Davorin Kuchan updates traditional Croatian recipes with California ingredients in Old World Spirits’ high-octane elixirs
by Kasia Grobelny
Growing up in Croatia around his family’s vineyard just north of Zagreb, Davorin Kuchan found himself drawn to the incendiary end of the family business: high-octane spirits distilled from grapes, plums, walnuts and pears. “I liked winemaking, but I loved distilling,” says the founder of Old World Spirits in Belmont. “What I found really exciting was the stills. Even cleaning them,” he adds with a laugh.
He also liked the end result. Kuchan fondly recalls the days of sneaking shots of slivovitz (the wickedly strong plum brandy drunk throughout Eastern Europe) amidst the food, music and laughter of multigenerational family gatherings.
In the 1980s, Kuchan came to America with $100 in his pocket. He earned his degree, married and started a family. He even hustled hard enough to achieve the ultimate Silicon Valley status symbol: the role of successful tech CEO, at the data analytics firm Sparkling Logic.
But eventually the spirits, so to speak, came calling. For the third-generation wine maker and distiller, it was time to pick up the family business in a new location. Combining his passion for distilling with traditional recipes passed down from his grandmother Danica, Kuchan started making spirits in his spare time, and in 2007 he opened Old World Spirits. His goal: to bring a taste of the old country to Silicon Valley. The New World seems to like it. In 2012 Rusty Blade won the Gold Medal in the flavored gins category at the 2012 World Spirits Competition in San Francisco. In 2015 Old World Spirits was named the best distillery in the Bay Area by San Francisco Magazine.
You wouldn’t think a Silicon Valley CEO, whose day-to-day role is making a series of high-stakes decisions in a fast-faced environment, would choose the very slow (sometimes years-long) process of hands-on craft distillation as a hobby. Kuchan argues that the two are more similar than meets the eye.
“If you think about it, there’s a lot of commonality,” Kuchan says. “What’s Silicon Valley all about?” he asks. “Creation. Whether you’re creating a new piece of cloud software or new distilled spirits, its similar because it’s the process of creation.”
‘Christmas in A Glass’
Today Old World Spirits, located in a nondescript industrial park in Belmont, is a fully bonded craft distillery and winery. With Kuchan as master distiller, Old World Spirits produces nine different spirits and liquors, most famously its gins. First is Blade Gin, which Kuchan describes as “big, bold, yet balanced, an authentic California gin.” With a mix of botanicals that includes lemon, ginger, cilantro and cardamom, as well as the requisite juniper berries (steamed separately so they don’t overwhelm the blend), Blade has an altogether different flavor profile from the Bombays and Hendrickses of the world.
Blade forms the base for the award-winning Rusty Blade Gin, the “original American single barrel-aged gin” that Kuchan claims can easily appeal to whiskey fans by “toeing the line between spirits in a delicious way.” Rusty Blade spends 15 months in French oak barrels that have been used to age zinfandel wines. “As a result,” write the experts at Caskers, “Rusty Blade Gin has unique notes of caramelized orange, maple syrup and apple pie, which nicely balance out the spicy notes of clove, ginger and allspice.” Or, as one delighted online reviewer wrote, “Christmas in a glass!”
Old World Spirits also makes St. Blaise, a craft vodka made with organic wheat and organic agave; a rye whiskey; two different absinthes; and peach and pear brandies.
And then there’s the Kuchan Nocino “Orahovac,” a black walnut liqueur based on a recipe created by Kuchan’s grandmother, Danica. Creating the nocino, which is made from walnuts picked while they are still green, requires using parts of the nut you’d never normally eat (the shell and skin as well as the meat). This mixture, coupled with a California brandy base and finally sweetened with organic tapioca or agave before being finished in French oak, truly “transcends the regular walnut taste,” according to Kuchan. Making things even sweeter, the latest batch of nocino was made with walnuts grown from his own orchard in Morgan Hill.
Though he toyed around with the recipe years ago, Kuchan has since learned that indeed Grandma knows best and has returned to Danica’s original recipe, a complex blend of savory and sweet flavors with notes of “Indian spices, espresso and dark chocolate.” Kuchan sells out of it every year.
“I’m passing some of the best of what my ancestors did to my kids and the next generation,” he says. “This is an homage to my family.”
Old World Spirits, at 121 Industrial Way #4 in Belmont, (650) 622–9222, is open for tastings every Friday, 5:30–9:30 pm. Tastings are $15 per person for a flight of six.