From the front entrance of St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, Master Distiller Lance Winters can gaze across the San Francisco Bay and see Mt. Tamalpais, where valleys of Redwood-lined creeks intersect Douglas fir-covered slopes near Alpine Lake. “When you pick up a glass of [our] gin,” says Winters, “You’re transported to Mt. Tamalpais.”
Infused in St. George Terroir Gin are California coastal juniper berries as well as sage brush, Douglas fir, bay laurel, cinnamon, coriander, Angelica root, citrus and orris root, all of which contribute to its fresh, woodsy aroma reminiscent of hiking on a dewy morning. “There are enough things that make up that aromatic profile that we can eat or drink,” says Winters, who combined those things so that his gin would capture the sense of place you feel in the mountains.
St. George calls itself a traditional eau de vie distillery. Officially, eau de vie, French for “water of life”, refers to fruit brandy created via fermentation and double distillation; but St. George considers eau de vie to be a distilling philosophy. “If distilling was the art of painting,” says Winters, “Then eau de vie distillation would be the most realistic form of painting there is. When we’re dealing with multiple botanicals, we want to make sure all of the ingredients that we’re using show up in the finished product.”
St. George’s eau de vie ideology belongs to Jörg (pronounced Yorg) Rupf, who founded the distillery in 1982. Rupf hails from many generations of distillers in Germany. When he discovered the bounty of Northern California’s fruit, he began crafting liqueurs and eau de vie in small copper pot stills. “Thirty years ago there was no such thing as a micro-distillery,” Winters says. “Jörg was the first in the industry to start applying artisanal qualities. Now we’re seeing a renaissance of small distilleries thanks in no small part to what he did. [He] is the founder of a huge movement.”
In 1996, the same year that Rupf’s pear eau de vie won the Destillata blind tasting award in Austria, Winters showed up at St. George with a bottle of home-distilled whiskey, what he fondly refers to today as his “resume.” He’d been working at a brewery, but wanted to be crafting a beverage that would stand the test of time. “You make a really good beer, and it only lasts for so long. But if you take that same beer and distill it, you can capture the aromas and flavors from it in a format that has amazing longevity,” says Winters. When Rupf offered him a month-long trial period at the distillery, he quit his brewing job the very next day, and the rest is history. Winters took over as the head distiller when Rupf retired and celebrated his sweet 16 with St. George this year.
Winters is taking Rupf’s traditional eau de vie approach into account as he incorporates more contemporary spirits into the distillery’s lineup. “We are driven by a love for the ingredients,” he says, “[and] there’s nothing that we won’t put into the stills.” Included in the mash have been carrots, kombu seaweed, ginger, porcini mushrooms, wasabi root, goose liver, and Dungeness crabs.
Always experimenting, Winters was dabbling in absinthe-making long before it was even legal to sell absinthe in the United States. In 2007 when the law changed, a line out St. George’s door and two news helicopters flying overhead eagerly anticipated the release of their Absinthe Verte. “We had people covering their faces and hiding because they’d called in sick to get that first bottle,” Winters says.
What’s next for St. George? A new brewing system to perfect bourbon and rye whiskey. You might want to save one of your sick days.
Spirits from St. George
St. George Botanivore Gin
St. George Dry Rye Gin
St. George Terroir Gin
St. George Absinthe Verte
St. George Single Malt Whiskey
Breaking and Entering Bourbon
Agua Azul Cristal Agave
Agua Azul Reposado Agave
Agua Azul Anejo Agave
Agua Libre Dark Rum
Aqua Perfecta Kirsch Eau de Vie
Aqua Perfecta Poire Eau de Vie
Aqua Perfecta Framboise Eau de Vie
Aqua Perfecta Zinfandel Grappa
Aqua Perfecta Basil Eau de Vie
Aqua Perfecta Poire Liqueur
Aqua Perfecta Framboise Liqueur
Hangar One Straight Vodka
Hangar One Chipotle
Hangar One Spiced Pear
Hangar One Fraser River Raspberry
Hangar One Kaffir Lime
Hangar One Mandarin Blossom
Hangar One Buddha’s Hand Citron