by Risa Nye
I recently attended the San Francisco Craft Spirits Carnival, which took place in one of the cavernous exhibit halls on the edge of the Bay at Fort Mason. I’ve been writing about happy hours, local bars, distilleries and cocktails for several years now, so I hoped this event would provide me with some new information about the local craft distillery scene—and the chance to “try and buy” new spirits.
After passing through the gauntlet of security and flashing my ID, I received a small ticket that could be redeemed for a shot glass at a table just inside the door. I got my glass and entered the hall under a banner that read: “Come thirsty, leave happy.” Joining the sea of people already armed with shot glasses, I wended my way through the thirsty throng and circled the perimeter. With over 100 exhibitors, the hall was packed to the walls with folks pouring spirits into glasses.
Frankly, I found it hard to tell what distinguished this event as a carnival. Perhaps it was the flock of spangled and bejeweled dancers (referred to in the publicity as a “Brazillian [sic] Carnival entertainment component”) who walked among the crowd, and eventually performed in the center of the room. Decked out in large feathered headdresses and tiny beaded costumes, they seemed a little out of place strutting through the unfazed crowd. Or maybe an event with food concessions including hot dogs, corn on the cob, and tamales defines it as a carnival. One could also purchase a knish and a bit of pâté with some crostini, so I’m not sure the food could be considered the defining factor. In any case, people had indeed arrived thirsty and were in the process of getting happy.
Big Spirit was well-represented by several popular brands. Ketel One Vodka, the top sponsor, had a large, comfortable lounge set up, with a photo booth, someone doing hand analysis, several seating areas, and two gentlemen in hats and bow ties who dispensed cocktails and filled glasses.
When I spotted Lauren, my tour guide from St. George Spirits, across the way, I dropped by to say hello—and to grab a taste of that amazing NOLA coffee liqueur they make.
After an initial go-around of the hall, I decided to treat the event like a party: stay away from the “celebrities” who were surrounded by large crowds, sometimes five deep with glasses waiting to be filled—and go meet some of the people who seemed interested in having a conversation about what they do and what they make. Luckily, the people I chose to talk to were local small-batch distillers with a love of (mostly) Bay Area history that is carefully infused into the distillation process, along with the standard fresh and local ingredients.
Here are three of the distilleries that drew me and my shot glass over for some tastes and conversation.
Raff Distillerie is located on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, the site of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. (The island was built in 1936-37 for the express purpose of hosting the World’s Fair, back when things were built quickly—and built to last.) From 1942 to 1997, Treasure Island served as a Navy facility. The distillery is located in what was once the brig, a creative reuse of that structure. The former maximum security cells are now used as a bottling area. Owner and distiller Carter Raff (a fifth-generation San Franciscan) currently produces two types of spirits—absinthe and gin. Both have names steeped in San Francisco history, dating back to the 1860s: Emperor Norton Absinthe, and Bummer & Lazarus Dry Gin.
Emperor Norton (aka Joshua Norton) is remembered as a classic eccentric San Francisco character. After a reversal of fortune in the late 1800s, Norton declared himself “Emperor of These United States and Protector of Mexico.” Photographs and drawings show him decked out in a hodgepodge uniform of his own creation. He is said to have envisioned both the Bay Bridge and the tunnel beneath the Bay. His unique personal currency, accepted without question by local restaurant owners and merchants, allowed him to freely dine out and seek other entertainment in the city. A spirit named in his honor is the perfect homage to an unforgettable local legend.
Bummer and Lazarus Dry Gin is named after a pair of canine companions, contemporaries of Emperor Norton. These two were darlings of the local press at the time, mostly due to the fact that they were the champion rat-catchers of their day. (A plaque located in Redwood Park Grove, next to the Transamerica Pyramid, tells the tale.) When Lazarus died, legions of grief-stricken admirers turned out for the service. When Bummer passed on, Mark Twain wrote a eulogy. These were some dogs, winning the hearts and admiration of a city with rodent issues and a fondness for colorful characters. Some sources claim that the two remained side by side, thanks to a taxidermist, until they were destroyed in a fire.
The legends of these three San Francisco characters live on, depicted as they were in their primes, on the bottles’ fanciful labels.
Luckily for me—a fan of both chocolate milk and absinthe, but not necessarily together—the nice folks at Raff Distillerie were handing out small tastes of this delightful concoction that may have changed my mind:
Pillow Talk—Chocolate Absinthe Drink
2 oz whole milk
1 oz Meletti Chocolate Liqueur
1/4 oz Emperor Norton Absinthe
Shake with ice, strain and serve with ice.
I liked it so much, when offered a second one, I said yes. (This recipe and others are available on the Raff website.)
Keep an eye out for Raff Distillerie’s next production: Barbary Coast Rhum Agricole, which is “coming soon.”
Falcon Spirits Distillery caught my eye as soon as I noticed its location: Richmond, CA. The city that sprang into action during WWII is known for Rosie the Riveter and its productive shipyards historically, but present-day Richmond seemed an unlikely spot for a distillery. Since I spent my early years in the town, I really wanted to make a connection with Falcon’s founder. He is Farid Dormishian: biochemist, winemaker, bartender and now, distiller. His website is a font of information: the history of gin, a taxonomy of gin styles, and a detailed step-by-step description of his hands-on distillation process. He writes about the history of distillation, from the creation of the bain-marie to the advancements of the Benedictines to the refinement of the continuous still. He produces Botanica Spiritvs Gin, which is made in the modern style. He describes this gin as his “endeavor to capture the spirits of over 12 botanicals in a bottle.” As with other gins that fall under the category of “modern,” he explains, the flavor of juniper is not as bold as the dozen botanical flavors that he’s captured and incorporated into it. The gin is aged in brandy barrels, with a bit of oak. His “small batches” are really small: fewer than 300 bottles.
Other products in the works include seasonal fruit-based liqueurs (raspberry is available now), an herbal liqueur (or digestif), grappa, and rum, with most available by the end of the year. Dormishian’s dedication to the process—and the way he carries on the distilling traditions of the alchemists, chemists and monks through the ages—merited a toast and a taste. I enjoyed our talk and his raspberry liqueur.
Finally, I stopped to chat with Ryan Sutherland of Sutherland Distillery, located in Livermore. Sutherland produces Diablo’s Shadow Silver Rum and Diablo’s Shadow Vodka—so named because the distillery backs up to Mt. Diablo: the iconic East Bay mountain, with one of the largest viewsheds in the Western United States. It’s not the first time stills have operated in this area, by the way. Jackass Canyon, now part of Mt. Diablo State Park, once hid bootleggers and the makings for moonshine during Prohibition.
Mt. Diablo casts a big enough shadow to cover a few more products in the future, such as the bourbon and whiskeys that are currently ageing in barrels, which, Ryan says, are “years away at this point.” A barrel-aged rum should be ready for distribution and sale by the holidays.
The owners of the distillery are two brothers and “the other guy.” That would be Ryan, his brother Barry Sutherland, and good friend Eric Larimer. Their motto is “Ordinary Guys, Extraordinary Spirits.” Taking their “soil to spirits” philosophy to heart, everything that goes into the distillation process is grown or sourced nearby. They even provide a handy chart, outlining the entire process. I sampled a bit of the 90 proof rum, and my eyes may have bugged out a little. “Not used to drinking it straight?” he asked. Nope. Make mine a Dark and Stormy.
I stopped to taste a couple more spirits: Hanson of Sonoma’s Organic Ginger Vodka, which would give a good kick to a Moscow Mule, and a bit of St. George Spirits’ Spiced Pear Liqueur—a happy note with which to conclude my carnival experience.
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.