Seven Stills distillery is an upstart, three-year-old small-batch distillery in San Francisco. Their concept is creative and intriguing: whiskey made from craft beers, everything from chocolate stouts to IPAs and sours. The three-man team has already garnered a number of successes, including the 2014 Gold and Bronze medals at the San Francisco 2014 World Spirits Competition for their Chocasmoke (from chocolate stout) and Whipnose (from double IPA) whiskeys.
The concept — and the $12 per person Groupon — gave us an excuse to book a tasting and tour.
Summary for the Lazy Reader (tdlr;)
Was the tour and tasting worth it? I would love to give a resounding yes, but the overall review is a lot more mixed than that. The whiskey isn’t very refined and very muddled tasting — and for the price (they are making whiskies out of low proof craft beers after all), you’re better off getting a shiny bottle of lovely Laphroaig. But while it wouldn’t make it to the top of a “must things to do in San Francisco”, it’s a pleasant tour and there’s a refreshing unbridled optimistic air to the operation.
After stepping into the large, single-room warehouse, we waited near the partitioned-off bar area as one of the cofounders asked if we would like purchase a glass of their beer. The chocolate stout was pretty darn decent, and we became excited as we waited for the previous tour to wrap up.
Having done near zero due diligence, we began looking up reviews. The Yelp page was a pristine 5 stars. Decision validated. Next, reviews of the Chocasmoke (pronounced “Choke-a-Smoke”). A few good ones, a few less favorable ones, and then: “I suggest this whisky be used not for drinking, but for thinning mascara, emergency fire fuel, and a cabinet emetic” via reddit. Hmm.
The previous tour finally wrapped up and our tour guide, a young surfer type with a ponytail, came over to apologize for the wait. Typically, tours begin with the walkaround with the carrot of a tasting at the end of the stick. At Seven Stills, the tasting was immediate. This we appreciated.
Chocasmoke, Fluxuate, and a more aged version of the Chocasmoke were brought out for the prescribed three tastings.
We began with the award winning Chocasmoke from chocolate stout, which our tour guide proudly declared was “dark chocolate, smokey, with strong peaty notes”. Our group of six (including our duo, an elderly tourist couple, and a tattoed vinter with her Scottish boyfriend) grabbed for our glasses and sipped eagerly.
Then there was a very long silence. Followed by some polite fetching of water.
The tour guide, unfazed, proceeded with describing the next whisky, the Fluxuate, this time made from coffee porter. “Vanilla, honey, and coffee” he described. The snifters were sipped. More water. Some polite “hmms”. This time however, the Scottish gentleman put his down after a sip with a frown of perplexion and refused to go near it again.
We ended up trying the Dogpatch (made from a local sour and down to its very last bottles) and another Chocasmoke that was aged in port casks for ~6 months. These were a little more interesting, and we ended up snagging a bottle at the end, but really interesting in a way someone who drinks a lot of whiskey uses interesting… not interesting as in good. Interesting grape flavor on the nose, very strong alcohol taste on the first sip, but a complex grape aftertaste, like a cognac or something like Sam Adams’ Utopias.
The tour itself was brief. The room is large, but that’s by San Francisco standards. It’s also sparse, as they’re still in the middle of setting up. We inspected the two stills, and listened to the tour guide interchange “bacteria” and “yeast” freely and often in his description of the distillation process. He explained that beer brewers are often generous, and will either donate their recipe or their beer for testing a new product. The tour concluded (with the vinter loudly apologizing several times to her Scottish beau) and we hitched a ride to Wilson & Wilson for some Lagavulin.
It seems that Seven Stills is still in the early stages and hasn’t found their true footing. The biggest problem with their whiskeys is that they’re unrefined. Very hot. Lots of exotic flavors. Little finesse. I understand it is a very expensive proposition to age whiskey. To age a whiskey for ten years you actually do need to wait the ten years. But that said, this is a very expensive whiskey. Geoff Kleinman said it best in his review “There simply isn’t a replacement for using larger, properly seasoned barrels and giving whiskey the time it needs to mature.” Agreed.