new styles as well as amp up production of the existing product line.

“My first idea had been to use [waste product from wineries] to make brandy, but that’s very labor intensive,” he noted, “so we’re experimenting with single malt right now.”

Hours at the new Calwise location near Tin City are: Thursday -Friday, 4pm – 9pm and Saturday- Sunday 12pm – 9pm.

Camas Frank has been a San Luis Obispo County print journalist for over a decade. First drawn to the Central Coast for a stint at Cal Poly, he’s focused on community affairs, people and technology.