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Behind-the-Scenes: Distillery No. 209 with Arne Hillesland

[Photos: Aubrie Pick]

Just south of AT&T Park and tucked into Pier 50 is Distillery No. 209, the only existing distillery built over water. Though it dwells in the San Francisco Bay, 209's roots are in St. Helena, where distillery founder Leslie Rudd, also the proprietor of Dean & Deluca, owns the eponymous Rudd Winery. When Rudd acquired the Napa County property in 1999, he stumbled upon an old distillery building from the late 19th century with "Registered Distillery No. 209" carved into its face. Rudd restored the original facility, but Napa regulations and building constraints eventually forced No. 209 to relocate to the city. Since then, Rudd and "Ginerator" Arne Hillesland have garnered national distinction for their clean, floral and citrusy gins, favorites among many SF bartenders.

Hillesland, a Bay Area native, spent 20 years immersed in Silicon Valley's tech scene before making a career shift and becoming No. 209's master distiller in the mid-2000s. Distilling gin is a one-man show at 209, where Hillesland is solely responsible for producing and maintaining each batch. For Cocktail Week, Eater got the scoop on his secret blend of botanicals, a newly-released barrel-aged spirit, and the "heart" of gin.

Where did you learn how to distill?

Arne Hillesland: I learned everything right here. I didn't have a distilling background when I came in, and I learned from two Scottish gentlemen. One was the gentleman who built this place, and the other gentlemen is a Ph.D. chemist in Edinburgh—all he does is go around and consult at distilleries. He taught me all the basics, and he was always on call when I was testing recipes. The first Scottish gentleman, who hired me, was up in Calistoga, and it was too difficult for him to get down here enough. He said, "Well, you like to cook, why don't you make the recipe?"

How did you find out about it?

AH: When they used to have ads in the newspaper, there was an ad in the Chronicle for a week back in 2003 for an Assistant Distillery Supervisor. I got talked into applying by the woman I was dating at the time, because I was out of work and looking and she was a career counselor. So, she was the one who found the ad and said I should apply. I was teaching software, and I didn't know how to make gin or run stills. But I answered the ad and wrote a really over-the-top cover letter.

They were totally unready for anyone to be an assistant to anything, because most of these things weren't even installed. They told me, "We're sorry we were premature on the ad, but you seem like a really interesting guy." So I just started on a volunteer basis, and in April of '04, they started paying me. I had an offer from eBay who wanted me to be an international training manager, but I said I'd rather make gin.

How did you develop this set-up and structure for the still?

AH: Everything from the scaffolding to the tanks were built to our specifications in Scotland, and came over in pieces. The still is beautiful, hand-hammered copper. I'm blessed, because there are so many people hand-crafting spirits using either very old or very small equipment.

Does size really matter in a still?

AH: As long as you keep it proportionally the same, it's not a big deal. The large still takes longer to heat up, but as long as you have the basic alembic style to it, you'll be ok. But the longer neck actually produces a much lighter spirit.

What kind of base spirit do you use to make the gin?

AH: We wanted to do it just like the English do it, so we buy our gin from a licensed rectifier, a company that only makes only beverage alcohol in the Midwest. It's 100% corn. And their stuff is super consistent, since they only make beverage alcohol, not car fuel or other things. The plant has been operating since the end of World War II.

Why did you decide to use already-distilled corn spirit, as opposed to distilling it yourself?

AH: It just doesn't make sense for me to haul corn all the way from the Midwest and cook it and ferment it and distill it four times, and then combine it with our botanicals.

Walk me through the distillation process.

AH: I usually get about 5,000 gallons of the neutral spirit at a time. It comes in at 190 proof, almost pure ethanol. It's very clean and very sweet. We chose corn because it has a natural, velvety mouthfeel to it, and a natural sweetness too. When it's time to distill, I pump about 500 gallons of it into the still.

Overnight, we macerate about 25 pounds of botanicals in the neutral spirit. Then, I pump about 500 gallons of water in, which slows down the evaporation process of ethanol. Our water here in San Francisco is really good, from Hetch Hetchy, and I have a filtration system that takes out the chloramine and gets it back to snowmelt as much as I can. I come in the next morning and turn on the on-demand steam generator and introduce the steam to the still in the same way you would with a double boiler when melting chocolate. The steam never actually touches the alcohol, but heats it to a boil. It vaporizes, goes into the neck, and we have a cooling container where it condenses. About 45 minutes in, liquid starts to appear in the container, and then first 20-30 gallons of it gets discarded.

Why do you discard this initial product?

AH: Every distillation has 3 parts: the heads, the hearts, and the tails. You don't want to keep the heads, which is the first part, or the tails, the last part. The bad alcohols boil at a lower temperature, and so if you don't start collecting until 173 [degrees Fahrenheit], then you're pretty good. And you do a lot of tasting.

How often are you tasting to determine when you're getting to the "heart"?

AH: When I first started, I was tasting every 15 minutes, because I was still trying to figure out what was going on. I taste pretty frequently now, about every half-hour to an hour, but it also involves looking at the alcohol measurements on the alcohol meter.

Do you secretly sell your heads and tails under a different, low-end label?

AH: No, we actually send it to a recycling center, where they distill it again to make it really clean, and it goes into car fuel. They have a contract with Union 76, so you could be driving around on old heads and tails from 209.

How many gallons of the "heart" are you getting for every distillation?

AH: It will produce about 3,600 liters [950 gallons] of finished gin, which is about nine pallets.

How much do you dilute the gin after it comes off the still?

AH: When it comes off the still, it's about 155 proof, and we bring that down to our bottle strength of 92 proof.

And what about the "tails?"

AH: The tails actually have a lot of interesting flavors, but they also have these things called conjoiners, which is a fancy term for a lot of interesting esters and oils. They're essentially what give you a nasty hangover. So, if you're a greedy distiller, you keep collecting to get more product, but with not as good of quality.

Tell me about some of the botanicals you use.

AH: We have botanicals from around the world. Our juniper berries come from Tuscany. We also use coriander, and when you crush it, it has rosy characteristics, which come out a lot in 209.

There's also cardamom. The seeds are stuck together in the shell with a resin-like binding, and it's that oily resin that is so flavorful. If you pop it in your mouth, they are pretty minty and have a little bit of a eucalyptus overtone. I don't know anyone else that is hand-stripping the shells off the cardamom pods like we are. Angelica root, which always reminds me of a tobacconist because of that earthy, woody smell. Interestingly, it's in the celery family, and the root acts as a binder for the various oils in the distillation process.
And we use cassia bark, which is pretty close to cinnamon and is kind of sweet, and we grind it really fine to get the best extraction of the oils.

We often get asked if we put sugar in 209 gin, and we don't, but the sweetness from cassia bark, the corn, and the juniper berries all contribute. Then, there's the bergamot orange peel, which has a floral aspect that you don't necessarily expect form an orange. And there's various types of orange, sweet and bitter lemon that go into it.

Some craft distillers are using an aromatics basket, as opposed to directly macerating the botanicals with the base spirit. Why don't you use one?

AH: First off, our recipe is specific for this still, which doesn't have a basket. I've had the opportunity to use one, and there are advantages and disadvantages. You'll get a much lighter spirit. You won't get as many of the heavy oils. On the other side of the coin, you don't get the full spectrum of what the botanical can offer you.

How often do you distill?
I'm distilling about three times a month now. I'm very lucky, because of the size of my still.

Who is the average 209 drinker?
Usually it's someone in their 20s to 40s who's curious about classic cocktails and curious about anything but vodka. The majority of what we sell is to bars and restaurants, so it's often people who like to go out and try new things. I have a very intelligent clientele in that I get these really thoughtful emails. Someone will ask me to explain my process, or someone will ask me about orris root or ask what ingredients are in the gin. Or they'll ask where they can get a really good cocktail.

Also, we sell about 50% of our stuff overseas—mostly in Spain and England, but we're also in Puerto Rico for some reason, and the Caribbean. And we're in 18 countries in West Africa, through someone who supplies the consulates.

Does being on the water and/or being so close to the ocean have any affect on the gin?

AH: It certainly makes my life easier in distilling, because the temperature doesn't change much in this building. We're over about 55-degree water. I know there's a bunch of distillers that have said their gin picks up those flavors by the sea, but that's just not really the case unless you're aging the product. But we've actually just started aging our gin.

Why did you decide to start aging gin?
Well, I started aging back in '05, and I thought it was interesting, but I didn't see how it would be used. There was a bit of a mixology movement going on, but nowhere near what it is now. I just didn't see how people would use it, so I just put it aside. Then a few aged gins came out, and our COO asked if I could make some again, and that's where these came up.

Can you elaborate on the two you have available?
We have two aged gins that we're making, one that is aged in a Sauvignon Blanc barrel for about two months, and one in a Cabernet barrel for about six months. They're aged in secondary-use barrels from the Rudd Winery. We're launching them this week. We decided to use the Cab because [Rudd] has a tradition of making great Cabs, but I am really fond of the Sauv Blanc. They are lovely.

What's your favorite cocktail?

AH: It really depends on the time of year. When it's warm weather, I want a Tom Collins, an Aviation or a French 75. If it's cooler weather, a Negroni, or every so often, I love to have a White Lady. It's got a great story too. F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda, was at the Savoy Hotel in London at the bar, and the bartender named the drink after her because she was a classic platinum blonde. It's gin, lemon juice, a splash of Cointreau, shaken with an egg white. When it's done correctly, and you get to the bottom of your glass, it's almost like lemon meringue pie. It's fabulous.

· Behind-The-Scenes: St. George Spirits With Lance Winters [~ ESF ~]
· All Cocktail Week 2013 posts [~ ESF ~]

No. 209 Distillery

Pier 50 Terry A. Francois Blvd., San Francisco, CA 94158