St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA has one of the best reputations in American alcohol production. Established as an eaux de vie distillery in 1982, the company can lay claim to being the first craft distillery in America. Since then it has been rapidly expanding its production to encompass almost every kind of commercial distilled spirit and has found its reputation growing to iconic levels as the industry has blossomed. Others quickly followed their lead and were it not for the earnest efforts and enduring creativity instilled by its Alsace-born founder Jörg Rupf, the huge and vast impact of America's young craft distillery industry might not have been felt so strongly in the bars and watering holes across the world.
Today St. George's master distiller is Lance Winters. This Naval-engineer-turned-beer-brewer started with the company in 1995 and has been the driving force behind their expansion from producing boutique, Californian eaux de vie to a fantastically diverse and well-branded range of locally-flavored gins, vodkas, brandies, bourbons, single malts, rums and absinthes.
Lance very kindly took the time away from this to talk to us about what it means to be producing liquor and exploring the boundaries in the contemporary American booze market.
Hello, Lance. We'll start at the beginning. Do you remember the point at which you suddenly felt that you understood distilled liquor? And which was the first spirit that you genuinely fell in love with?
I think that my understanding of distilled spirits trailed my love for them by a few years. I fell in love with a bottle of Glen Grant 16 that was given to me by a friend named Smokey Wallace. I had been moonshining at home for a short time and I think that Smokey was trying to show me what was possible in a whiskey.
It wasn't until I'd been working with Jörg at St. George Spirits that I started to really understand distilled spirits. Making eaux de vie is such a great path to that understanding because it starts with a love for something that's not a spirit, like a pear or raspberry, and finishes with something that's no longer a pear or raspberry but has all the characteristics that made you fall for the fruit to begin with.
How beneficial has it been being the original craft distillery in the United States now that the revolution is in full swing? Did you benefit from being able to make mistakes and perfect your craft before the mass public attention was on you?
Being first is a bit of a double-edged sword. To do what we do and do it well requires getting through a pretty sizable learning curve. There aren't a lot of people out there willing to teach you how to do this who are worth listening to. Having three decades of experience to stand on top of is a tremendous benefit. From understanding production to packaging to recognizing the value of your distributors, there's a ton that we've learned over 31 years. I'd tell you about the other side of the sword but I'm trying to stay super positive for the holidays!
The company is based on an inherent fascination with the land upon which it was built. Is an appreciation for raw materials and a patience to operate at the pace dictated by the earth an important factor in St. George’s philosophy?
What you said. Your question essentially outlines our core philosophy. Our appreciation for the raw materials we work with informs every step that we take with all of our spirits. It has to. I think that a really good distiller knows when to assert his or her influence over a spirit and when to back down and let it do its own thing. Lots of other distillers would have tried to beat our California Agricole Rum into submission. We let it strut.
I think that our Californian climate, as well as the diverse population, gives us access to an incredible array of raw materials. Sometimes those materials end up in a product, sometimes they inspire something completely different. When I took my dog Bowie for a walk this morning before work, I grabbed enough California bay laurel to do two still runs of Terroir gin. We still forage for the ingredients that were foraged in our first batch.
What’s a good gin to you?
A good gin is one that leads with botanicals, has a balanced profile, and doesn't have that acrid juniper thing going on that sometimes happens. A great gin is Terroir.
How do you sell gin to impartial people? I have often found that you have to hold people’s hands and tug them away from vodka. Is your aim to attract gin drinkers or all drinkers?
There are many ways to lure people who say they don't like gin into that first taste. Shame works. Telling them that it's completely moronic to discount an entire category of spirits just because you had a bad experience once or twice. I wouldn't be married to my wonderful wife if I had that sort of attitude.
Hangar One is a huge success and a product that has become extremely well-known independent of St. George. I’m curious about the flavor choices. Do you think it’s in keeping with the company’s ethos to shun the standard lime, orange and lemon in favor a more carefully thought-out approach? Does your experience with gin and the complexity of botanical balancing influence your profiling?
The flavor choices on the Hangar One line were based on our experience with eau de vie and influenced to a certain degree by perfume-making technique. A great spirit and a great perfume have more in common than not. They're historically rooted in alchemy/medicine and they both have a harmony between base notes, mid-notes and top notes. A good eau de vie has that balance with a single ingredient. Lime on its own doesn't have that harmony but incorporates leaves from the kaffir lime tree and you're there. Mandarin oranges on their own are nice but there's a lovely hook provided by the inclusion of blossoms. Balancing the profiles of these vodkas, as well as balancing all of the very loud botanicals in our absinthe, has taught us a lot.
Is your dream to see the gins, whiskies and vodkas on every bar shelf in America, or is it more about being in the right bars?
I hate to see any of our bottles end up on a shelf where they're just going to collect dust. The right bar is extremely important. I sat down at a bar in Oakland, where I live and saw a bottle of our rum. I asked the bartender for a Hemingway Daiquiri made with it. She asked if I was sure and I said yes. She said, "Okay. I just wanted to be sure. This stuff..." I jumped in and offered, "Puts the stink in distinctive?" She replied, "Glad you said it." I was glad to have the cocktail, which was delicious, but I was also sad that it was in a place where it wasn't really wanted or appreciated.
Is it more important to expand your roster of liquors or increase production? Do you have a limit to the output before quality is compromised?
It's most important for us to do what turns us on. I think that there's more of a limit on the number of products that you can make before quality is affected than a limit on sheer volume. If we get inspired to make something new, we'll do it. We won't expand the roster just to go after numbers.
How have you seen people’s consumption habits change over the years?
I have indeed seen people's consumption habits change over the years. I started at St. George in 1995. The cocktail scene that we currently enjoy was mostly nonexistent. Beer was great, wine was great, but there was very little in the way of spirits consumption. People were enjoying Scotch, but very little else that was well-produced.
Which brands/booze figures do you look up to?
If St. George wrote fiction, what kind would you write?
If we wrote fiction, we'd be David Mitchell (or at least we'd want to be) and we'd be left in nightstands in hotels and motels around the world by the Gideons.
What do you like to drink?
When I get home from work, it's very likely that I'm going to have a Negroni with our Dry Rye Gin. I love to drink cocktails that take the best qualities of a spirit and elevate them. Nothing worse than getting your favorite spirit in a cocktail and then having to struggle to find it. Our rum in anything tropical just feels like a sex scene on Animal Planet.
What do you have coming up?
We're about to relaunch our flagship fruit spirits* (pear and raspberry brandy and liqueur) and we also have a new coffee liqueur in the works. We're also playing with an amaro and working on a couple of whiskies. One is a rye, made from organic rye grown in California. The other is a bourbon made from all California-grown grain. We'll keep you posted.
* We'll be f**king around with the fantastic new line of of fruit spirits next week and give you little taste of what you'll be able to do with the line when it hits the shelves.