Making Waves: Oakland Spirits' Michael Pierce

Michael Pierce pouring a cocktail with their signature Sea Gin.

Michael Pierce pouring a cocktail with their signature Sea Gin.

Oakland Spirits’ Sea Gin is creating quite the splash

As distilleries go, Oakland Spirits is relatively new, a side project started by Adam Nelson — who also owns Two Mile Wines — that evolved into a full-time business that now includes a full range of seasonal brandies, a newly-released amaro, and three gins. Of the latter, their Sea Gin, made with wild nori seaweed harvested in Mendocino, has been setting them apart with flavors that are rooted in Northern California’s coastal terroir. We sat down with Adam and sales empresario Mike Pierce to learn more about this fabulous gin.

ABV: You started distilling your Automatic gin around two years ago. Did you have a mission plan in place, a specific idea for your gin?
Adam Neslon (AN):
Do you want me to tell you the real story?

ABV: The real story is always more interesting.
I imagined — I say sometimes that I dreamt of a gin that was made from seaweed. I was going to all these bars …

ABV: So your sea gin was intentional?
Yes. All these bars are serving briney gin cocktails, right? They were putting everything from thyme into them, much more salt, whatever else, like savory gin cocktails. I thought, “Why not just make the gin that way.” So when I started the business I thought, “Let’s make something that begins that way, let’s make something that begins with the brininess and a sense of place, the sea.” We’ve all been to the coast here. We know what that smells like, what it feels like.
People thought I was totally out of my mind, like there’s no way that you can distill seaweed and have it come out that way. But it turns out that if you use nori — a particular type of seaweed — and use it with other coastal ingredients, things tend to come together. We did have an initial product in mind and it worked out well.

I think the one lasting part of the sea gin is that the nori and the other components in it create the structure that was soft, but stiff enough to be good in a cocktail. Because you have to have that. When you make the gin it’s not just — you can make a gin and it will taste perfect, but then if you mix it with tonic, the drink doesn’t have enough structure.

Mike Pierce (MP): We’re one of the few distilleries that use brandy as a base for our gin. It helps the texture, helps keeping the ethanol locked up a little bit, it helps in the viscosity and the feel coming through in cocktails.


ABV: Your sea gin tastes very much not like a gin.
I do a lot of in-store and bar pourings. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve gotten to taste the sea gin who proclaim that they hate gin at the beginning of our conversation, and after tasting it, they love it.

AN: You get the perfume of the bay and sage, and then we get the initial hit that’s of the sea. It’s the only way to describe it — and then the juniper gives that big mouth. I would say that the way that they’ve structured what you can call a gin is probably appropriate because it’s this roundness in the middle of the mouth that it reacts in a certain way to a cocktail.

ABV: Were you avid gin fans before launching Automatic gins?
I was.

MP: I don’t know if I was. I don’t remember. My world is so dominated by gin that I can’t remember my pre-gin life.

I’ll put it this way: I definitely thought of gin as the most versatile spirit in making cocktails ever. You can do more with gin than any other spirit, because there’s so much there to begin with, to play off.

ABV: With its unique flavor, what are some good cocktails to make with the sea gin?
Sea Gin, generally speaking, is not great with bubbles because it deconstructs the oiliness character of it, especially with tonic. It’s not bad, it’s just not at all the best showcase for the gin; it doesn’t taste bad, it’s just the best things of the Sea Gin don’t come through. There are certain bridge ingredients — smoky mescal, salt, bitters, chartreuse, parsley — that can save that nori flavor, that sea flavor even with the disruption of bubbles, but it doesn’t plug into many gin cocktails.

You’d be amazed how many bartenders who are talented taste the Sea Gin, and immediately are like, “Make me a Fino sherry martini.” That’s what’s special for me. Seeing people that never played with this, they taste it one time and they get it. They’re just like, “Yes, sold.” I love that. My favorite drink is mango sorbet, Sea Gin and smoked salt: Put everything together with ice; as you stir it,  the sorbet melts. Double strain it out. It’s delicious.

Sea Gin is also delicious just poured on oysters — the best oysters you’ve ever had. It also sips nicely neat with sushi.

ABV: What’s your best cocktail for the Sea Gin?
The Sea Change (see for the recipe).

ABV: Okay, and what song would go best with Sea Gin, straight up?
MP: I would have to go with Beck's "The Golden Age," off of his album Sea Change.


Oakland Spirits Company
477 25th Street, Oakland (tasting room)