By Regina Connell.
It all begins with Bob Klein, owner of Oliveto.
My partner and I are sitting at the bar, intently discussing the merits of whole grain vs. traditional white dough for our pizzas, when Bob comes up to us from behind, and thrusts his head between ours.
Bob: “You like gin?” This is delivered in a conspiratorial whisper. Bob’s eyebrows work up and down.
We: “Uh, sure.”
Bob: “OK. But it’s a little weird. You OK with that?” Then he beams. And stalks away. Good thing we trust Bob in these matters.
Minutes later, two martinis arrive. Wary glances exchanged, we plunge in to taste … no gin we’d ever tasted before. In this clear liquid pulsed the essence of Northern California: coastal juniper berries and sage, bay laurel, wild Douglas fir harvested from Marin County, California, and various aromatic roots and herbs. Heaven.
Bob sidles up to us again. “Fantastic, isn’t it. It’s called Terroir, and it’s from St. George.”
Ah well of course.
St. George Spirits had been on our radars for a while. A great small-batch artisanal distiller located on the edge of the San Francisco Bay at Alameda Point, St. George had first made news with its Hangar One vodka, and then with its Absinthe Verte. (St. George was the first American distillery to bring a legal absinthe to market since the U.S. ban on absinthe was instated in 1912.) Instinctively drawn to whatever company would bring back this storied bad boy of the spirits world, I’d always looked forward to what they’d come up with next.
To say that I was enthusiastic about the chance to tour the distillery and meet with Lance Winters, the chief distiller, was a mild understatement.
How our visit managed to live up to expectations, I’m not sure, but photographer Matt McDonald and I walked away firm fans of the man, the place, and the product.
St. George Spirits is all about terroir, and I’m not just talking about the gin.
Let’s start with the physical. Alameda Point is a rough, slightly desolate place, where the hulks of WWII and Cold War-era hangars and buildings have been reborn as sports centers, wood shops, small-scale manufacturing facilities and yes, distilleries. The Point inspires catch-your-breath awe. Is it the sheer space and volume of the structures, or is it the wind-swept beauty of the Bay? It’s probably the juxtaposition of the two. A big tick goes in the exhilaration box and that’s just the parking lot.
The distillery is housed in one of those cavernous old hangars (one that housed a company of attack squadron pilots) and you get the sense that St. George has been infused with the essence of the people who used to work there: with testosterone, (appropriately channeled), with a can-do spirit and an urge to push the envelope, with the passion to do the unexpected, the impossible.
St. George was founded in 1982 by Germany-born Jörg Rupf and was one of the first American craft distillers, producing eaux de vie. Former nuclear engineer (yes) and beer brewer Lance joined in 1996 and a few years later, they crafted one of the first American single malt whiskeys. In 2002 came Hangar One. Then a tequila. Then a California agricole rum. Somewhere along the way there was balsamic vinegar. Then came the gins. And bourbon. In the works … something new all the time.
Lance is the soul behind the spirits. Wildly smart, restless, curious, proud, energetic, and a tinkerer, he’s a man thoroughly in love with the craft of distilling, and with making in general. (What do you say about a man who’s restored a letterpress studio in the back of the hangar, or who tracked down someone he saw at Maker Faire to commission a bespoke speakeasy-esque peephole for the lab?)
We go into the lab housing two smaller stills, and he runs me through mini-versions of the distillation process. Orange goo bubbles in a vat in the corner. I am informed this is sweet potato mash. This room, he tells me, is where he spends 75% of his time, crafting and distilling.
The adjoining room has something completely different. It’s a beaker and test-tube-filled chemistry lab, and a reminder that for all the charm and romance of craft distilling, it’s still a part of the alcohol industry and highly regulated by no less than the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the federal government.
What makes St. George special, Lance explains, is the time and passion it invests in the craft of distilling. St. George is a business based on the love of the craft, not commodity.
The distinctiveness also comes from the way it crafts artisanal spirits: they employ an eau de vie methodology which focuses on refined distillation techniques to get the essence of something – fruit, for the traditional eau de vie maker, and pretty much anything for the St. George team – into alcohol form.
For the best eaux de vie, the quality of the ingredients is primary, but what the St. George team has done is to push the range of those ingredients far beyond the traditional.
“Like the folks at Chez Panisse, we find a raw material, fall in love and then work with it to deliver all you love about it, the essence of it … we’ve learned more from perfumers than classic distillers.” Hence his commitment to finding just the right ingredients, even down to foraging for them himself on the sides of Mount Tamalpais for his Terroir Gin.
Right up there with the best ingredients is the best equipment. The production stills (from Holstein in Germany) are magnificent, gleaming works of art, replete with hand-hammered domes. Lance points out the hand-soldered joints, and talks wonderingly about the German metalworker who came out to do the installation. “What these guys know is amazing. There’s something to that German craft apprenticeship model. It works.”
But it’s not just the grand beauty of stills that strike a chord with Lance: he’s pretty much in love with many things mechanical (especially if hand-crafted.) “I like the unnecessary beauty in these machines. I also love Victorian and Edwardian machinery: they’re like art pieces.” (Agreed.)
A strong sense of design – mixed with a dose of dry, wicked wit – runs through this place, from the functional but beautiful placement of the stills, to the animatronic shark, and to the bottle labels, some of which Lance designs. (The man has a penchant for bold type and wordplay.) “We like to think of our spirits of parties in a bottle, and the label is the invitation.” Nice.
The real essence, though – and one that seems to run through everyone from Lance to the folks in the gorgeous rough luxe Tasting Room – is that they have a helluva good time. It’s not that they make those “parties in a bottle” (though that’s a pretty enviable metier when you don’t.) It’s the sense that here, on the edge of the Bay, a couple of dozen people – more at bottling time – are making unique, boundary-pushing, legendary products they’re damned proud of, and doing it with soul, integrity, and style.
If that’s not truly living, I don’t know what is.
Photography credit: Matt McDonald