Steve's Story

For the love of fine whisky

I’ve learned one thing that unites many different people around the world is a love for fine whisky.

My love for whisky started at eighteen when I travelled to Scotland. There, the legal drinking age being eighteen, I tasted my first Scotch whiskies and was hooked; there was something in the spirit that called to me and my Gaelic heritage. 

I can only describe that first taste of single malt scotch as amazing sweetness and deliciousness; both smooth and complex at the same time. That single taste of scotch whisky carried me across the Irish Sea to County Galway one of my family’s (on my mother’s side) ancestral homes. The scotch reminded me of all the peat fires burning in country fireplaces, and of hiking in the hills at the feet of the twelves bens where the ground is springy and soft, and of the feeling that you know you’re somewhere you were always meant to be. 

I was so serious about this passion that when I returned to Scotland two years later I was determined to discover all the secrets whisky makers had to offer.

When I returned to Scotland two years later, I visited the historic Oban Distillery and became even more impressed by the process. Those massive beautiful copper stills used to produce ambrosial amber liquid were clearly the tools of a powerful alchemist. However, the sheer scale of the production I witnessed made the idea of a career in making whisky seem out of reach. And besides, I was at best an American cousin, not someone born into a family with centuries of Scottish distilling tradition. I put my dream in my back pocket and went home.

Instead, I followed my other interests: cars, film and video. Working as a television producer in Los Angeles wasn’t without its benefits. I had a lot of fun, I met celebrities, and because of my production specialty, I got to drive a lot of fast cars. But as my career in television progressed, my day to day activities moved further away from the hands-on creative elements which had drawn me into the industry. By the time I was 30, I found myself sitting in frustrating meetings discussing how we could manipulate our creative integrity to meet the whims of TV network executives who insisted we jump onto each hot new reality TV trend.

TV trends like swamp people.

At that moment the craze was swamps. As a producer of automotive, motorcycle and motorsport television, I was charged with shooting more car stuff in the swamp. But these TV executives couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that cars don’t work in the swamp. That’s why “swamp people” use boats.

Our opinions didn’t matter. The execs just wanted more in the swamp.

Our team did successfully produce a piece we shot in the swamps with a custom built souped up off-road vehicle and a fan boat, but by successfully I mean it barely came off.  I hoped this would satisfy the executives’ desire for this swamp based content, but it only emboldened them and had them demanding more.  It was at this point I knew I had make a change.

Prior to my last automotive show, I had started hearing about the American craft distilling movement that was then beginning to emerge. My attention was drawn to the subject by an article in The New York Times describing young professionals who had been successful, but were not satisfied in their careers, and who had decided to leave everything and start craft distilleries. It was as if the author of the article was writing to me personally. Telling me that I could follow my passion for spirits even after all these years. At least, that’s how it seemed to me.

I had a lengthy internal dialog for weeks about leaving the career I had been working hard in for many years to do something new that I had no experience or training in.  The risk was very real, but the voice in the back of my mind kept telling me that I should quit - quit NOW - and go make whisky. Finally, I gave my two weeks notice and the next day was on a plane taking me to my first whisky making course.

I felt great relief in taking control of my destiny. It would take years before anyone would call me a master distiller. At the same time, I knew there was no going back.

A new distilling tradition.

At one time, before Prohibition, there were 8,000 small distilleries across the United States. When I started a few years ago, there were only a couple hundred. This in a country with four times the population it had a century ago.

I saw a big opening between Los Angeles and the Bay Area where there was no one else making spirits. And it so happened that my family lived in Santa Barbara, possibly the most beautiful, agriculturally diverse, and temperate place in the entire country.

I’m driven to be an entrepreneur. My dad was an entrepreneur several times over. Despite the way the word sounds, the word “entrepreneur” doesn’t come from the word “entry” or “opening.” But let’s pretend it did.

Santa Barbara is a place with deep roots. Some families among the Chumash indians have lived in the area for 7,000 years. Others are descendants of the Spanish colonists of the 1700s. And even the northern European settlement here is older than in most of the rest of the American Pacific. Our architecture is iconic; white adobe running from mountain to sea.

The coastal microclimates with their warm days and cool nights are perfect for distilling and aging. And the growing seasons are endless, with more fruits, grains, and herbs to work with than almost anywhere in the world.

I’ve decided that while I may not be able to replicate the distilling traditions of Speyside or Islay or Highland, I know that I am beginning new traditions here on the Central Coast of California. 

Santa Barbara is heaven for distilling. And Ascendant Spirits distills the spirit of Santa Barbara.

Another level.

It was surreal the first time I saw our whisky, Breaker Bourbon, on the shelf at El Rancho. I felt and still feel a great sense of pride and achievement that my dream had become a reality. I haven’t regretted my decision to take this journey, even at the darkest moments. I get intense satisfaction in creating a beautiful product that people enjoy. And I also get to be a mad scientist, creating new flavor combinations.

Although I have the utmost respect for my fellow distillers, when I look into the future I see Ascendant Spirits becoming the largest craft distillery in California. This is my business, not just my dream. We are growing our brand in a smart fashion, first developing a statewide presence and then moving into other spirit-loving states like New York, Florida, and Illinois, and then going national and international.

The fundamental principles of what we do here are attention to quality, respect for the art of spirits making, and pride of place. I personally sample every barrel and do all the blending myself to ensure every bottle you purchase tastes as good as the very first time you tasted fine whisky.

I know that someday soon, maybe today, someone’s first taste of spirits will be of one of our products. I want that person to learn that life can be lived on another level.


Stephen Gertman

Master Distiller