On a recent morning, on the border of Sacramento and Rancho Cordova, the spirits were starting to come to life. In this case, it was a batch of bourbon crafted from blue and yellow corn that was undergoing its initial stages in the distillation process. After aging in oak barrels, the end result will be a bottle of High Rye Bourbon from J.J. Pfister Distilling, a family-owned company with ambitions to make their mark in the competitive world of craft spirits.
Their line of products include vodka, gin, brandy, rum and whiskey. But no matter the spirit, the process depends on understanding the science behind fermentation, sensory evaluation skills, not to mention an understanding of how the multibillion-dollar alcohol industry works.
The team behind J.J. Pfister Distilling gained their knowledge at UC Davis. All are UC Davis alums, including President Kevin Keck ’70, M.D. ’75, and wife Gail ’73. The distilling team are also proud Aggies including master distiller Brian Keck, M.S. ’16, Chris Johnson, M.S. ’16, and Michael Moore ’09, M.A. ’11.
Their imprint can be found around the greater Sacramento area and beyond, with such retailers as Nugget Markets, BevMo and Raley’s carrying their products. Davis is also a key market, with J.J. Pfister as the official distiller of UC Davis Athletics. At the most recent Causeway Classic, the company debuted a line of Blue & Gold Bourbon for UC Davis’ official tailgate event.
“It’s a combination of blue and yellow corn that’s a perfect pairing with UC Davis Athletics,” said Brian Keck, by phone on a recent morning while taking a quick break from distilling.
Brian’s initial foray into fermenting came with brewing a batch of beer for his sister’s wedding. He was initially bent on becoming a winemaker, earning a degree in chemistry and then a master’s in viticulture and enology at UC Davis.
The Keck family had a friend who grew organic potatoes in Oregon and the opportunity presented itself to make vodka. In 2016, the Kecks rented a distillery in Livermore and started their initial product runs of vodka. The learning curve was steep as newcomers to the spirits business. Their distilling team was rounded out by Moore, Brian’s friend from high school, and Johnson, a fellow UC Davis viticulture and enology graduate.
“We learned a lot from that experience,” said Kevin Keck. “Whatever you think your space needs are, double it. The other is to make sure all your processes can be done within eight hours.”
For her part, Gail said she remained confident that their burgeoning business would persist.
“We realized the advantage we had with two of our distillers having gone through the viticulture and enology program [at UC Davis],” she said. “They were taught how to taste and smell, and most distillers wouldn’t have that concept. That gave us a leg up.”
Brian Keck said he initially dreamt of working as a winemaker in Napa, Sonoma or the Sierra foothills, but the idea of entering the spirits market and building a brand — and not working for an established entity — was an even more tantalizing career move.
“An opportunity to start a distillery and have creative control presented itself, so I took it,” he said.
But the spirits industry, like wine, can still be tough to navigate. The United States whiskey market alone is worth about $17 billion and dominated by large brands. Smaller distilleries like J.J. Pfister can still find success, but it can be an uphill struggle without the marketing power and deep pockets that larger companies enjoy.
Brian Keck credited UC Davis for giving him the knowledge and confidence to go for it.
“My most important class was a sensory analysis class that was essentially training my mind to work with my palate, to put labels on flavors and aromas,” he said. “[Roger Boulton] also has a winery development course, where we went through a theoretical opening and what you can expect from the business side. It was incredibly helpful.”
For now, their brand has created a buzz around Sacramento’s restaurant community and showcased at the city’s marquee Farm-to-Fork Festival. They also run a tasting room and restaurant at their distillery.
J.J. Pfister expects to produce about 6,000 cases of spirits this year. The goal is to grow their operations while expanding its portfolio of products. As the distillation runs continue, the family’s ready to toast to a robust future.
“Our long-term goals are to grow production to 80,000 cases per year with the existing distillery,” said Kevin Keck. “We will continue to make premium, high-end, unique rye whiskey and bourbon, plus small specialty runs like American Single Malt, a scotch-like whiskey. We have room to expand.”