Daniel Hyatt from Alembic Bar called me up one day last year and asked me if I wanted to take part in a rum tasting somewhere north of Marin out in the country. I was pretty sure that, not having a car, he just needed a ride up there, but as it turned out I had actually been invited. As we arrived at the scene and started shaking hands with our fellow participants, I realized that this was a serious room of players. "Hello, I'm David," I said to man who replied, "Nice to meet you, I'm Hubert Germain-Robin." I soon realized that this was a room full of distillers and that I was the lone retailer - what I was I really going to offer to this meeting of professional craftsmen? It was here that I first met Dave Smith, who along with Bay Area legend Lance Winters, creates all the booze over at St. George distillery - the home of Hangar One vodka as well as Dave's new sensation: the Firelit Coffee liqueur. Having talked that day about a possible future distillery tour, it wasn't until another meeting at a recent whisky conference that we decided to nail down a concrete date. So yesterday I finally drove out to Alameda for what was, embarrassingly enough, my first visit to the Bay's most beloved spirits factory.
When you look at the distillery on a Google map, it's clear that the location is on the tip of some peninsula/island formation that juts out into the water by downtown Oakland. As I drove through the underground tunnel that connects to the region from 880, I certainly did not expect to find an area brimming with spotless track homes much like I remember from my native Central Valley upbringing. "What the hell are these houses doing here?" I thought as I cruised north down Midway. The only thing more surprising than the suburban sprawl is the military-styled housing project that follows it. The former looking like an Ozzie & Harriet safety zone and the latter looking like an abandoned ghost-town I would want to avoid at night. As soon as you make it through the warehouses that sprout up after the barracks fade away, you have reached the end of the peninsula and the home of St. George. The view of San Francisco on a clear day is absolutely breathtaking and as I entered the distillery, which is as much of a clubhouse as it is a place of work, I realized why people loved hanging out here on a sunny afternoon. The tasting bar windows face north towards the Bay Bridge and the picnic tables are perfect for packing a lunch. Andie Ferman, who runs the tasting bar for public tastings, said that the weekends were incredibly busy and that the room was usually packed to capacity. What a great place for a party this would make, I thought.
When I arrived inside I was greeted by Dave, Lance, and Andie who proceeded to get me a spot at the bar as we began sampling the line of St. George products - many I had yet to taste. We also discussed the history of the brand and its origins in eau-de-vie. When Jörg Rupf came to California from his native Germany some decades past, and discovered the quality of the produce we have growing here, he founded St. George Spirits on the idea that he would sell the best fruit brandies available. Selling eau-de-vie today is an uphill battle, so I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Jörg back in the mid-1980s. It is a fitting origin however as most of the best distillers that I have encountered seem to be most passionate about fruit-based spirits - from Steve McCarthy to Davorin Kuchan, people who make booze seem to agree that eau-de-vie is the penultimate achievement. Ironically, most of the people who purchase liquor from me seem to feel exactly the opposite. Nevertheless, St. George soldiers forward with their Aqua Perfecta brandies including the framboise, pear, cherry, and basil expressions. Tasting the cherry, I was amazed at how accurate the flavor was. The fruit doesn't jump out at you, but rather lingers tartly on the tongue. "You see, this is what cherries actually taste like," I said, "but it's never what people expect when they get something cherry flavored." "That's because they expect it to taste like red," said Andie. "These aren't Otter Pops," added Dave. Maybe that's why these guys get so into the fruit-based spirits, as defenders of the true essence of the fruit itself, they feel a duty to provide the purest expressions possible and eau-de-vie most of all allows for that manifestation. The people at St. George can spend time doing what they're most passionate about because their vodka will always be their bread and butter and their meal ticket. Their fruit-infused Budda's Hand citron (as seen above), orange, lime, raspberry, and spiced pear vodkas are moving off of our shelves on a continual basis. Every bar has a bottle of each behind the counter, and every bartender must admit that the infusions give vodka cocktails a whole new profile. The purity of the fruit flavor is as amazing in the infusion process as it is in the distillation, which is an incredible achievement. Revisiting these vodkas made me realize that I really do like everything in the booze world and that every spirit has its place at the table. Pigeonholing yourself as a pre-Prohibition mixologist after sampling these vodkas just seems silly if you really care about flavor.
After spending an hour blabbing about our own personal gripes with this industry and how we wished more people cared about eau-de-vie, Dave and I made our way out to the barrel room. This was what Dave had been patiently waiting to show me and where I would realize that St. George is going to be a serious player in the future of single malt whisky. I've made no secret recently of my growing disappointment with the lack of creativity in the Scotch world. I'm sick of seeing the same whiskies with higher price tags just because they spent an extra six months in barrels from prestigious chateau. Why can't someone really start tinkering with mash bills and start tweaking the barrel maturation process from the very beginning, rather than at the very end? It was as if Dave Smith had read my mind and wanted to comfort my soul with the knowledge that someone out there was going to answer my prayers. As we strolled through the racks I began to read the signs posted on the sides of the casks. Brandies aging in wine casks, whiskies aging in brandy casks, freakish mash bills, and all kinds of Frankensteinian experimentation was afoot in this building. As we started tasting samples from the barrels, I realized that Dave and Lance were not beginning their attempts to revolutionize single malt whisky, but were already well underway. We tasted whiskies that were already 8-10 years of age and had seen two or three different barrels of various origins already in their young existence. The results were incredible and seriously tasty.
While I won't go into too many specifics about flavor, as to not sabotage St. George and give away their guarded secret formulae, I will say that what I tasted, were it to ever leave the distillery in a bottled form, would blow some of our customers away. The flavors imparted onto the whiskies from various maturations were apparant, yet perfectly intermingled and balanced. You could taste each barrel's thumbprint, but one never overshadowed the other. Even more amazing than the creative maturation abound at St. George, is the experimentation in their mash bills. While all of the single malts being made are indeed 100% barley, they are not all made from the same types of barley. Working closely with a well-known California brewery, St. George has been customizing their own styles of barley and imparting flavor onto them, much like the peating process that takes place in Scotland, only here they're using more than just smoke. When you start analyzing the potential number of permutations possible from various combinations of mash bill and barrel enhancement, and you realize that Dave is literally trying as many of these possibilities as he has time and space for, it's enough to make your head spin. Then add on the fact that they're also making bourbon and rye and you've got enough to make your brain explode. We did get a chance to sample the new make rye and wheat whiskey they had in stainless steel and I was more than impressed. It literally tasted like rye crackers and wheat bread, and not the sweet fruity white dog that you get from corn or barley. I was absolutely amazed that white whiskey could be that good and that pure.
In the end I was happy that I had decided to spit everything because a whole line up of brandy and vodka, followed by cask strength whiskey is a bit much for one day. Should you get the chance to visit St. George distillery, I would highly recommend bringing a lunch and enjoying the scenery as well as the booze. Let Andie show you her enthusiasm behind the bar and hopefully you'll get a chance to talk to Dave or Lance as well about their views on whiskey. There are some serious products coming our way from the hangar in the near future and I'm hoping that we can be the ones to deliver them to you. We'll have to wait and see.