What began in Emeryville, CA, and now Alameda for three decades as a barebones producer of eau de vie, has since grown into a renowned independent distillery run out of a 65,000-square-foot- former naval airplane hangar churning out one-of-a-kind artisanal spirits.
St. George Spirits was founded by Jörg Rupf and is now helmed by former U.S. Navy nuclear engineer Lance Winters and head distiller and blender Dave Smith. The company offers consumers everything from absinthe (they claim to be the first American absinthe on the market since the ban in 1912) to gin, whiskey and brandy.
“While we started as an eau de vie producer, we gained notoriety with our launch of Hangar One. After we sold Hangar, it’s been our gins that we’ve been best known for,” said Winters.
For those unfamiliar, eau de vie is an un-aged spirit made from fruit. “From a more poetic perspective, it’s the essence of everything that we love about a particular variety of fruit, minus the sweetness and acidity, expressing itself in a glass,” explained Winters. “A glass of our pear eau de vie smells like a pear orchard on a beautiful fall afternoon. It’s truly transportive.”
Winters likes to say the distillers behind St. George Spirits don’t do things like everybody else. Instead, they walk to the beat of their own drum, creating unique flavor combinations.
Inspiration for their Basil Eau de Vie came after a particularly fruitful tomato season; Winters sought to create a spirit that would complement the savory summer snack. And while cask-finished whiskies are nothing new, St. George Spirits strayed from the typical wine, rum or sherry-finished casks to age their Baller Single Malt Whiskey. Instead, the team uses umeshu casks that once held the Japanese-style plum liqueur made from California-grown stone fruit, giving the whiskey hints of lychee on the palate. Their Terroir Gin is another perfect example of innovation as it utilizes Douglas fir to give it the flavor of the forest.
“Launching the Terroir was the mosting exciting – both exhilarating and terrifying,” said Winters. “It’s such a unique entry into the category, and one that really comes from the heart. It’s a tremendous act of vulnerability to release a spirit like that, so different from the common set and such a personal statement.”
Because he was trained as a nuclear engineer and spent eight years in the Navy – the majority of which was spent operating a reactor plant on the USS Enterprise – Winters has a different perspective on how to approach his creations, wanting each sip to taste like “a story in a glass.”
That means ideas are forever evolving. “In some instances it comes from scent memories from my youth, like the aromatic profile of our Bruto Americano aperitivo,” he recalls. “In the case of our Terroir Gin, from a trip to the woods to pick up my son from summer camp. For our Green Chile Vodka, I wanted to recreate my experience of drinking the liquid drained out of salsa fresca at the brewpub I worked at before coming to St. George,” he continued.
Winters loves the independence he has at St. George Spirits. “We have the freedom to create things that other, larger producers have the ‘common sense’ to stay away from. This really turns distillation into a form of artistic self-expression,” he said. “I wake up every day grateful for that.”
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