Elk Fence: the story behind the distillery

David Briggs
Gail Coppinger and Scott Woodson grew the barley for their first whiskey on the Kehoe Ranch, on Tomales Point. Now their Elk Fence Distillery has a home in Santa Rosa and is delivering whiskey, gin and vodka to customers while they search for a distributor.   

Like many good stories of turning a passion into a profession, Gail Coppinger and Scott Woodson started out in a garage. They were brewing beer, learning the ins and outs of turning grain into liquor and falling in love with the craft—the art, the science and the smell.

From this garage in Inverness came a vision: to launch a distillery where the finest spirits are made, allowing them to leave their day jobs behind. 

Fast forward to today, and Scott and Gail have fulfilled their vision. The Elk Fence Distillery, named for the spot on Tomales Point where they grew their first barley, opened in Santa Rosa last month, and they are delivering whiskey, gin and vodka to customers in West Marin. 

“When someone takes a drink of an Elk Fence spirit, they’re going to go ‘Wow, that’s the best whiskey I’ve ever had,’ or, ‘That’s the best gin I’ve had,’” Gail said. “We’ve only had the gin out for less than a month now and we’ve gotten calls from bartenders and serious gin drinkers saying it’s their favorite—that’s our intent.”

It was a long journey to reach this point. Gail and Scott visited distilleries around the country, solicited investments from friends and family, and developed the best recipes through trial and error. They searched for years for a viable location for their heavy equipment and tasting room, and finally found a spot with a landlord who was open to the idea, with two rooms, one a cozy whiskey den and the other a bright and clean warehouse. They fell in love with the spot.

“I still have to pinch myself every time I walk in here,” Scott said. 

“Every time I wake up and go to the distillery, it’s a good day,” Gail added.

Navigating the strict and complex rules of distilling hard liquor was another challenge, and it included Scott divorcing his wife, Cat, because she worked at Hog Island Oyster Company, and Alcoholic Beverage Control prohibits hard liquor producers and sellers from being in the same household. Cat was supportive and willing.

Gail and Scott met in the ‘90s. She was a shingler and he was a painter, and they were working on the same custom home in Kentfield. It was a challenging job because the owner had Alzheimer’s and was constantly changing his mind, and Scott and Gail developed a friendship. 

They say they make a good team because they have fun together. Both are laidback people, but serious about the craft of distilling. Compromise and communication are key to their success, and both can handle all aspects of running the distillery.

Scott and Gail saw each other more in the 2000s while Gail owned Golden Point Produce in the Cowgirl Creamery building, where she sold organic fruits and vegetables. Scott shopped there, and one day he invited her over to make beer in his garage.

Scott started making beer decades ago, after a friend gifted him a beer-making kit. He heard horror stories about beer that came out tasting like a dirty sock, so he didn’t expect the first run to be successful. But surprisingly, he brewed a delicious British pale ale. He started making beer every weekend, taking over his garage with brew kettles, pumps and burners. 

“When I wasn’t painting houses, I was making beer,” he said. 

Gail also enjoyed the process the first time she tried it, especially the smell, which reminds her of hot cereal. 

Brewing beer is a similar process to distilling liquor, but it’s illegal to distill at home. Both Scott and Gail are whiskey drinkers, so they wanted to make it legally, and they started talking about how to do so. A friendship became a business partnership. 

They created a business plan, found 30 investors, and began searching for the right equipment: a roller mill, a mash tun, pumps and two stills, which boil then condense liquids to extract select compounds desired in liquor. They purchased two large copper stills, 600 and 300 gallons, from Trident Stills in Maine. Before the company would ship the equipment, they sent Gail and Scott to distilleries in Kentucky and Pennsylvania that used the stills. The pair worked side-by-side with the owners there, learning the steps, the vocabulary and the laws.

The stills arrived in 2017, before Elk Fence Distillery had found a suitable location, so they sat in storage while Gail and Scott looked for the perfect spot. Finding one was a challenge because the building must be zoned industrial and the landlord has to be okay with hosting a distillery. They initially went to the permitting department in Marin and asked what it would take to open the first distillery in the county. The clerk said that’s like asking what the meaning of life is, so they moved on to Sonoma County.

Elk Fence Distillery is nestled among car dealerships in an office building just off of Highway 101. The location was perfect because it has plenty of natural light, the proper piping and drainage and large roll-up doors. It’s the first distillery in Santa Rosa.

When Gail and Scott signed the lease, it looked nothing like it does today. Using their painting and building skills, they refurbished the office space into a classic whiskey den, mounted buck head and all. The furniture is wooden, and the ceiling is tin. The redwood bar was made in the 1860s, and the upright piano is from 1897. They were scheduled to have a grand opening party in March, but the tasting room is closed for now because of Covid-19.

The warehouse is where the magic happens. Each step of the process has been finetuned to their satisfaction, and now it’s just a matter of repetition. Whether they’re making whiskey, gin or vodka, the distilling process is mostly the same.

The whiskey and vodka are made with just three ingredients: barley, water and yeast. Gail and Scott first grew the barley themselves on their friend Tim Kehoe’s ranch on Tomales Point, just next to the namesake elk fence. But cow silage took priority over the barley, and after the silage was harvested, the mustard stuck around, interfering with the barley farm. So now, they buy barley from regional malt houses.

The process begins when the barley kernels are ground into a flour, then soaked and stirred in hot water in a large steel vessel, called a mash tun, to extract the sugars. 

If they are making gin, this is when botanicals, like juniper berries, are added. Elk Fence’s gin uses a secret recipe, and Scott said it has few ingredients with coriander as its centerpiece. The simplicity gives the gin a sharp, distinct flavor.

From the mash tun comes a sweet liquid called wort. The wort is pumped through a chiller until it falls to 78 degrees Fahrenheit, just right for yeast to ferment in a tank. For four days, the yeast eats the sugar, producing alcohol and other compounds.

These steps are fairly standard across distilleries. The art comes in with the copper stills. Depending on time and temperature, stills extract certain compounds and discard others. The timing of these cuts is key in the quality and taste of the alcohol. When the copper stills first vaporize the liquid, they extract the lighter compounds, called heads. The heads are toxic, found in paint thinners and lighter fluid. Less careful distilleries will include them in their liquor because there is some alcohol and it’s costly to discard, but the Elk Fence Distillery tries to make its cut as late as possible, when the alcohol, or hearts, begins to vaporize. 

The hearts are the good stuff that the human body knows how to flush. Any distiller tries to get as much of the hearts as possible. Then as the temperature increases and time goes by, heavier compounds, called tails, begin to vaporize and then condense, and the distillery stops collecting the liquid. Like the heads, the tails are harmful and contribute to a nasty hangover.

Once the alcohol is distilled, it is filtered and mixed with water to a desired strength. It comes out as vodka, or if botanicals were mixed in, as gin. To make a whiskey, the liquor is put into an oak barrel and aged for two years, when it develops its flavor and color. The process is complete.

Looking forward, Scott and Gail hope to expand their capabilities to make bourbon next year, and eventually a whiskey that ages for 10 years. They have been selling out of their products, as whiskey fans spend hundreds on bulk purchases and gin drinkers clamor for more. 

Scott and Gail do this whole process by themselves, all the way to sticking the labels on the bottle. They have the capability for 1,900 bottles a week and are seeking a distributor that can help them get into grocery stores, bars and restaurants, because laws prohibit self-distribution. Before a distributor will sign a contact, the distiller must have a pallet ready to go. Once the contract is signed, Scott and Gail hope to quit their jobs and ramp up to full production. 

Seeing their product featured at places like the Palace Market is a dream. “It will be a great day, walking into a grocery store and seeing our product on the shelf,” Scott said. In the meantime, they’re doing curbside sales and deliveries. To give it a taste, email Gail at grcoppinger@earthlink.net.