liquid assets

Old World Spirits: Distilling a family legacy

By / Photography By Yvonne Cornell | October 31, 2016
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A visit to Old World Spirits distillery in Belmont feels like stepping into an adventure from a Jules Verne novel, where the distilling system—a large copper turret and tank with five portholes and a warm burnish like a steampunk time machine— takes center stage. Silicon Valley’s own Davorin Kuchan is its master distiller and a third-generation family winemaker. He welcomes visitors with a smile, Old World stories and the hug of someone who loves what he does and wants to share it with the world.

As a young boy growing up in Croatia, Davorin hand-built many of his own alembics (a traditional distilling apparatus used since ancient times). Old World Spirits’ custom copper alembic has a proprietary three-stage distillation process, including an innovative external basket for slow infusions of botanicals. This process allows Davorin to make certain that every drop of spirit from his distillery is delectable and top quality.

The process of fermenting fruit and distilling to a clear liquid is a metaphor for the life story of Lucy and Davorin Kuchan and their small-batch Old World Spirits distillery. A Palo Alto native from a large Irish family, Lucy fell in love with the Croatian-born technology entrepreneur and craftsman, and a beautiful partnership ignited with a mutual desire to gather friends and family and celebrate life with handcrafted spirits.

Old World Inspiration and Kuchan Peach Brandy

Davorin came to the United States in the mid 1980s and, after eventually earning a master’s degree from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, he furthered a successful career in high tech, which still commands his steadfast attention. Despite the grinding schedule of a Silicon Valley executive and business owner, Davorin returns several times a year to his hometown in Croatia and the Kuchan family winery of his youth. When his mother became ill in 2007, Davorin, Lucy and their two young daughters moved to Croatia to care for her and they spent time working alongside Davorin’s uncle in the winery. That year refined a shared commitment to an artisan craft where every family member plays a part.

Having tasted “the family slivovitz (plum brandy) as early as 7 years old,” Davorin founded Old World Spirits distillery in 2005 with the eaux de vie of his youth: pear brandy, black walnut liqueur and absinthe. Lou Bustamante, a San Francisco freelance spirits and cocktail writer, describes the Kuchan Peach Brandy as “a real peach brandy (made entirely from 100% fermented and distilled fruit) and it shows in each warming, summery sip that goes down like bottled sunshine.” Each bottle contains 25 pounds of locally sourced fruit from the Apple Hill region of the Sierra foothills. It is advised to smell, sip and savor this peach of a brandy by holding it delicately on your tongue.

La Sorciére Absinthe

The Old World Spirits and Kuchan Cellar labels were designed by Davorin, and his eldest daughter, Ivana, illustrated the forest fairies on the absinthe bottles. The green and blue fairies are now synonymous with La Sorciére Verte Absinthe and La Sorciére Bleue Absinthe. If you are fortunate enough to enjoy a tasting tour, you will be treated to a magical display when water from the absinthe fountain drips into your absinthe glass.

Blade Gin

The Kuchans spend their summers swimming and sailing and hanging out with local salty surfers, which inspired their Blade Gin. “Blade” is surf slang for a small, quick, high-performance shortboard. “I didn’t want to make a traditional English-style gin, which is heavy in juniper. I wanted to capture and bottle the aroma and scents of citrus and herbs unique to this area. Blade is a fresh, fruit-forward and full-bodied California gin,” said Davorin. Drink it neat, in a martini or—everyone’s favorite—with a splash of tonic water.

“I never drink anything stronger than gin before breakfast.”
—W.C. Fields

In keeping with his entrepreneurial spirit, Davorin began innovating a novel concept of oak-aging gin in the same manner of the wines of his youth. He describes this time as “really nerding out on the process for several years,” and unveiled Rusty Blade Gin in 2005 before the aged-gin category was even recognized. After spending 15 months in French oak barrels, the resulting copper colored gin is ripe with flavors of candied citrus, cardamom, nutmeg, clove and pink peppercorn. This is a gin worthy of sipping straight, yet Davorin offers numerous twists on trusty cocktails such as his showcase original Rusty Nutcracker.

Goldrun Rye Whiskey

Davorin’s whiskey took years of experimentation. Inspired by the gold miners who flocked to California in 1849 and the San Francisco saloons that satiated their thirst, Goldrun Rye Whiskey is made from 100% white, organic rye grains and aged for a minimum of one year in American oak barrels. Distilling with a 100% rye mash is difficult and time consuming—requiring a double distillation process—but it’s worth the extra effort to Davorin, who says he is committed to re-creating an authentic rye with a purity of flavor and aroma similar to his grandmother’s freshly baked rye bread. Due to the time-intensive process, each small batch produces about 25 cases. While the phrase “small batch” is overused by eager marketing teams, Davorin’s custom alembic is a guarantee that each Old World Spirits batch is truly a small batch.

Saint Blaise Vodka and a Legacy Sustained

Devotees of Old World Spirits started clamoring for vodka next. It took Davorin almost eight years of crafting to create Saint Blaise Vodka, introduced in 2015 and named after the popular patron saint, Sveti Blaž or Sveti Vlaho of Dubrovnik, Croatia, a protector against throat injuries and illness. Historically, spirits were imbibed for their medicinal qualities (or so I am told) and a little Saint Blaise may be just what the doctor ordered.

Meticulously crafted, Old World Spirits products have won numerous awards, including the Best of San Francisco Magazine’s 2015 best craft distillery. These kudos affirm a commitment to excellence and enterprise, and their brand motto is anchored in a family-centric business using the finest ingredients and slow hand crafting: Good stuff needs no special effects.™ Whether you visit Old World Spirits in person or through a taste of their products, you will become a part of the Kuchan family.

What’s next? After years of steady growth in Belmont, in 2017 the Kuchans plan to break ground in Morgan Hill on a new site for Kuchan Cellars and Old World Spirits, where they envision an estate winery and distillery. This celebration is bittersweet as the Kuchan family winery in Croatia closes. From Croatia to California, Old World Spirits’ rich legacy is the simple beauty of life distilled to its pure essence. A votre santé.

custom still for distilling assorted liquors
hand filling of whiskey bottles
absinthe bottle and glass paired with citrus
bottle labeling process at distillery Old World Spirits
Photo 1: Davorin and Lucy Kuchan standing by their custom still
Photo 2: Davorin and daughter Ivana hand fill whiskey bottles
Photo 3: Davorin pours a taste of La Sorcière Absinthe.
Photo 4: Lucy and Ivana label bottles
samples poured in distillery tasting room
bottle of Old World Spirits whiskey
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