by Risa Nye
One of the few things I miss about having kids in elementary school is going on field trips. Over the years, with three kids going through school, I went to a fire station in Berkeley, the Oakland Museum of California, the zoo, the little farm at Tilden Park, Crab Cove in Alameda, and the county courthouse in Martinez, among the more memorable places. But all that is in the past—or so I thought. Last week, I decided to take a grown-up field trip on my own—to a distillery.
Since I’ve been writing about happy hours and cocktails for the last several years, I thought this would be an excellent destination for me to visit. No kiddies allowed on this adventure—to St. George Spirits in Alameda.
I spoke with someone at a local bar recently who asked me if I’d ever been to St. George. I had to admit that I had not. Much to my chagrin, as a lifelong Bay Area resident, I didn’t even know it existed. I had heard about this place in Alameda that makes…something, but I didn’t know much else about it. Turns out St. George has been crafting spirits since 1982. The company had been around for more than thirty years—and I’d been around longer than that—so I thought it was high time to check the place out.
The magic happens in a huge hangar at the edge of the Bay in Alameda. After driving through parts of the island I’d never seen before, I arrived at the yellow building that houses the distillery and its offices—and was struck by the beauty of the location. There’s nothing between the facility and the Bay, past the fence and the road at the edge of the parking lot. The view on this windswept day was sparkling and clear: to the right are the famous giant cranes and stacks of shipping containers of the Port of Oakland; you can see both the new and old spans of the Bay Bridge, Yerba Buena Island, and a panorama of San Francisco. But why linger in the parking lot when there are so many interesting things going on inside?
I entered the building and found Lauren Asta in the tasting room. She asked me about my background and I had to confess to my lack of information about St. George Spirits. Field trips are educational, however, and I had come to be educated. Lauren (aka The Brooklyn Brewster), is the tasting room supervisor and tour guide extraordinaire. Brimming with enthusiasm, Lauren filled me in on the many stages of the distillation process, the construction of the stills (which look like something Willy Wonka would’ve created if he’d ever branched out past making candy), the purpose of each copper part and stainless steel pipe, the history of the place, the variety of elements that go into the various spirits they produce at St. George, and the creative vision of master distiller and proprietor Lance Winters. To top it all off, she poured me several samples of the fine spirits they produce in the hangar, and schooled me on the proper way to exhale after my first sip of Terroir gin: just like “blowing out the candles on a birthday cake.” The entire spirit lineup includes: single malt whiskey, bourbon, gin, agricole rum, absinthe, brandy, and fruit liqueur. Did I taste them all? We’ll get to that part in a bit.
Lauren showed me the casks, the barrels, and the bottling line. The hangar, as one would imagine, is an enormous space. There is a whole hell of a lot going on at any one time. I was especially interested in learning about the blending process that leads up to the production of their Breaking and Entering bourbon. The history of B&E is also posted on the distillery’s website: http://www.stgeorgespirits.com/spirit/bourbon/. Here’s the story of how Kentucky figures into its creation: Dave Smith, distiller, and Lance Winters “went deep into the rickhouses of Kentucky’s most venerable bourbon distilleries and brought several hundred barrels back to blend at our distillery in Alameda.” What happens next is a heist story, combined with a science experiment: after bringing back 400 barrels, Dave sampled each one and analyzed the characteristics of every single barrel. He then identified the flavors of the individual casks in order to blend them into something St. George likes to call a “super bourbon.” They describe it as “a criminally delicious bourbon with a storied Kentucky pedigree” that cannot be produced anywhere else. I’ll be thinking about this the next time I order a Manhattan.
Let’s move on to gin for a moment. One of the basic elements is juniper berries. But how many do you need to make gin? Well, who cares, really, when you can add almost any other botanical and make something like Terroir, which Lauren describes as “a hike and Christmas in a glass.” Say you’ve just been on a hike in a lovely California park. You may have run across Douglas fir, California bay laurel, coastal sage, and other aromatic botanicals. A couple of tastes of Terroir, and you would swear you’re still on the trail. Lauren was able to rattle off the 19 botanicals that go into the making of Botanivore, one of the trio of St. George gins: this one contains a blend of elements that may remind you of “a meadow in bloom—herbaceous, fresh, and elegant.” What should you be sensing in that first sip? How about these: Angelica root, bay laurel, bergamot peel, black peppercorn, caraway, cardamom, cilantro, cinnamon, citra hops, coriander, dill seed, fennel seed, ginger, juniper berries, lemon peel, lime peel, orris root, Seville orange peel, and star anise. As Lauren says, anything goes when it comes to gin, as long as those juniper berries are in the mix. The third gin variation is called Dry Rye gin, and as you might suspect, it has a base of rye—which may have a certain appeal for the whiskey lovers out there. Around St. George, it is known as “malty, spicy, and genre-bending.” This one will get your attention.
As much fun as it was following Lauren around the hangar and trying to absorb her vast knowledge of what goes on there, I was eager to see some of what I learned about in an actual glass. And to taste it, of course. Taste preferences will vary, but I may as well come right out and say which of the spirits blew me away. In order of “wow” factor: the California Agricole rum. This must be tasted to be believed: made from California-grown sugar cane, the best way to describe it is “earthy.” Lauren advised me to expect artichoke, black olives, truffles, and wet grass—which made me wonder about whether these things would combine in a way that would taste good. I mean, wet grass? Really? But my first sip was transformative. It will surprise you, in a good way. I’ll ask for this rum next time I’m in the mood for a Mai Tai or a Mojito. Make mine Agricole!
The Spiced Pear liqueur reminded me of the aromas I associate with winter holidays: the spices, the rich flavor of pears, the sweetness. And the Raspberry liqueur is as flavorful as a bowl of just-picked fruit—only better. These two are in a dead heat with the NOLA Coffee Liqueur. If you’ve ever been to New Orleans, you’ll know what to expect here: rich flavor from Yirgacheffe coffee beans—chosen “specifically for their bright berry, chocolate, and round fruity qualities,” along with French chicory root, Madagascar vanilla beans, and organic cane sugar. St. George suggests serving it “alongside breakfast, dessert, and any meal in between,” and I agree—even with the breakfast part. Bring on the beignets for this one.
I finished off my tasting experience with a taste of St. George Absinthe Verte. I’ll admit to some trepidation about exploring this particular spirit, which was banned from being sold in the U.S. until 2007. Stalling for time, I held up my glass and admired the “dead leaf” color, and swirled it to see the oils appear. During the U.S. ban, Lance Winters was able to perfect his formula for this infused brandy. The core ingredients, on display in the hangar for visitors to see, are wormwood, fennel, and star anise. But it doesn’t stop there: a secondary infusion that takes place during the distillation process includes mint, tarragon, opal basil, lemon balm, hyssop, meadowsweet, and stinging nettles. Is it green? No, it is not. If you find an absinthe the color of Kermit the frog, you are advised to avoid it at all costs. With all the myths and mysteries having to do with absinthe, the whole idea of tasting may have been a little intimidating. I was glad Lauren saved it for last so I had some time to prepare myself mentally. And finally, I took a sip and experienced the “symphony of flavor” that Lance strives for when he completes the distillation process. It was a fine way to end my field trip, with a taste of the exotic and an experience unlike any other.
Plan your own field trip: The St. George Spirits distillery is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday, Noon-7:00 PM, and Sundays from Noon-5:00 PM. To reserve a distillery tour or tasting session, go to www.stgeorgespirits.com/visit. Located at 2601 Monarch St., Alameda.
Risa Nye lives in Oakland. Her articles and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Monthly, Hippocampus magazine, and several anthologies. She writes about cocktails as Ms. Barstool for Nosh at berkeleyside.com and about other things at risanye.com.