Neocortical GABAergic neurons have diverse molecular, structural and electrophysiological features, but the functional correlates of this diversity are largely unknown. We found unique membrane potential dynamics of somatostatin-expressing (SOM) neurons in layer 2/3 of the primary somatosensory barrel cortex of awake behaving mice. SOM neurons were spontaneously active during periods of quiet wakefulness. However, SOM neurons hyperpolarized and reduced action potential firing in response to both passive and active whisker sensing, in contrast with all other recorded types of nearby neurons, which were excited by sensory input. Optogenetic inhibition of SOM neurons increased burst firing in nearby excitatory neurons. We hypothesize that the spontaneous activity of SOM neurons during quiet wakefulness provides a tonic inhibition to the distal dendrites of excitatory pyramidal neurons. Conversely, the inhibition of SOM cells during active cortical processing likely enhances distal dendritic excitability, which may be important for top-down computations and sensorimotor integration.