A couple of weeks ago I traveled to Berkeley, Calif., for a conference and took the opportunity to visit what to my mind is one of the most innovative distilleries around right now.
Sitting in a warehouse by the water in Alameda, with a panoramic view of San Francisco behind it, St. George distillery puts out an array of spirits. They have some of the best gin I’ve ever tasted — the pot-stilled dry rye and it’s aged dry rye reposado expression are particular favorites. They also do an agricole-style rum with an extremely funky nose, a pear eau-de-vie, and, with quite a bit of pride, the first American-made absinthe since the drink was prohibited in the United States back in 1912. The list goes on, but what we’re most concerned with here is the whiskey.
Not counting the limited edition stuff, St. George’s makes two types of whiskies — a bourbon and a single malt. The bourbon isn’t distilled on site, but rather blended from a collection of about 400 casks “pilfered” from unidentified Kentucky rickhouses. Consequently, they labeled it with the tongue-in-cheek title “Breaking and Entering Bourbon.” Bottled at 43 percent, it’s a solid bourbon, with more caramel and butterscotch driving it than vanilla, and an underlying grassiness.
But it’s the single malt that really sings. It’s a light- to medium-bodied malt with a rich nutty flavor and multidimensional complexity resulting from maturation in four different types of wood — used French Oak, bourbon, sherry, and port barrels all make their way into the mix. It may sound too busy, but I think it works very well. Not only do they distill it themselves, but they’ve played with roasting and smoking the barley — experimentation is clearly St. George’s strong suit — to bring out those toasted hazelnut notes.
Here’s where the magic happens. They use custom-made pot/column still hybrids, pictured below.
And here’s some great news — they’ve got rye aging in barrels, so keep an eye out for it. No word on when it will be ready, but here’s a couple of the barrels below.
And here’s some more good news. St. George’s has teamed up with Sierra Nevada to age some beer. This is still in the experimental stage, but I’m curious to see what it will look like when it’s done. Coincidentally, David Driscoll at K&L Wines wrote about this topic earlier in the week, saying that distilling beer could mark a great niche for U.S. distillers looking to differentiate themselves from traditional bourbon producers. He writes:
What craft distilleries need to do is find a niche and do that one thing better than anyone else. One genre of whiskey that is absolutely ripe for exploration is distilled beer. Why not follow in the footsteps of the craft beer movement by distilling that movement into a bottle? There have been many attempts to bring attention to this idea already. Charbay has obviously pioneered this concept with a number of exciting distilled beer whiskies. Anchor recently distilled their Christmas Ale into a bierschnapps called “White Christmas.” However, most of these expressions have suffered from practicality — they were interesting, but no one knew when or how to drink them. Yet, if someone could successfully capture the flavor of really good beer, age that spirit in wood so that the texture was softened, but the freshness of the beer never muted, they could be on to something big.
I’ll be rooting for St. George’s to make it work. Here’s our very enthusiastic and informative tour guide showing off the Sierra Nevada barrels below.
And, while we’re at it, here’s the bottling line:
And again, just for kicks, one of the other stills:
There’s also some sad news at St. George for whiskey lovers. Like everywhere else, they’re low on stocks and they’ve pulled whiskey from their tasting sessions until they replenish. Stocks are so tightly allocated that the distillery itself isn’t even stocking the single malt. So if you seen one on the shelves, you might want to grab it while you can.