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Napa Valley may be wine valley, but entrepreneurs are making spirits here once again, too.

Before Prohibition, many wineries in Napa Valley had their own stills and made brandy for sale on its own as well as for fortifying their versions of sherry and port, which were once more popular in America than table wine.

In 2009, however, when Arthur and Lusine Hartunian started Napa Valley Distillery, it was the first distillery in the city of Napa since Prohibition.

They joined the Karakasevic family of St. Helena, who make some of their Charbay spirits on Spring Mountain, as the only distillers in Napa Valley. RMS Brandy in Carneros made excellent spirits until it closed in 2002.

The first product Napa Valley Distillery offered was actually Meyer lemon liqueur inspired by famed Limoncello of the Amalfi Coast near Naples. It was blended from local Meyer lemon juice and purchased vodka. At that time, they were living in Fresno.

Their big break came when they launched their 2008 Vintage Sauvignon Blanc Vodka, apparently the world’s first vintage vodka. It was made from Napa Valley sauvignon blanc wine made from grapes harvested from a single vintage and single estate. The sauvignon blanc vodka was distilled at a company in Petaluma while Napa Valley Distillery prepared to make its own.

Although vodka can be made from any source of sugar, most is distilled from grain and some is made from potatoes. It’s simply diluted neutral alcohol, sometimes with subtle flavoring added, and never aged in wood.

Napa Valley Distillery doesn’t try to make a neutral vodka but one that shows its grape origins. “It’s a sipping vodka,” said Hartunian.

The distillery is now selling the 2010 vintage for $65; Hartunian points out that the wheat usually used for vodka costs $75 per ton compared to the $2,000 for Napa Valley sauvignon blanc grapes.

A fateful decision

Hartunian had many jobs before opening the distillery, from limousine driver to craps dealer in Las Vegas, but he was a successful insurance agent in Fresno before getting into spirits. “We were agents for AIG,” which crashed in September 2008. “We were put out of business almost overnight.”

It turned out to be a bit of a blessing, however. “I hated working just for the money,” he admits. “I made a decision not to do anything I didn’t want to do from then on.”

He had already crafted homemade liqueurs to acclaim from friends, and he enjoyed that activity. “We decided to make it into a business,” starting on a shoestring.

He was first licensed to make spirits in August 2009. Legally, his products are brandy (fruit spirits), though he also has a “rectifiers” permit that allows him to blend liqueurs and a retail license.

The business changed dramatically when Hartunian opened a retail shop in Oxbow Public Market last year. “That made our business really take off,” he said, and a new law that allows him to sell tastes is another huge boost.

As president of the California Artisanal Distillers Guild, he lobbied hard for that law, AB 8933, which gave craft distillers the same privileges that wineries and breweries have.

New products

Last year, the company introduced pre-made, barrel-aged versions of classic cocktails in various flavors, all using purchased brandy. The cocktails, which sell for $30 for a 375-ml bottle, include the Manhattan, Negroni, East India, Sidecar and Mint Julep.

Napa Valley Distillery also offers the Napa Valley cocktail, a variation on the Saratoga, made with brandy, sweet vermouth and house-made pineapple syrup.

The Meyer Lemon Liqueur is $27 for a 375-ml bottle.

The company just launched Old Hollywood Gin, a blend of botanicals and spices made in Napa in the ‘Bathtub Gin’ (compounded gin) style and then aged briefly in new American oak to give it a light amber color reminiscent of the gin enjoyed by Hollywood stars and starlets in the ’20s through ’40s. It’s $32.

Coming up are brandies aged in barrels formerly used to aged bourbon and rye whisky, as well as California Cowboy Rye Whiskey aged in new American white oak barrels, then finished in used Napa Valley Port casks for a minimum of six months, andSon of a Bourbon (S.O.B.) Whiskey.

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Its Distillers Blend vodka is a blend of American Winter Wheat and Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc. Napa Valley Distillery vodka is distributed throughout California by Young’s Market to 400 outlets.

Celebrating cocktails

Its retail space and tasting bar is moving to a larger space in the Oxbow and hopes to open March 1.

That store also sells bitters, shrubs, syrups, tinctures and garnishes used for cocktails as well as specialty glassware and other bar items from other producers. “It’s a celebration of the cocktail culture that’s sweeping across America,” Hartunian said.

The company also introduced its Bar Club much like a wine club, with four shipments a year for $75 each, plus discounts on products and invitations to parties as well as free tasting at the tasting bar.

Napa Valley Distillery already blends its own cocktails and liqueur. It will contract with famed artisanal producer St. George Spirits in Alameda for its next batch of distilling, but it will install two pot stills at a factory in Napa this year.

It is now on Walnut Street, but is planning to move into a location downtown closer to its retail outlet and tasting bar in the Oxbow Public Market. The company also plans to make bitters.

Hartunian emphasizes that he’s a blender, not a distiller, but doesn’t anticipate any problem finding skilled help. Artisanal spirits are exploding — the Federal Alcohol Trade and Tax Bureau has issued 457 permits for distillers in the past five years.

“Napa has welcomed us,” said Hartunian, who also moved here with his family. “We’ve created four new jobs here in eight months and we expect to continue to double production.”

He added, “Americans are big consumers of spirits but the business is dominated by foreign-owned suppliers. We’re trying to bring part of that business back home.”

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