You lose all sense of scale standing inside the St. George Spirits distillery, housed inside a former Navy hangar in Alameda with soaring copper columns bellowing steam that curls up toward a redwood ceiling high above. In fact, it’s hard to grasp the distillery’s true size — a whopping 65,000 square feet — at least until you watch a semi-truck back into the far end of the hangar in its entirety, trailer included. Then you realize that if the cavernous space were emptied of its contents, a whole fleet could comfortably fit inside.
The distillery looks like an alchemist’s workshop, with five shiny copper stills embellishing a steel lattice platform that looks like it was designed by Gustave Eiffel. Distillers pace back and forth, adjusting knobs on the steaming machines, portholes on the columns, and bobbing hydrometers — plus constant smelling and tasting of the condensed nectar, the constellations by which they guide the gastronomic equivalent of Captain Nemo’s ship.
St. George Spirits has occupied the hangar for 18 years, and you can’t ignore the effect the dramatic setting has had on its longevity, even though it’s something you will never taste. Distillation was literally born of alchemy, and those intangibles are certainly woven into the ceremony of evaporating and condensing liquids.
Over the last 40 years, the company has produced the first legal absinthe for sale in the U.S. since 1912, released a line of gins that captures a true sense of place, made one of the first American single malt whiskeys, and distilled countless other experimental spirits. It has also helped define the early cocktail scene in the Bay Area and beyond with its distinctive spirits, particularly with the Hangar One vodka line.
As the company turns the big 4-0 this year, co-owner Lance Winters, the charismatic and restless distiller, looks to marry the past of the St. George Spirits’ old-school production methods with the future by preparing its next generation of distillers to lead the company forward. The big challenge is balancing the company’s growth with the playful nature that made it popular.
Winters, a Navy veteran who spent his time working in the engine rooms of an aircraft carrier as a nuclear scientist, joined St. George Spirits in 1996 as the third member of the company. By that time founder Jörg Rupf had been working with the late Bill Mannshardt for the past 12 years and Mannshardt had defined much of the distillery’s infrastructure. Winters’s hiring allowed Mannshardt to retire, but also ushered in a new era of experimentation.
A former brewer, Winters joined with the desire to make single malt whiskey, and a homemade version he brought to the distillery served as his resume. In comparison to pragmatic Rupf, whose goal was to make the best eau-de-vie brandy, Winters, who didn’t feel bound by distilling tradition, was Loki, the Norse god known for his wily tricks. At times, St. George Spirits felt more like a R&D lab than a well-established company, with Winters distilling everything he could, including a customary distilling of his Christmas tree after the holidays (an idea that eventually made its way into their Terroir gin). Winters made and distilled absinthe (before it was legal to sell, for personal “research”), and distilled carrots, crabs, kombu kelp, blue agave, rice (for shochu), chile peppers, bananas, and, most famously, made foie gras vodka for the late Anthony Bourdain (who found it horrifically wonderful) with the help of chef Chris Cosentino.
“What I love about [St. George] most is that they try all sorts of outrageous stuff, not to chase a trend or a payday, but because of their legitimate curiosity and passion for distillation,” says Dylan O’Brien, owner of Prizefighter bar in Emeryville. “They chase their passions and wild ideas without knowing what the outcome will be. ”
In 1982, when Rupf started St. George Spirits in a shack in Emeryville, the only other distilleries in the country made booze on an industrial scale. Even craft beer was just a wobbly-legged idea, with only a small handful of breweries, including Sierra Nevada and Anchor Brewing, holding tight after New Albion, the country’s first craft brewery, closed in Sonoma that year.
With approximately 1,900 craft distilleries in the country today, some with celebrity involvement and others now part of large multinational corporations, it may be easy to forget that between Prohibition and 1982, legal craft distilling didn’t exist. Small distilleries were considered a terrible business idea and an accountant’s nightmare of inefficiency. You didn’t start a craft distillery — certainly not one focused on European style clear fruit brandies (eau-de-vie) — to make money.
But Rupf did. “It was more of a hobby than a business, which is a great way to start because it stays pure; it’s all driven by love and enjoyment,” Winters says.
For Rupf, a former violinist and German judge, eau-de-vie was the business’s sole focus: take pristine California fruit and distill it into its platonic ideal. Eau-de-vie translates into “water of life,” a poetic description of a European style of brandy made by distilling fermented fruit and extracting its liquid essence.
“One ingredient, nowhere to hide, and a very difficult thing to sell to the American market, especially in 1982 when everyone is drinking Bartles & Jaymes [wine coolers],” Winters says.
There are still no computers to automate any part of the distilling process, precisely how founder Rupf designed St. George to operate 40 years ago. Legacy is part of how the business operates. St. George uses the apprenticeship model to train their distillers, passing knowledge and experience from one generation to another, and building ownership in a similar fashion. It’s so old school that it’s Old World, making everything on analog systems including steam-powered copper stills that boil fermented or infused liquids, capture and separate the volatile vapors, and condense them into things that will eventually end up in your home or local bar.
While on sales calls with their distributor to try to sell eaux-de-vie to accounts, Winters noticed whole back bars and menus filled with flavored vodkas. Trying one, he found it tasted of harsh alcohol followed by the air freshener approximation of a fruit. He knew St. George could do better. “We make these eau-de-vies, and nobody wants to buy them — we need to say the same thing we’ve been saying, but in a different language and vodka is that language,” Winters says.
The pair got to work with infusions and re-distillation of real fruits, focusing on aromatic crops they sourced from California citrus farmers: makrut lime leaves, fresh mandarin blossoms, and buddha’s hand citrons. Six months after the launch of the vodka, St. George Spirits made more money than they had in the previous three years combined.
The timing of Hangar One was also in synchronicity with the cocktail revolution. It was a time when the “best” cocktails went from being ones where you couldn’t taste the alcohol, to ones where the alcohol was the primary flavor. That gave poorly made spirits no place to hide. “I think that gave us street cred out in the world, so that after we sold the [Hangar One] brand and we rolled out the gins, people would listen when we would talk about it,” says Winters, who became co-owner of St. George Spirits in 2002 and head of the company in 2010 when Rupf retired.
In 2012, Winters met Cris Steller, President of Dry Diggings and Amador Distilling. Steller wanted to start a distillery but needed to learn the craft; meanwhile, Winters was frustrated trying to advocate for changes to California laws to achieve more parity between the legal treatment of distilleries, wineries, and breweries. Steller previously ran an association management company and had experience working on behalf of trade organizations and nonprofits, including hiring lobbyists and lawyers and working with the different government agencies. Together, Winters and Steller traded experience and, in the process, created the California Artisanal Distillers Guild. In 2015, the California Craft Distillers Act was signed into law, but the nonprofit guild continues to work on moving the industry forward for all California craft distilleries, even those who aren’t members.
Steller says often the legislation the guild works for doesn’t apply to St. George Spirits because of their size, yet Winters continues to volunteer space, time, and money. “That’s when you’re a part of the industry and you know that there’s more than your own situation,” Steller says.
Where does a distillery go after 40 years? One thing Winters doesn’t want to do is chase trends. So expect no nonalcoholic “spirits” or canned cocktails or CBD drinks. Winters wants new releases to be products they’re all excited about, like a California agave spirit. “The future of St. George Spirits will be something that will be written by someone other than me,” Winters says.
Head distiller Dave Smith is now part owner of the company; he’s someone Winters credits with evolving the company’s whiskeys with different barrel-aging techniques and annual cask selections that make the whiskeys so popular. Passing the baton to a new generation is part of what Winters believes has allowed St. George Spirits to not just survive but thrive for decades.
“I’ve pushed myself back, and I think it’s important to push myself back further so that they can feel comfortable expressing themselves and there can be new things coming out with new points of view,” Winters says.