K&L Awards 2012: Most Improved Player - St. George Distillery

When Proximo purchased Hangar One Vodka from St. George Distillery at the very end of 2010, something very amazing happened. Like a blossoming artist being subsidized by a wealthy aristocratic patron, the peace of mind that Lance Winters and Dave Smith achieved by no longer having to worry about bulk vodka gave them the freedom to start working on their own personal passions. "All of the work was being handled by someone else," Lance told me earlier today. "We didn't have to worry about coming up with new flavors or developing the brand." Instead of coming up with fruit flavors or fancy marketing ideas, Lance and Dave buckled down and started churning out some serious booze. They had time to visit Kentucky and invest in a Bourbon blending project (in case you didn't know, Dave Smith and Anthony Rosario are as passionate about blending as they are distilling). They released three, wildly-different, new gins to widely-recognized acclaim. They also teamed up with us to make two additional gins under our Faultline label.

Not only did St. George have more time to engage in exciting new adventures, everything in their original portfolio seemed to get better. Way better. The single malt whiskey releases started to "wow" people. The absinthe became more polished. The fruit eau de vies were almost unrecognizable. I'll give you a bit of insider information here. At this year's Good Food Awards, there was one pear eau de vie that simply destroyed every other fruit brandy in that room. We thought we knew who had made it, but when we lifted the brown bag at the end of the day, it was the Aqua Perfecta beneath that veil. None of us could believe it. We'd all tasted that pear brandy a million times and it had never tasted this good. It was clear that Lance and Dave had stepped up their game. They were continuing to get better at their craft.

How many producers show this type of improvement over one year's time, especially those that are already incredibly successful? Success causes most people to let up, to draw back, to enjoy the fruit of their labor and take their foot off the throttle. Not St. George, however. Success has made them more determined to improve and live up to the reputation they've earned after thirty years in the business. What was started by Jorg Rupf as a small shack in Emeryville is now being taken to an entirely new level. The team at St. George is tight and everyone is playing a role: Andie in the bar, James and Chris on the still, Lucy in the office, with Lance and Dave on the front line. It's a team effort over there in Alameda and when you play as a team you succeed.

A few weeks ago, I was able to get a sneak preview of the 30th Anniversary edition of the St. George single malt scheduled for release next week. It's going to cost $400 and it's representing three decades of whisky evolution for the distillery. The whisky is magnificant and those who can splurge on the bottle are going to have something very special in their collection. To call St. George the "most improved player" for 2012 might sound a bit negative to some, as if they were only mediocre before and now have finally made the transition forward. I know Lance and Dave, however, and I have to believe they'll be more proud of this distinction than any other award we could give them. I believe this because I see how hard they both work and how dedicated they are to getting better at what they do.

Whatever it is you're doing, guys, it's working. Over the course of 2012, St. George Distillery has gone from quirky microdistillery to major industry player based solely on the quality of its booze. There's nothing these guys can't do and do well. I think it might be time to revisit that tequila project.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll