St George’s Distillery
A few weeks ago, we went to the fledgling Seven Stills distillery in San Francisco. This week, we decided to visit the Bay Area’s independent granddaddy distillery, St. George’s.
Started originally as an eau de vie (brandy) distillery in 1982, St. Georges expanded into vodka, gin, whisky, bourbon, absinthe, and of just two weeks ago, they also released their first amaro style apertivo: Bruto Americano. The team, led by master distiller Lance Winters (formerly a nuclear scientist!), are creative mad scientists of alcohol. They’ve reportedly experimented with everything from oyster, goose liver, wasabi, Dungeness crab, and seaweed as flavors – although paradoxically none of these flavors seem to make it out of R&D phase.
What does make it out of R&D to commercial production are smooth, consistent, full-flavored spirits.
The Tour Review
St. George’s does one of the best damn distillery tours out there. They’ve almost built what seems like a cultish devotion among their employees. The tour guides are uncannily peppy, animated, passionate, and knowledgeable about alcohol, and the tour almost takes on the character of a Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory vibe.
The tour is a 45 minute trip through the cavernous distilling room, which was converted from a naval airport hangar. Badass, towering Arnold Holdstein stills, each named after a transformer (Megatron, Ultima, Bumblebee, and Starscream), loom on elevated stages around the room.
The tour itself is highly educational and facts of substance are thrown at the crowd rapid-fire. But first, the propaganda! The goal of St. George, you are told, is to capture the “essence” of various ingredients: a pear liquor should taste as if you were biting into the flesh and skin of a ripe pear. Only better because alcohol. The result is that each single bottle contains 30 pounds of ripe Barlett pears. Afterward, we were given information on everything from the reasons for the shape of the stills to St. George’s preference for single distillation (as the tour guide expressed utter, scandalized contempt for the shoddy distillers that perform 8+ distillations) to even the economics of how they dilute their alcohol (anything above 50% is taxed differently than lower ABV alcohol).
The tour always closes at the absinthe table. St. George’s absinthe took a more than a decade to make, and is clearly the team’s pride and joy. St. Georges was, after all, the first American distillery to commercialize the spirit since its 1912 ban. Master distiller Winters clandestinely led the experiment, first beginning with a Scientific American article and then branching out from there. To stay legal, the development was labeled “R&D” rather than “consumption”… although we were assured that the 11 years of R&D involved a fair amount of consumption. When the ban on absinthe was finally lifted in 2007, St. George’s – and all of its “R&D” – was ready.
Tasting at St. George provides 6 quarter-ounce pours of your choice of alcohol. Bring a partner, and the 12 pours allow you to taste the all but one. Unless your partner is an asshole.
The tastings offer a wide range of alcohol, but unfortunately, on this visit, no barrel-aged St. George spirits were available for sampling. The menu tasting menu is still excellent. We tried:
- All purpose vodka: Made from Barlett pears and corn, the vodka is very silky with some viscosity to it. There’s also a surprising subtle sweet aftertaste to it.
- California citrus vodka: Smirnoff orange biased me against wanting to try it, but it had none of the characteristics of a punch-you-in-the-face orange rubbing alcohol. I think the key is that they start with three different types of California grown oranges and distill them to 95% alcohol, while Smirnoff starts with grain, and dumps tang in at the end. The taste was light, warm, and sweet. Still, my biases prevented us from purchasing a bottle for I am an alcohol bigot :(.
- Green chile vodka: Described as “drinking salsa”, the chile vodka is not hot sauce spicy but instead tastes quite refreshing with a hint of heat at the back of the palate. There’s serrano, habanero, jalapeno, and red and yellow bell peppers with lime and cilantro in it. Bottle Purchased.
- Botanivore gin: This is one of the mainstays of St. George’s that incorporates 19(!) different botanicals in it. Labeled the “gateway gin”, it has a more balanced juniper character than other gins. To be honest, we were surprised that neither of us particularly cared for it – it was a little too floral and a little too unstructured. It’s also not fantastic for cocktails, so we ended up not purchasing a bottle.
- Terroir gin: They wanted to capture the essence of hiking up Mount Tam near San Francisco and they nailed it. There’s fermented pine, there’s sage, and there’s fog (without the price tag of Hangar One’s more gimmicky fog vodka). It’s Christmas. It’s nostalgic. It’s magic. Bottle Purchased.
- Dry rye gin: Gin from rye? Oh yes. Apparently, the legal definition of a “gin” is “anything that tastes like a gin” (confirmed). Basically a botanical whisky. I plan to make a Frankenstein negroni/boulevardier from this. Bottle purchased.
- Pear brandy: It delivered. Tasted like a pear and was light and straightforward.
- Raspberry brandy: 40 pounds of raspberries go into each bottle. Between the pear and the raspberry, the raspberry was our overwhelming favorite. There’s the fruity flavor, but there’s also dirt, vines, and seaweed flavors. It’s complex and delicious. Bottle Purchased.
- Pear & raspberry liqueurs: The liquers were simply the two brandies with sugar and pear or raspberry juice added. The pear tasted like a cinnamon holiday dessert and the raspberry was likewise delicious (recommendation was to add it to the sparkling wine) but we weren’t sure what else we could make out of them.
- NOLA coffee: Coffee liqueurs are typically overbearingly sweet and syrupy. This one actually tastes like coffee (better yet, it has more caffeine than coffee!). It’s well-balanced, and is tastes like an Irish coffee. Bottle Purchased.
- Bruto Americano: Delicious bitterness. There’s herbal, Seville orange, cinnamon, and wood in there. I was so over the moon, they gave us promotional pins with the taglines “Feel the Bruto!” and “For a bitter America!”. Bonus points for the thinly veiled Bernie Sanders references. Bottle Purchased.
We didn’t try the absinthe – because we knew we were going to buy it anyway. Bottle Purchased.
About $200 later (the tour and tasting itself is rather cheap at $20), we walked out with this haul: