After he got kicked out of Cal Poly’s Cerro Vista Apartments for distilling liquor, Aaron Bergh took the whole operation and turned it into his own business.
Bergh graduated from Cal Poly in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural and environmental plant science and started CalWise Spirits (formerly known as Calivore Spirits) just three weeks later. With help from Cal Poly’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), he got his company off the ground after one year.
Today, CalWise Spirits can be found at California Fresh Market, Granada Hotel and Bistro and Flour House in downtown SanLuis Obispo.
The idea to distill his own liquor began much earlier, back when Bergh, a wine and viticulture minor, had just transferred to Cal Poly from Ventura College.
“I studied [agriculture] in college, and a peach, plum or strawberry with a little bruise on it would get thrown out and wasted. And I’m all about efficiency, so I thought, ‘What could I do to give this new life? Why not mash it up, ferment it and make it into brandy?’” Bergh said.
After succeeding at making his brandy, Bergh quickly expanded into rum, whiskey, liqueurs and gin.
“I probably ditched about half of my Cal Poly classes by staying home and making booze instead,” Bergh said.
However, it is illegal to distill your own alcohol in the state of California, let alone in your residence hall.
“They gave me a slap on the wrist and kicked me out,” Bergh said.
Not one to be discouraged, Bergh moved off campus and continued making spirits. His roommate gave him the idea to turn this little hobby into a business.
As an outside nonprofit, Innovation Quest works with Cal Poly student entrepreneurs to help them pursue their ideas and chooses three startups to support. However, Bergh did not make the top three.
Video by Kayla Veloso
Bent on achieving his goal, he continued to press onward and applied to the CIE’s Hothouse Accelerator Program.
The Hothouse Accelerator program, like Innovation Quest, is open to all Cal Poly upperclassmen with an idea for a startup and provides them with the necessary funding and tools to launch their fledgling businesses.
Once again, Bergh hit a roadblock.
“I didn’t make it to the top 10, so they didn’t give me any money or anything. But they said ‘We like your business, and we think it’s viable, so you can still be a part of the program if you want to.’”
Bergh has since been running the business-side of the company out of the Hothouse, while producing his spirits in Spring Valley, San Diego. But it is time for a change of scenery.
Bergh said things are starting to feel a little cramped and he is planning on expanding in a big way.
“I’m moving from that 10-by-10 square [feet] over there, into a 6,000-square-foot distillery and tasting room in Paso Robles.”
Bergh will be joining nine other distilleries in the Paso Robles area, all of which offer their own tastings.
Steve Kroener, co-owner of KROBĀR craft distillery, just off Highway 46 in Paso Robles, said that the area is a natural fit for
“Since we’ve got all these homegrown ingredients and fun things going on in [San Luis Obispo] county, it’s just the next easy step in progression,” Kroener said.
The newfound popularity of distilling in California has a lot to do with Assembly Bill 1295, better known as the California Craft Distillers Act of 2015.
The bill, which creates a new license category for craft distilleries that allows them to compete with breweries and wineries, is mostly succeeding.
“There’s a lot of movement to be had, but what’s happening so far is great. We’ve just been allowed to pour distilled spirits in our tasting room two years ago,” Kroener said.
Signed into law in October 2015 by Governor Jerry Brown, the act also allows distillers like Bergh and Kroener to hold private events, offer cocktails and sell as many as three bottles of spirits to a customer from their tasting room.
According to the 2017 economic briefing from the Craft Spirits Data Project, the number of craft distillers in the United States has grown by 20.8 percent in the last year.
But the rise of craft distilling comes down to more than just changing laws.
“It’s part of this renaissance in American culture, supporting local businesses and saying ‘Screw the big guys!’ … These distilleries are opening everywhere from Seattle to Miami. It’s exciting,” Owens said.
Bergh wants to be a part of that excitement but will not settle for just being average. It is not in his character as the self-titled “Commander in Mischief” of CalWise Spirits.
“I don’t wanna be another serious, dull brand out there. I want there to be some edge and personality to my brand, to not come off as being so serious and into itself,” Bergh said.
CalWise currently sells three different products, each of which Bergh has given its own character: spiced rum, Big Sur gin and a blonde rum.
Graphic by Taylor Mohrhardt
“I call it blonde rum because it was rested in a chardonnay barrel. I want it to be unique, to be different … and I thought, ‘Let’s use a wine barrel, showcase that California wine country,’” Bergh said.
The same thing goes for CalWise’s Big Sur gin. Even though gin has to be made from juniper berries, Bergh still found ways to showcase the uniqueness of California.
“This is a California gin, I wanna showcase California native plants, there’s things like white sage, elderberries, yerba santa, bay leaves to give it the taste of the California hillside … it gives it this silky smooth mouthfeel that’s not in most gin,” Bergh said.
Just like his spirits, Bergh wants his distillery to stand out from the competition.
“I do want a place that people can come, like a winery or brewery, and hang out, get a drink or two. A place where people can come experience the spirit,” Bergh said.