Of Makers and Spirits
How an artists’ block in Oakland inspired the creation
of OsCo, an unconventional distillery
By Kathryn Campo Bowen | Photos by Clara Rice
In a time before quarantine and masks and social distancing, Michael Pierce offered to show me around the block. “Let’s walk next door,” he said after we met outside the production facility of Oakland Spirits Company—colloquially known as OsCo—which Pierce co-founded in 2016 with longtime business partner, Adam Nelson. As Pierce strode down the stretch of 25th Street between Telegraph and Broadway in Oakland, he identified several art galleries and shouted a friendly, expletive-laden greeting to Forage Kitchen co-founder Matt Johansen, who drove past us in a minivan. The car was new, Pierce informed me with a smile, his brashness and the detail denoting a deep intimacy. And it was a kinship that Pierce, energetic and unpretentious and dressed in a green hoodie, extended broadly to OsCo’s neighbors. “This block is a makers’ block,” he said. “We’re all community, art, collaboration.”
Indeed, the block boasted a staggering number of creative industries: In addition to OsCo, 25th Street was home to Pierce and Nelson’s other beverage venture twomile wine, the earlier-mentioned Forage Kitchen (a shared kitchen, food incubator, and café), ten art galleries and workspaces, a recording studio, a film production studio, a catering company, another winery (Tintype), and the cocktail-forward restaurant Friends and Family. The craft cluster grew if you considered the three art venues on 26th Street and two more on 23rd Street.
“There’s an element of co-location,” said Danielle Fox, co-owner of 25th Street’s SLATE ART [a gallery and art consulting business], when asked to explain the confluence of culinary and aesthetic enterprises in such close proximity. “You need a lot of space to do your business. So you’re not going to have prime downtown real estate, you’re going to be somewhere a little out on the fringes, maybe in older industrial buildings.” These areas, she added, can have the benefit of lower rent, at least initially. Over time, physical aggregation yields advantages for businesses, too. “The more people you have together, the bigger the collective draw you have,” Fox said.
For OsCo, location was not happenstance but integral to the distillery’s identity. “We are surrounded by artists,” said Pierce. “All this creativity definitely inspires us.” And that ethos has informed Pierce and Nelson’s unconventional approach to spirits.
“Most of the spirits world, at least three or four years ago, was talking about the past,” Pierce said. “It’s like, ‘my grandpappy’s recipe’ or Prohibition or ‘back in the day, in saloons,’” he joked, rattling off old-timey cocktail tropes. “We wanted to talk about the spirits of our time and make spirits that are relevant, different.” In particular, the duo noted an absence of savory, price-approachable gins and brandies. “We saw behind the bar. There wasn’t much umami and culinary flavors that were represented.”
And so, in February 2016, OsCo debuted its first two gins, the Automatic No. 5 Gin and the Automatic Sea Gin; the latter has remained one of the distillery’s best-selling releases. Distilled through foraged nori from Mendocino, bay sage, and lemongrass, the aptly named Sea Gin goes down crisp and smooth and would be, say, a perfect pairing for sushi.
Unorthodox collaborations have also been important for Pierce and Nelson, who have integrated into OsCo’s identity their penchant for contrarian ideas that corporate distilleries might dismiss as distracting. One such partnership came early, in 2017, when OsCo worked with Berkeley’s East Bay Spice Company to launch a spirit inspired by the Indian spice trade. After 22 prototypes, Pierce and Nelson rolled out the Glasshouse Trade Winds Brandy, which is spicy and aromatic thanks to garam masala, cilantro, and Assam tea. In a similar partnership, OsCo released its Automatic Halfshell Oyster Gin in June 2019. Born of cooperation with Hog Island Oyster Company, it’s a dry-style gin that is deliciously different due to its distillation through 240 crushed Sweetwater oysters (shell and meat) sourced from Tomales Bay, with additions of foraged nori and kombu, celery root, tarragon, and lemon peel.
Though unique combinations are at OsCo’s core, the key consideration, Pierce said, is taste. A spirit that is perceived as “adventurous” must blow away a wholesale buyer who has so-called “safer” options (think vanilla vodka). On the production side, there are other challenges. State regulations governing liquor licensing tend toward the obscure and can differ from laws pertaining to wine, even when a spirit is grape based, which all OsCo products have been. Federal regulations also apply, and the resulting patchwork can confound even industry vets like Pierce, a former restaurateur and sommelier, and Nelson, who launched twomile in 2006.
On the subject of making wine, Pierce noted differences with distilling. “It relies on nature. It can hail. It could frost. There could be fires. There’s just so much at stake. It’s a really tough business,” Pierce said of vintning. Distilling, by contrast, is typically faster, less capital-intensive, and offers more control. “It’s the same thing every time,” he continued. “It’s whatever we want it to be.” These factors, in addition to fierce competition from local wineries, have led Pierce and Nelson to focus on spirits in recent years. “The [twomile] brand will be around, but Oakland Spirits Company is where all the upside is,” said Pierce.
Of course, it’s been far from easy for OsCo to crack the spirits market, which has long been dominated by large companies. “We don’t have the million-dollar marketing budgets. We don’t have the supply channel. We don’t have advertisements, the Super Bowl,” Pierce said. Still, he emphasized “what the billion-dollar distilleries can’t buy”: the relationships to Oakland’s bar and creative communities that give OsCo an edge.
The next time Pierce and I talked—over email in May—the unprecedented had provided its new backdrop: the novel coronavirus and the tragic human costs of a global pandemic. Economic shocks were reverberating through local businesses as statewide orders limit the operation of bars and restaurants to carry-out and delivery service only. Like many other craft beverage companies, OsCo has suffered, with tasting room and event sales “effectively wiped out,” wrote Pierce. “Any plan for expansion into other markets is now no longer an option,” he continued, in reference to a national distribution plan chartered earlier this year, now set aside. Pierce and Nelson, furthermore, had moved out of the space that, in March, served as the twomile tasting room. “It’s felt like the bottom has dropped out on all of us,” Pierce said of the pandemic’s effect on the 25th Street cluster.
Regarding financial survival, Pierce identified one issue for small distilleries as an inability to capture a reported rise in national alcohol consumption. “That increase is really only benefiting the larger, more established brands; the ones that have a stranglehold on corporate and formula retail shelves,” wrote Pierce. “Craft distilleries—and breweries and wineries—are hurting badly, and when things eventually open back up, the craft-beverage landscape will likely have 30–40% [fewer] participants.”
Though the future still looks grim in so many ways, Pierce and Nelson have remained hopeful that they could reopen sometime this summer with a debut of a new spirits tasting room in the front 3,500 square feet of the distillery’s production facility at 489 25th Street. Pierce describes a capacious, “feels-like-you’re-outside vibe,” and he says that eventually the tasting room will also serve wine. In the meantime, Nelson and Pierce have launched Sheltering Provisions Express, a wine and spirits home delivery service to bring OsCo and twomile wines to front doors across the Bay Area.
It may not be a cure-all, but it’s certainly a little slice of community, and that is worthy of a toast. ♦
By Michael Pierce of Oakland Spirits Company (OsCo)
I’ve been attempting to fill a need created by the abundance of spirits enthusiasts that have been mostly forced to make their own cocktails at home but are super sheepish about how to do it, how it will turn out, if they have the proper tools or additives, etc.
So, every few days, I’ve been creating new easy-to-make cocktails and recipes with typical items folks have in their pantries, fridges, freezers, and gardens, using kitchen items most people have.
We are at the tail end of creating an updated, prettier, more on-brand and usable website. One of the new functions will be a Cocktail Ginerator page where users will check boxes on provisions they have at home (think sesame seeds, dried apricots, orange marmalade, mint, cilantro, citrus, mango sorbet, and so on), and if any of them correlate, a cocktail recipe will pop up.
To that end, I present the Gardentini:
For 2 drinks, put 5 ounces Sea Gin and 5 torn-up nasturtium leaves in a mason jar with a lid. Shake. Let it sit for 24 hours, shaking when you can. Add 1 ounce of Bianco/Blanc Vermouth—we like Carpano Bianco. If you only have dry vermouth (Bianco is a bit sweeter), add 1½ teaspoons of simple syrup, honey syrup, powdered sugar, or sweet white dessert wine. Add a small pinch of salt (just what you can fit between 2 fingers or 5–7 grains) and ice. Stir for 2 minutes, strain into 2 chilled coupes or cocktail glasses, and garnish with a nasturtium flower.
Writer Kathryn Campo Bowen comes from a law and food policy background. Her stories focus on the people, places, and politics that inform the plate. She hails from Miami, Florida; spent years in Rome, Italy; and now calls Berkeley home. Learn more at kathryn-bowen.com.
Clara Rice has been photographing East Bay businesses for most of the ten years she’s been living here, and she’s always excited to discover a new gem. See more of her work at clararice.com.