By Maria Zizka
In 1982, Jörg Rupf founded St. George Spirits and, using the extraordinary fruit grown in California, began producing eaux de vie. At the time, St. George, named for the patron saint of Rupf’s native Freiburg, Germany, was one of the only artisan distilleries in the United States. In the years since, Rupf has trained numerous distillers, launched an American craft spirits renaissance, and received no fewer than four James Beard Award nominations. Recently, Rupf passed on the reins of running the business to another maverick, current Master Distiller Lance Winters.
It was 17 years ago that Winters approached Rupf with his resumé — a bottle of homemade whiskey — and he was hired on the spot. After eight years working together, the pair moved St. George Spirits into its current home, a 65,000-square-foot airplane hangar at Alameda’s Naval Air Station. Coincidentally, Winters had worked previously from the Naval Base, as a nuclear engineer stationed aboard “The Enterprise.” Now he engineers a different sort of material but enjoys the same Bay Bridge view.
“I used to look out at that view,” Winters recalled during a recent distillery tour, “and think, ‘if I only had a beer…’ ”
Instead of beer, Winters can sip twelve award-winning distillates, including the first U.S. single-malt whiskey, and the first legal American absinthe since the 1912 ban.
Two St. George spirits, Agua Libre California Agricole Rum and Aqua Perfecta Poire Eau de Vie, were finalists in the 2012 Good Food Awards. During his tenure, Winters has also been responsible for the release of three St. George gins: Dry Rye, Botanivore, and the particularly enchanting Terroir. This last gin goes beyond the requisite juniper fragrance; it is made from wild fennel, Douglas fir, California bay laurel, coastal sage and other closely guarded aromatic botanicals. One whiff transports the drinker to a hike in the Oakland Hills.
“If there’s something people can relate to, they connect to it,” Winters explains.
To evoke specific memories, Winters strives to capture the qualities of an exquisite raw product and display these characteristics in the glass, a strategy very much in line with Rupf’s original approach. Winters thoughtfully sources ingredients and works with them at their prime.
For instance, dry-farmed, organic Bartlett pears for pear eau de vie arrive in the distillery just one day after they are harvested. Each 375ml bottle requires 15 pounds of pears, which must be mashed, fermented and transferred into one of the distillery’s two custom, German-made copper stills. Trapped steam cooks the fruit until a mixture of alcohol, essential oils, and water rises from the bubbling pot. The vapor travels upward through a tower of collection tanks and then, like a veritable Wonka-factory surprise, a crystal-clear liquid emerges through a thin pipe. The distiller must physically examine this final product by taste and touch to determine the critical point when distillation is complete.
Winters runs his finger through the output stream of an un-aged whiskey experiment that started as a Sierra Nevada ale. Distilled, the beer (now ‘white dog’) has a floral quality with a lingering chocolate flavor and a blast of hops.
“We’re always working on something fun,” Winters says.
His staff calls him the “resident evil genius” and it becomes clear why when he shows off his laboratory, a side-room lined with numerically categorized glass bottles. In the center, a small copper still, built specifically for St. George Spirits, commands attention as if it were a statue in a museum. Only this statue is most definitely functional and operative. “You can’t bite into a fruit and tell if it will make good eau de vie — you have to distill and test it.”
For one such test project, Rupf, who retired when the company sold their Hangar One Vodka brand in 2010, has returned to the distillery for a challenging new task. He is trying to re-create Agua Azul, a 100% blue agave distillate that sold out quickly after its 2008 release. Mature agave plants are a pain to work with because their heavy cores must be roasted and shredded to yield the necessary juice. Rupf is attempting to smooth out the process.
“He doesn’t retire well,” Winters says and smiles with respect for a man whom he calls “the godfather of American artisan distillation.”
One of Winters’ goals for the future is to reach more people with St. George Spirits, but state laws regulating spirits sales restrict growth. Even so, the small production draws a large, quasi-cult following. It is only a matter of time before another of Winters’ experiments proves exceptional enough to join the St. George Spirits ranks.
For tours, tastings, and purchases, St. George Distillery (2601 Monarch Street, Alameda, CA 94501) is open to the public from noon to 7pm on Wednesday through Saturday, and from noon to 5pm on Sunday. To arrange a tour ($15), which includes complementary spirits tasting, call 510-769-1601.
Maria Zizka is a Berkeley-born food writer and cook. She writes recipes and stories from a cottage near Santa Monica beach. She last wrote for Berkeleyside Nosh about artisan craft pasta company Baia Pasta in Oakland. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @MariaZizka
Kaia Diringer is currently Berkeleyside’s photo intern. See more of her work on her website.