Raising the Bar on Spirits
Life’s path is not always straight. Typically, after earning a master’s degree, one settles into a career and so begins the journey. Not so for Colin Baker. Just two years after graduating from USC with a master’s degree in accounting and landing a job at one of the Big Four accounting firms in Los Angeles, Baker realized he had zero intellectual motivation for his job. He decided to leave the security of a life he’d just started and pursue a career in crafting beer.
Baker’s intention was to make the United Kingdom his new home, but he needed a long-term visa to stay. For that reason, he enrolled in the Master’s in Brewing & Distilling Program at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. There he discovered Scotch whisky and fell in love with the process and technique of distillation.
“As weird as it is, I am happy that I was so unhappy at what I was doing,” mused Baker. “I might not have done something as outrageous as quitting my job and moving to another country to work in a totally different industry without any formal training.”
Baker was one of the top students in his class and it was becoming more and more apparent he had an excellent palate for spirits. Now Baker’s creative mind was spinning. His life path was clearer. He wanted to open his own distillery. He recruited his friend Matt Meyer, who he had met years before when studying at the London School of Economics to go into business with him, and so began the three-year process of planning their new company. Baker’s engineering-like brain began designing three unique stills. Once he perfected his designs, he approached the top German still manufacturer – Carl GmbH – to take his drawings and make it a reality.
“What I designed was way beyond anything they had built for the American market and at first, they didn’t take me seriously because it was so ambitious, but when I had the money to fund it, they knew I was serious,” said Baker. “They went above and beyond for us. We are now their American flagship for distilling equipment.”
Baker said the craftsmanship of their distilling facility is ‘insane.’ All three stills were designed for a specific function. Much of Baker’s planning for this project was at the student union building at Heriot-Watt and his dorm room that overlooked the campus loch. Hence the name Loch & Union Distilling.
“I was obsessed with home brewing,” said Colin. “And I was really good at it. A guy who used to work in the London office of my accounting firm had quit his job and opened a brewery, so I decided to quit my job and move to London to join him.”
Now they needed to find the talent to help make their dream come true. Baker recruited two other master distillers from his class at Heriot-Watt; brewer Jesse Saunders and Gordon Russell, who also has a background in microbiology. Then they added two hires from the wine side of the business; Gian Nelson, a former Marine turned winemaker turned distiller, and Zach Carrubba, former sommelier and restaurant manager in fine dining. Jeff Blumer, rock star musician, was then hired to run the office. The award-winning crew was complete.
But where to set up shop? Baker made a promise to himself that he was going to make the best spirits possible and that meant top quality barrels for aging. There is no better place in the world for high-end barrels than Napa Valley.
“We decided to come to Napa because we had access to the best new and used barrels anywhere,” he said. “We also have two world-class coopers down the street from us. The barrels were the initial reason for the move to Napa, but it’s turned out to be advantageous for additional reasons. From a branding standpoint putting Napa Valley on our label turned out to be more valuable than I thought. It signifies quality. We wanted to be associated with the reputation that Napa Valley has.”
Baker pointed out that Napa took French wine and made it better. Now he wants to take high quality spirits and make them better.
“Napa is our home now,” said Baker. “We want Loch & Union Distilling rooted here, but we want world-wide recognition with eventually an international brand. I’m humbled that my guys left good jobs and moved to the Napa Valley to start a new life,” he added.
The team is close and works well together. Jesse created the award-winning recipe for their gin, which took over a year and nearly 500 trial distillations to get right. In 2018 alone the distillery has won 17 industry awards, including California Gin Distillery of the Year at NY International Spirits Competition and multiple best in class honors. Baker describes their gin as clean, subtle, elegant, and balanced. They are able to achieve this by controlling every step of the process, which is purely a result of having one of the most technologically sophisticated distilleries in the country.
Their plan is to not rush any whiskey releases, so it will likely be at least another three years before that hits the market, but based on how it’s maturing the crew is more than optimistic of the results.
Besides their own spirits, their facility is large enough to accommodate custom distilling projects from gin to whiskey to brandy and they are currently working with a few large clients.
Now that Loch & Union is up and running, Baker said he has a good life/work balance. In his spare time, he volunteers for Giant Steps, a therapeutic equestrian center in Sonoma that specializes in therapy for people with disabilities.
“Other than Jeff, none of us are from Napa or had a connection with Napa, but it has become our home,” said Baker. “We can’t imagine living and working anywhere else.” Oh, and for the accounting of the business – Baker said he keeps an arms-length away and let’s Matt and Jeff handle the day to day business stuff.
For More Information: 707-552-2006 // www.lochandunion.com
Story by: Kari Ruel of Napa Valley Life Magazine
Photos By: Lowell Downey – Art & Clarity