Sean Venus is a thief. At least that’s what it says on the baseball cap atop his dusty blond head. Actually, it says “El Ladrón,” or “the thief” in Spanish, the name Sean chose for the blue agave line of his eponymous Venus Spirits distillery in Santa Cruz, California.
What makes Sean a thief is that the world knows alcohol made from blue agave as tequila. Due to designation of origin provisions, however, spirits made from the tequilana Weber Blue species of agave are only legally allowed to be called tequila if they are produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco. And Santa Cruz is definitely not Jalisco.
“We are trying to create a different category, the traditional meeting the new,” explains Sean. What makes El Ladrón traditional is that Venus sources organic agave juice from the highlands of Jalisco and works, through minimal processing, to preserve the natural agave character. Another commonality is the traditional tequila trio that makes up the El Ladrón lineup: blanco, reposado, and añejo. All three spirits start with double distillation and are then aged for varying lengths of time to produce different results. The blanco rests in stainless steel drums and tastes fruity, sweet, and salty. The reposado spends three to six months in whiskey barrels, which gives it flavor notes of caramel and spice. The añejo (aged) sits in those barrels for a full year, the wood layering notes of pepper and vanilla into the finished product.
All three versions of El Ladrón blue agave spirits leave Venus bottled in curvy glass. Hidden on the interior of the labels are mysterious historical photos and script. The design enhances the “thief” theme and leaves it up to the imbiber to decide what kind of criminal El Ladrón really is. “Is this a Robin Hood kind of thief or something darker?” muses Sean, but ultimately, “The thief is not this character that we are creating, the thief is inside me.” Sean is stealing the spirit and making it his own, but not without a respectful nod of his ball cap to the craft of tequila making. Those who sip El Ladrón are the beneficiaries of his crime because his desire to domesticate tequila has resulted in a fine imposter.
“Not too many people are making American ‘tequila’ because it is very difficult to ferment,” explains Sean, “We kind of cracked the code on it and figured it out.” That innovation is what makes his take, El Ladrón, a new product. He parts ways with tradition by using California wine yeast for the fermentation process as opposed to commercial brewer’s yeast or the cultivated natural yeasts that most tequila makers use. Venus Spirits itself is young, as far as distilleries go, but part of what gives Sean the confidence to experiment in this way is experience.
Sean began home brewing more than twenty years ago. At 20 years old, he got his first job as an assistant brewer, and then he worked with other craft breweries in Eugene, Oregon. He spent six years at Gordon Biersch Brewing Company in San Jose, California, a position that brought him to California, along with the fact that his wife is a Santa Cruz native.
Following his time in the beer world, he spent eight years working in distribution and product development for various organic food companies. Those funny little squeeze packs made by Mamma Chia that your toddler sucks down? That was all Sean. But looking back, he now sees how Venus was his endgame all along.
“It is almost like my journey to start Venus Spirits began 20 years ago and everything I have done thus far has brought me closer to realizing this dream. The skills that I learned while working in beer are something that I utilize everyday in whiskey wash production and fermentation.”
It was in 2012 that Sean first had the idea to launch his own distillery, largely based on the training that he already had. “The distillation portion was a bit trial and error . . . influenced by lots of reading on the subject,” he recalls, but between his background in brewing and his experience in the organic food industry, the building blocks were there.
“During my life in organic food, I helped develop, launch, and market hundreds of products. . . . I really began to understand the distribution and how to build a brand with the retailers that share your vision. In 2013, I had been watching market trends in spirits and began finding similarities between the craft beer industry of the 1990s and the current craft spirits market. I knew if I wanted to start a distillery this was going to be the time to do it.”
Sean decided to go for it. He found a home for this dream project in a 4,000-square-foot warehouse space that had formerly housed both another distillery and a winery. Located on the West Side of Santa Cruz, it sits just a stone’s throw from the craggy cliffs of the Pacific Ocean. He launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund a slick design and build-out of the Venus tasting room and then hired a local firm, Stripe Design Group, to help actualize the project.
In May of 2014, Venus Spirits began distilling and by July their first product, Venus Gin Blend No. 01, was on the shelves. The first batch of El Ladrón followed soon after, in September of 2014. Now, the cool concrete surfaces of the space, with its warm, charred wood and copper bar, beckon visitors to taste an array of clear and mahogany-hued liquors on display.
Since they first rolled open the door and began production, Venus has won an impressive number of awards and is gaining respect in the spirits community. The El Ladrón blanco took Gold in 2015 from the American Distilling Institute, followed by the same award in 2016 for the reposado. Out of 900 whiskeys, Venus’s Wayward rye won Silver in 2016, an impressive achievement for such a newcomer. “We have a really solid portfolio, produced under one roof, and there’s not one that I’m not proud of,” says Sean.
Why does Venus make such a variety of spirits? Sean explains that “historically, brewers of a specific area would only produce one style of beer, such as kölsch in Cologne, porter in London, pilsner in Pilsen, or Märzen and Munich in Bavaria. But the modern craft brewer makes stouts, IPAs, sours, and lagers. It only makes sense that a craft distiller has the same approach. There are many distillers that only produce whiskey, rum, or vodka. But I see that as a lot of missed opportunities. . . . Agave and aquavit allow us to break away from the pack and offer something different.”
Following this innovative philosophy, each spirit varies from batch to batch, evolving slightly with the seasons and with technique. They change slightly based on how the hand-pounded Spanish copper alembic still filters out sulfur compounds in each recipe. Aligned with the handcrafted nature of these spirits, each bottle bears a handwritten batch number on the back. Next to it appears a demure organic certification label. Sean chooses to adhere to (and pay for) the rigorous organic certification standards because he very much supports the organic movement, yet he wanted his work to stand on its own without an organic label being the first thing to people would see.
Sean’s products — gin, whiskey, aquavit, bourbon, rye, and blue agave — don’t need organic certification to be impressive. Dilute in neither quality nor nuance, each one is distinctive, yet there is a continuity they all share. “We incorporate a little bit of Santa Cruz, a little bit of the West Coast in all of our products,” says Sean.
In fact, the Pacific climate is an integral part of Sean’s place-specific, small batch spirits. He explains, “This building is so open to the elements. Anyone making spirits will talk about how the environment influences the distilling process, how fluctuation of temperature pulls and pushes that spirit in and out of the [wood of the] barrel.” Anything made in this neighborhood of Santa Cruz results in a flavor profile inclusive of the “coastal air layered with salinity,” he explains. “Those essences are in our products.”
Besides the salinity in the air, Venus sources the bay leaves, fennel, and sage in the Gin Blend No. 02 from local farms. These, combined with some ageing time in American oak, give the spirit an unmistakable essence of the Santa Cruz Mountains. “You can go take a walk and smell the gin,” he says.
Take a walk closer to the distillery and you’ll smell it, too. Each time they clean out the still between batches the aroma wafts through the neighborhood. The warm, malty whiff of barley comes from a single malt bourbon. On other days, “when we are emptying out the gin it smells like Christmas,” Sean says. And our elusive thief, El Ladrón? That smells just like salt and pepper.
Photos by Angela Aurelio