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Food & Wine: Taking Their Shot

by Carolyn Jung

The cofounders of 10th Street Distillery, Vishal Gauri and Virag Saksena, who were dormmates at Delhi’s Indian Institute of Technology, reconnected years later and established their San Jose business. | Photo courtesy of Stanley Olszewski.

A couple of tech veterans are making an award-winning whisky that merges Scotland and Silicon Valley.

Like many Silicon Valley engineers, Virag Saksena began tinkering at home on what he envisioned to be the next big thing. Except his was 90 proof.

It took about six years to fine-tune, but the result is 10th Street Distillery, the only whisky distiller in San Jose, and a most revered one at that. A year after opening in 2017, a friend suggested Saksena enter his single malt in the prestigious Whiskies of the World Awards competition to get feedback from professional tasters. To his astonishment, it won a gold medal. Since then, his five other whisky expressions have all gone on to garner gold in that competition or others.

“People are shocked that it’s made in San Jose,” says Saksena, 52, a former Oracle product development director. “I tell them it’s the best place in the world to make it.”

Landing on San Jose because it had available warehouse spaces plus city leaders who were encouraging of more craft producers, Saksena set up two 3,000-pound custom copper stills in a warehouse on 10th Street. Hence, the business’s name. It’s one he kept, even after outgrowing that site and moving in December to a warehouse nearly twice the size on 4th Street.

Saksena may have been born in India, the largest consumer and one of the largest producers of whiskies in the world, but his father tried to dissuade his son from its temptation by giving him a taste at age 5. Unlike the puff of a cigarette that his father also proffered, which Saksena found disgusting, he distinctly remembers thinking the whisky quite interesting.

As an adult, Saksena grew entranced by a limited-release Laphroaig 30-year-old single malt from Scotland. When it sold out, the longtime home-brewer decided to try making his own whisky. “How hard could it be?” he mused.

Turns out: very.

Saksena traveled to Scotland for a two-week whisky-making apprenticeship. At a tasting event, he ran into Vishal Gauri, 50, his dormmate at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, who happens to be a chemical engineer and, at the time, was president of the Americas for IT services company Nagarro. They quit their tech jobs and together set about to create a very California whisky — one that was complex but also easy-drinking, in keeping with the state’s laid-back vibe. Ideally, it also wouldn’t require the usual 10 to 20 years of aging to fully develop.

California Coast is among their whiskies that has earned a gold medal at the Whiskies of the World Awards. | Photo courtesy 10th Street Distillery.

“When you write software, you can make a change in the code and see immediately if it works,” Saksena says. “Here, you make something, then have to wait months to taste it. Our first experiments were very discouraging.”

Finally, they hit on the right custom peated barley from Scotland to marry with wild natural yeasts and San Jose’s heavily alkaline water. With the city’s warm, dry summers, their barrels lose three to five times more in evaporation than those in Scotland’s chillier climate. Chemical reactions thus happen sooner, leading to a shorter aging time of 1 ½ to 3 years for their elegantly smooth single malts.

The business, which turns out one barrel per day, took millions to build and has yet to turn a profit. Saksena and Gauri have not drawn a salary. Aside from some friends and family investors, 10th Street Distillery is financed by the pair, who were unable to secure a bank loan. Saksena even sold his house to help fund the venture.

Of course, the pandemic didn’t help matters. At the start of COVID, the distillery pivoted to produce hand sanitizer for first responders. While some bars that once featured the whisky have closed permanently, its peated single malt remains a mainstay at Shepherd & Sims in Los Gatos, where bar manager Kyle Stump showcases it in Bobby Burns and Penicillin cocktails.

The whiskies are also sold at retailers such as the Jug Shop and the Epicurean Trader, both in San Francisco; K&L Wine Merchants in Redwood City and San Francisco; and select Whole Foods stores throughout the Bay Area. “Among our staff, the consensus is that it’s the best domestic single malt whisky, and we have 40 to 50 in that category,” says Will Jones, buyer for San Francisco’s Whisky Shop. “It just tastes that good.”

Unlike many entrepreneurs who endeavor to grow their enterprise to eventually sell it, Saksena has no such plans. “When I open a bottle to enjoy, I still think, ‘Wow, did I really make this?’” he says. “It gives me joy to work with my hands. It’s the engineer in me.”

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