Alchemy by the Bay

Alchemy by the Bay

Stuart MacLean Ramsay takes a trip to the US west coast and checks out three very different but equally daring and passionate distillers

Distillery Focus | 16 Dec 2001 | Issue 20 | By Stuart Ramsay

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It was 1979 and I was on a beer pilgrimage to San Francisco, seeking a pint of Anchor Steam Beer. Along with Yuengling’s Porter, it was about the only beer worth drinking in America back then. Strapped for cash, I was travelling from city to city by Greyhound bus and made the youthful mistake of asking bartenders for the beer in the dicey Tenderloin district, home to the bus station. “Never heard of it.” “Huh?” and “Are you from Canada?” were just some of the responses I got during my quest. Meanwhile, in the fancy hotels on Nob Hill, urbane San Franciscans were sipping the elixir that would revolutionize America’s beer industry. Twenty two years on, a pint of Anchor Steam can be enjoyed in most decent drinking establishments in a city that has many. What was missing, perhaps, was a sophisticated dram to relax with, to match and enhance the after dinner night moves of San Francisco. This has been rectified by three Bay Area artisan – or micro – distilleries.Ever the pioneer, Fritz Maytag, founder of Anchor Brewing, distills and bottles two 100% malted rye whiskies; Jôrg Rupf and Lance Winters, founder and distiller, respectively, of St. George Spirits make a 100% malted barley single malt; and David Classick of Essential Spirits Alambic Distillery produces true European beer schnapps from California pale ales. These distilleries bring innovation and excitement to American spirits, not unlike the West Coast craft brewers of yesteryear.
Fritz Maytag began distilling on Potrero Hill in 1994 but he has a gastronomic pedigree reaching back to 1965 when he bought the venerable Anchor Steam Brewery. The Anchor Distillery, to the rear of the brewery, produces the aromatic Junipero gin and two barrel-strength, pot-distilled rye whiskies. Both made from a mash of 100% rye malt, the current bottlings are Old Potrero Single Malt Whiskey, aged two years in new and used uncharred oak barrels and the Old Potrero Single Malt Straight Rye Whiskey, which spends three years in new charred oak barrels.I ask him about the early days of Anchor Distilling. “It began as a research project and we had around 1100 bottles. Our first whiskey was aged for barely a year and went into the barrel on 9th December 1994. We released it in February of 1996. I like to start real slow, build up speed and eventually take off. Old Potrero was sold by the drink, only selected bars and
restaurants in San Francisco carried it.” Fritz approaches distilling seriously. “We want to make whiskey of a certain historical validity and we’re dedicated to creating very small batches of traditionally distilled spirits of many types and styles. We’ve returned to pot-style whiskey tradition at Anchor Distilling, and our whiskies are attempts to re-create the original spirits produced from grain in America.”
Jôrg Rupf, on the other hand, has decided to re-write history. Jôrg is Founder and Master Distiller at St. George Spirits, first and foremost distiller of eau de vie in the US (he began distilling in 1982). Born in the Alsace region of southeast France, he was raised in Germany’s Black Forest and came to the US in 1978 to study law at the University of California at Berkeley. He gave up a law career for distillation and has enriched his adopted city with skill and grace. I ask Jôrg about his approach to creating a California single malt: “Our eau de vie philosophy is to take the best of European traditional practices and combine it with what we do today in our environment. I look on it from a very culinary perspective. And we have taken this philosophy into the production of our single malt.”Jôrg creates his eaux de vie and single malt from a 65-gallon capacity Holstein still, crafted by the Holstein family at Lake Constance, east of the Black Forest. “They’re the highest quality modern stills. The family has been hand-crafting copper pot stills for generations – they were developed for eau de vie production, where extraction and preservation of fruit aromas and flavors is crucial. They are designed to coax out aromas and capture the maximum amount of congeners.” As an importer, installer and agent for the Holstein manufacturers, Jôrg has been a most influential factor in the burgeoning artisan distilling movement in the West. When I ask more questions about the whiskey, Jôrg directs me to the operating half of the distillery – Lance Winters. He started working at the distillery almost seven years ago, having been brewer at two Bay Area brewpubs. He describes making their whiskey: “Our beer wash uses 5% heavily roasted barley with the sugars roasted out, which gives a cocoa note. Crystal malt gives the whiskey a hazelnut flavor, and we smoke some of the barley over alderwood and beechwood. It’s all two-row barley and with no hops. We experimented with hops but the spirit was too fruity.” “In a way, the Holstein is similar to a true Lomond still in Scotland,” Lance continues. “You get control and flexibility and I can make the still a Macallan or a Glenmorangie by adapting the bubble caps. I prefer to make the still as small as possible. For our single malt, the wash or beer is 6% abv. We don’t brew here, so we buy unhopped wash from Sierra Nevada (Northern California’s ‘other’ great pioneer craft brewery) in Chico, California. There’s a single pass and it comes over at 65% abv. The heads and tails (foreshots and feints) cuts are quite sizeable and we discard both of them. It’s a delicate process because the tails have the fusels and there’s chocolate, mouthfeel and the smoke coming over, too.”After distillation, St. George Single Malt rests in a combination of different barrel types, Lance tells me. To preserve the floral top notes and add oak and vanilla, 82% of the single malt is aged in used bourbon (first refill) barrels, 12% in new French oak for vanilla and mouthfeel, and 6% in port casks to focus cocoa flavor and add depth and a pleasant tint. “Used bourbon barrels keep the integrity of the spirit,” he adds.“The one point I’d like to stress,” Lance says, “is although this is technically a single malt, I don’t want it to be compared to Scotch. I love Scotch, but there are so many great Scotches out there, it’s beyond me why one would set out to make another. At best it would just be a copy of the originals, at worst, plain nasty. We wanted to craft a whiskey with a malt sweetness that is smooth and complex from the beginning. To achieve this we had to rethink whiskey from start to finish. We wanted to create a real product, original without being trendy, and I think we accomplished that.”Unlike the industrial Alameda location of St. George Spirits, Dave Classick’s distillery nestles in Mountain View between Palo Alto and San Jose, the heartland of high technology. Dave and his wife, Andrea Mirenda, maintain Silicon Valley careers as they establish the family spirits business, Essential Spirits Alambic Distilleries. He distills two versions of European schnapps: his dry, aromatic Classick Original American Bierschnaps is distilled from his own, lightly hopped California pale ale, and the floral, spicy Sierra Nevada Bierschnaps is the distillate of generously hopped Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, supplied by the illustrious Chico, California brewery.I ask Dave where he got the idea for Bierschnaps: “The custom comes out of Bavaria. There, it’s a traditional German product but the breweries are only allowed to make 300 litres of spirit a year. It’s a true European schnapps, and I’m trying to bring old world refinement to the category.”Dave goes on to describe his production process. “First we microbrew our own California pale ale in 30 barrel fermenters. It’s around 5% abv, and it takes 100 gallons of beer to produce 5 gallons of spirits. Our own ale is underhopped compared to Sierra Nevada’s and the distillate is less complex and I think more balanced. Fresh hops can make for a complicated distillate, and instead I’m looking for the sweetness of pale malts, the fragile aromatics in the character of the beer. What surprised me was the fruity esters that came through, from the unique yeast we’re using.”The heart of Essential Spirits is the copper Stupfler still, hand-crafted by Bordeaux’s Jean Luis Stupfler, one of France’s premier alambic still makers. It is unique in North America, and Dave says it is not a traditional cognac still. “It has a pot, dome, gooseneck and condenser, but it also has an analyzer, a proprietary design in the still’s centre cylinder, between the gooseneck and condenser. We can analyze after-vapours, allowing extra rectification to clean and purify before final distillation.”One thing about these youthful distillates is their extremely limited availability: St. George Spirits produces about a barrel a day and Anchor Distilling even less.Given the size of the stills, nationwide distribution is not going to happen anytime soon, but that is not what these pioneer distillers seek. They want to make the best quality spirit from the ingredients they choose, not be restricted by tradition. Fritz, Jôrg, Lance and Dave all talk about learning as they go and experimenting.“Tradition is strong in Europe,” Jôrg says, “but in California we’ve only been around for 150 years so we can do anything and apply different techniques.” Dave Classick explains their ingrained hedonistic lifestyle: “Coastal regions seem to be more experimental and avant garde,” he says. “The Bay Area is heterogeneous and filled with people who think outside the box. We’re experimental by nature.” Finally, Fritz offers his pioneer wisdom: “Distilling has been kind of sleepy. It’s charming but a little hidebound, and we see an opportunity like American winemakers 20 years ago, trying this and that. It’s an open field with room for creativity.” Tasting notes (with water added)

Old Potrero Single Malt Whiskey 62.1% abv
Aged two years in new and used uncharred oak
Nose: Nutty, vanilla, pepper and cinnamon; floral and grassy
Palate: Oily, smooth, sweet honey; full-flavour
Finish: Peppery rye, honey, soft mint chocolate

Old Potrero Single Malt Straight Rye Whiskey 62.6% abv
Aged three years in new, charred oak
Nose: Buttery, chestnut, vanilla sweetness; oak and peppery spice
Palate: Sweet, spicy, background oil
Finish: Caramel oak, rye spice, sweetness

Anchor Distilling Co. 1705 Mariposa Street San Francisco, CA 94107 Phone: 415-863-8350 Fax: 415-552-7094
Guided Tours: by appointmentSt. George Single Malt 43% abv
Aged three years in reused cooperage
Nose: Light floral notes, hazelnuts, strawberry taffy and oranges, soft coffee notes, vanilla and background smoke
Palate: Light and delicate, sweet, fruity, hazelnut, cocoa/chocolate; some mint
Finish: Wisps of smoke, sweet honeysuckle, chocolate, lingeringSt George Spirits, 5421 Belgrave Place Oakland, CA 94618 Phone: 510-658-7934 Fax: 510-653-2927

Classick, the Original American Bierschnaps 40% abv
Nose: Fruity and estery, dry and aromatic Palate: Crisp, smooth
Finish: Lingering malt and hop notes Sierra Nevada Bierschnaps
40% abv
Nose: Floral and spicy, hoppy notes
Palate: Light, fruity, smooth
Finish: Spicy Essential Spirits Alambic Distilleries 144-A South Whisman Road Mountain View, CA 94040 Phone: 650-962-0546
Fax: 650-964-8368
Tours: by appointment only
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