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Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

Wicked Harvest, Bourbon with a Twist

Aug 25, 2018 11:00AM ● By Melissa Mendonca

Something Wicked This Way Comes

September 2018
Story by Melissa Mendonca
Photos courtesy of Wicked Harvest

SOMETIMES THE SIDEBAR conversations at a meeting can be as productive as the meeting itself. So it was with Jim Zion, managing partner of Meridian Growers in Fresno, and Steve Thompson, owner of Kentucky Artisan Distillery. The two were meeting on behalf of the Cal Poly Food Science and Nutrition Advisory Council three years ago and began musing about how to blend their products to create something new. The idea: nut-infused bourbon aged in wine barrels.

“Before we knew it, we were shipping pistachios and almonds back to Kentucky,” says Zion’s wife and business partner, Gloria. “Within a few months we were on a plane to Kentucky trying our first iterations.” Wicked Harvest Spirits was born.

“We’ve developed this whole business just based on my husband and I,” says Gloria, who is as surprised as anyone to have moved from a career in education in the Central Valley to craft spirits. Gloria’s business card reads “Director of First Impression.” Jim’s says, “Director of Everything Gloria Doesn’t Want to Do.”

“He has a very smart business mind,” says Gloria with a laugh. Steve Thompson says he’s retired but is happy to lend his expertise as a master distiller to the development of this venture that rolled out its first cases just over a year ago.

Wicked Harvest’s first offering, a pistachio-infused bourbon aged in Merlot barrels, is a first to market product, unique in both the nut infusion and selection of wine barrels in which to age it. “For me, it was the wine barrel that got me,” says Gloria, noting that she’s a wine connoisseur who got excited about bringing that element to the bourbon production.

The end product, a wild What if?, came about as a result of seemingly endless experimentation. “Our poor friends,” laughs Gloria. “It got to the point where they were asking if they had to try another iteration.”

“The very first method we tried were almonds,” she says. “We could not get the flavor profile that we found attractive. We put those to the side and then we found the pistachios. I think it’s the oils in the pistachios that creates an amazing long finish.”

Hope has not been lost on the almonds, however. A few months ago, the couple opened one of those early bottles of almond-infused bourbon and found that age had been good to it. “It was delicious,” says Gloria. “There’s a chance we may go back and try a different iteration of the almond again.”

Of course, it’s not enough to just develop a new product. It has to get to the public. “I just loaded up some cases, got in my car and drove to some cool places,” she says with a laugh. The original goal was to keep the product local. “We became our own self distributor because we wanted to pick and choose the shelves we landed on,” she adds. A few news stories about the new business, however, brought  wide awareness to the product, so much so that the couple was approached by Total Wine and More for inclusion in the company’s state-wide inventory. They are now on tour with Wicked Harvest visiting every store in California.

The pistachio bourbon has caught the attention of judges as well, garnering a silver medal at this year’s California Craft Spirits Competition in Paso Robles.

The pistachio experiment has the couple now wondering what else can be done with nuts, bourbon and wine barrels. In the works now is an Oregon hazelnut infused bourbon aged in pinot noir barrels from the Willamette Valley. “I grew up in Oregon,” says Gloria, who is happy to feature the products of her home area. They are also working with a pecan infusion, but say that offering will be “down the road.”

The road Wicked Harvest is on now has been filled with eye-opening views, unexpected terrain and a few hair-pin turns. “This has not been easy,” says Gloria, noting the deep regulations of the distillery business. “It’s been a huge learning experience. If you give me Ed Code I can read and interpret it. But there isn’t a code book for this.” She laughs that their next venture might be a book about navigating the rules and regulations. “We have had to become extreme experts in what is legal and what is not.”

Still, it’s the ride of a lifetime for Jim and Gloria. “This is never anything we envisioned a year ago,” she says. It seems to be so much more. •

Wicked Harvest Spirits •

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