A local team looks to make it big with a brand-new liquor like nothing else.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
“There can’t be good living,” Benjamin Franklin once professed, “where there is not good drinking.”
These are words that Richard Oh lives by: In 2004, the local entrepreneur started a winery, Otter Cove in the Santa Lucia Highlands, and shortly after, he put on a lab coat and devised Ohzone, a 70-proof distilled grape spirit that he’ll debut Friday, Oct. 16, around downtown Monterey.
“I love making wine and spirits,” Oh says, “because it brings so much joy to others.”
About three years ago Oh and his friend and fellow winemaker Dan Tudor devised a way to use the excess alcohol from their wines through a proprietary, centrifuge extraction process. Unlike grappa, a grape-based brandy made from hot distilling grape seeds and stems, Ohzone is made by cold distilling pure grape alcohol.
Even in Ohzone’s infant stages, the two winemakers knew they were on to something – not only did no one go blind, but virtually everyone who tried it wanted more. But the potion still needed a lot of refining. Parties at Oh’s house, which became known as “The Ohzone,” became more like raucous tasting events than mellow get-togethers.
“I have been stoked to be one of Oh’s test bunnies,” friend Darrion Bonnet says.
Oh’s trials are akin to those of liquor pioneers like Jacob Beam, who experimented with the corn and grains he grew on his farm in the 1700s, eventually leading to the innovation of Jim Beam whisky. After two years, Oh perfected a new concoction for inebriation.
The process begins with the extraction of excess alcohol from Oh’s Otter Cove wine, followed by cold distillation and filtration. The end product is unlike vodka, gin, rum, tequila or moonshine, though it can take their place in cocktails – a versatility upon which Oh and friends are hinging much of their marketing.
“You could mix [Ohzone] with anything, even other kinds of liquor like Malibu Rum,” Oh says. “This product is going to be huge.”
Oh believes in his product so much, he says he uses Ohzone in every mixed drink he makes these days.
“It’s so hard to pick my favorite [drink]; I love them all and it depends on the mood I’m in,” Oh says. “Last night, I made an Ohgasm – Ohzone, peach Schnapps, pineapple juice and cranberry juice – and it hit the spot.”
After the years spent refining the spirit and the six months plus it took to get a license from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, developing Ohzone has become more than a rowdy hobby: Oh and his two silent partners (former Weekly columnist Ray Napolitano and Tudor) are planning on taking the sauce global.
A week before the silky juice becomes available to the public, Oh and a Lollapalooza bartender look like mad chemists as they prepare some Ohzone cocktails behind the bar.
The liquor itself is totally clear and pleasantly smooth, easily melding with everything it’s mixed with. As Oh points out, this can be a good thing, and it can be quite dangerous.
“You have to be careful because you can’t really taste it,” he says.
First up on our taste sequence is the CosmOh. It has a presentation similar to the traditional Cosmo but the taste is much more candied. The sugarcoated rim of the glass is a nice touch.s
The Ohgasm follows like cool rainfall on a hot and humid summer day – and sometimes the thick of a bar, even on a winter night, can feel hot and humid.
The most psychedelic of the Oh drinks, Ohasis (Ohzone, Malibu rum, sweet and sour, and Blue Curacao), looks more like those red, white and blue Bombpops than a drink. It also has that familiar icy fusion of sweet candy and sour citrus.
While amenable to these fancier flavor plays, the spirit is also quaint enough to work without all the bells and whistles: It’s smooth with a simple splash of cranberry or orange juice. Oh says it’s the cold distillation process that makes Ohzone less harsh than vodka or gin.
Recipes for 14 (and counting) original Ohzone cocktails are already available on www.ohzonespirits.com, along with a couple of Ohzone-inspired dishes like Oh Suzette banana crepes. The “Oh” names and cocktail ideas continue to come.
“How bout ‘OhMG’ or ‘OhJob,’” Bonnet says. “I’ve been thinking up names all day.”
The flood of playful namesakes and many complimentary cocktail combinations offer evidence that Oh has already achieved his number one goal: Bringing joy to others. Let the Oh flow.
OHZONE LAUNCH PARTY happens 9pm-midnight, Friday, Oct. 16, at Lollapalooza, 474 Alvarado St., 645-9036; Doc’s, 1803 E. Franklin Street, 649-4241; The Mucky Duck, 479 Alvarado St., 655-3031. Doc’s afterparty at midnight. Ohzone drinks $2; Ohzone retails for $23 per 750ml bottle.