Booze goes boom

Hooker Oak Distillery sets roots in southeast Chico’s new alcohol district

J.T. Martin stands by his still, the gleaming centerpiece of the Hooker Oak Distillery production facility on Park Avenue.

J.T. Martin stands by his still, the gleaming centerpiece of the Hooker Oak Distillery production facility on Park Avenue.

Photo by Howard Hardee

Hooker Oak Distillery
2420 Park Ave.
Tasting room hours:
Wednesday-Friday: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Saturday: 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Sunday: noon-5 p.m.

When J.T. Martin and his business partner, Billy Ahumada, opened Hooker Oak Distillery about a year ago, they had no idea they were setting up shop in a burgeoning booze district off Park Avenue, but Martin believes the mini-boom will benefit all of the businesses involved.

He mused that most people probably won’t drive from Sacramento or Redding to check out one distillery, but the breweries, taprooms and cider houses that have been moving into the industrial area—not to mention the long-running Honey Run Winery on Park Avenue, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. on nearby 20th Street and Almendra Winery & Distillery about 5 miles south on the Midway—may combine to create more of a regional draw.

“The more the merrier, I think,” Martin said.

In the distillery’s tasting room, customers are greeted by one of two employees—Dylan Rowe and Rachel Danielle, who act as friendly, easygoing guides and pour small amounts of each rum variety into shot glasses. (Under California law, the samples can only be offered for free.) The tastings include the distillery’s four current varieties—a standard light rum (aged in French oak wine barrels), as well as apple pie, pineapple and vanilla bean varieties, all of which range from 70 to 80 proof and sell for $29.95 a bottle.

During a recent visit to the tasting room, Rowe whipped up a specialty drink, Apple Pie à la Mode—one part apple pie rum, two parts heavy cream and a dash of cream soda. It was delicious. Rowe explained that the staff collaborates in creating specialty concoctions, which rotate on a monthly basis.

The ability to exercise creative freedom was part of why Martin and Ahumada, both general contractors, chose to make rum in the first place: It’s the least-regulated spirit under the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, according to Martin.

“If it’s going to be whiskey, it has to be made from corn, wheat, rye or some other grain, and if it’s going to be called a bourbon it has to be 51 percent corn,” he said. “If it’s vodka, it has to be distilled at a certain proof. All of the other classifications come with a ton of restrictions, but with rum you’re free to do just about whatever you want as long as you start with a sugar cane base.”

The two got into making spirits together about six years ago, Martin said. “We were working in this attic one day and agreed there had to be a better way to make a living,” he said. “We decided on spirits and built a still at home and started messing around with it.”

About two years ago, Martin and Ahumada decided to turn the hobby into a business and started looking around for a place to put their tasting room and production facility. They found a two-story, all-brick building (a former auto shop) on Park Avenue, but it was badly dilapidated. After negotiating with the owner, the partners agreed to renovate and lease the building. Following a lengthy construction period, the distillery opened last December.

Hooker Oak’s brick façade is an eye-catching feature in the up-and-coming industrial area in southeast Chico, which also includes the recently opened Secret Trail Brewing Co. and Lassen Traditional Cidery. More alcohol establishments are set to open in the near future.

For now, Martin and Ahumada are pushing to get their rum into more bars, restaurants and stores across the country, and they’ll watch with interest as the booze district develops.

“It will be a place where everybody can find something they like,” Martin said.