At face level, located on a removed swath of boarded up buildings, hangars, and parking lots in Alameda, a small island town off the coast of San Francisco, the St. George Spirits facility may seem like just another gray box among many. But step inside and you enter a Wonka factory. The Chile Vodka tastes like fresh chiles, the Pear Brandy tastes like the crispest pear, the snozzberries taste like snozzberries, and underlying every flavor and innovation is the Bay Area.
Whatever tired stereotypes of San Francisco culture one may espouse, the Bay has long been a hotbed for culinary experimentation, and Northern California boasts culinary legends like Thomas Keller and Alice Waters, both of whom changed the way we eat and think about food. It's reasonable that the area would also become the birthplace of craft distilling in the U.S. with Jörg Rupf opening St. George Spirits in 1982. Rupf, a lawyer who traveled from his home in Germany to work in the Bay Area, cast aside his judicial career to become a godfather of sorts to craft distillation. What began as a DIY operation dedicated to replacing America's crude, syrupy version of Schnapps with the dry, flavor-forward brandy, eau de vie, became a thriving hub of craft spirits thanks to the Bay Area’s booming food culture, and its wealth and quality of produce.
"There's a certain sort of person that the Bay Area attracts,” said St. George's master distiller and former nuclear scientist Lance Winters. "They tend to have well-developed, adventurous palates. These are exactly the sorts that we want to surround ourselves with at the distillery."
Eau de vie was just the beginning of St. George's deep dive into the region's produce. With its proximity to the Central Valley, which produces a quarter of the nation's food, and forty percent of its fruit, nuts, and other table foods, Rupf was inspired by the wealth of raw materials at his fingertips. That first dream of honoring the true flavors of the Bay's local produce through eau de vie remains present in St. George's current and rapidly expanding catalog, which now includes gin, vodka, whiskey, rum, and brandy. But it took experimentation to achieve the level of clarity Rupf was going for and, just as bold, regional flavors flow through the distillery’s lifeblood, so does a love of trial and error, and of favoring innovation over tradition.
"Our philosophy is not just to make something that's a serviceable example of a spirit category, but a bold reimagining of the category," said Winters. "That—along with our decades of experience in the field—is what sets us apart."
Within the company's love for experimentation lies the heart of the region–its taste for the eccentric, irreverent, and bold. St. George was one of the first American distilleries to experiment with absinthe in researching the thujone myth in relation to its illegality in the U.S. By the time the spirit was legalized, the company had developed an absinthe tested over a decade and originally based on a 19th century recipe for Pernod. While many of the experiments at the distillery fly the region’s flag through locally sourced ingredients, only their Terroir Gin is stamped with that search for a flavor that smacks of the locale.
"I was picking my son up from a day camp in the hills, and the aromas of fir, bay laurel, fennel, mulch, and sunbaked earth hit me in this really beautiful way. I vowed then and there to capture that profile in a spirit," said Winters.
Forays into whisky, rum, and bourbon may seem like a detour from the pursuit of clear, raw flavors, but the distillation is still homegrown improv jazz, or, as Winters labels it, performance art. "You give them the best possible start, then they go into barrels with the best of intentions. Locally sourced barrels are great in as much as we know exactly what was in it and who put it there, which helps give us an idea of how that barrel might shape the spirit within," said Winters.
It may not come as a shock that St. George also crafts unaged rum made from fresh California-grown sugarcane and advertised as "not for the faint of heart” due to its intensity. While the distillery has discontinued its Breaking & Entering bourbon, which blended various Kentucky bourbons, St. George will continue to experiment with single malt whiskey and, with projects always underway, craft distillation as a whole.
"We feel like distillation is a true art form, and as such we need to constantly explore the boundaries," said Winters. "You stop that sort of experimentation and exploration, it becomes a commodity and loses its soul."