Friday, August 5, 2011

The St. George Distillery Tour: Home of Hanger One Vodka

"We can’t write like Neruda, paint like Cézanne, or dance like Jennifer Beals, but we can express ourselves through craft distillation. It’s our art form, our passion, and our way of making the world just a little more beautiful." - St. George Spirits

An unusual, but beautiful, view for a distillery:

St. George Bourbon, impatiently waiting to be released:

Their pet shark from the set of Deep Blue Sea (Link: Spoiler alert!):

In 1936 the City of Alameda, for the hefty sum of $1, transferred Alameda Point to the federal government of the United States. Known as the “Aviation Gateway to the Pacific,” Alameda Point was the perfect location for setting up an air force base in the tumultuous times of the 1940s. Decommissioned in 1997, the base became an ideal place for unassuming enterprises. One such enterprise was St. George Spirits who in 1997 moved into the beautiful 65,000-sqaure-feet Hanger 21 - though, 1997 was not St. George’s birthday. Jörg Rupf who had come to the Bay Area in 1979 to do post-doctoral work on a grant by the German Government started the company in 1982. Because of the lack of locally produced eau de vie, Rupf decided to leave his studies and open the first eau de vie distillery in the US. It was only in 2000 that Rulf and his new partner, Lance Winters - a former navy nuclear engineer and brewer, released their first bottling of single malt whiskey; and in 2002, their first batch of Hanger One Vodka, what would become their most praised and revered beverage to date. With 10 full time employees and 9 different products, each with multiple variations, St. George Spirits is a microdistilling powerhouse. 

Just from walking around this place one can see this distillery is not like the “rest of them.” From its giant shark, the mermaid hanging down from the mash tanks, and the tour guide which would fit better in a comedy club, St. George Spirits has a personality of its own. Is it exactly my taste (no pun intended)? Maybe not, but when push comes to shove I don’t really care about the personality of the distillery and the character of its staff. All I care about is the quality of the spirit. Is it made with care? Does it hold up when you begin comparing it with other similar products of quality? Not to mention, there is a place for diversity. One shouldn’t expect a loch outside the window of every distillery, or their water to flow in from the iron-free Cave Spring. There is a place for everyone and, as I just said, when it comes down to it, the product is left. There is room for novelty, but I don’t think this is the source of St. George's passion, practicing and refining the art of distillation is.

So what of it then? How did the tasting go? It was interesting. In fact, I hardly remember it. Why? Because after trying 15 different spirits in one sitting, by the time I actually tasted their bourbon my palate was ruined. If this was the "basic training" I would hate to see what it’s like for the "special ops." Why in the world, if you make an aqua perfecta eau de vie, multiple selections of vodka, a single malt whiskey, aqua perfecta fruit liqueurs and an absinthe verte, would you have someone taste them all in one sitting? I don’t have an answer. Coming out of the tour and tasting I almost felt like I was being swept through the place rather then feeling like a valuable customer who they wanted to educate about their product. 

So what am I saying? Am I giving a negative review of the place? No. The guided tour was a terrific and hilarious experience. One whole hour for a free tour is something you don't get every day - and you come out having learned a lot. The only issues were the excessive amount of spirits for the tasting and the server seemed a little inexperienced - I would say it was a noticeable problem when she didn't even know there was bourbon set to be released, stacked directly behind her in the adjacent room (only having been in the barrel for the last 5 years!).

My suggestion for the tasting would be to limit it to about four or five spirits at the most and provide more time for discussion on the actual tasting of each individual drink, allowing for each participant to not only learn about the spirit, but also to gain a valuable experience in tasting. You don't need to show someone everything on God's green Earth to get a customer to come back. Show them the quality of a few products and allow them to recognize the quality, and from there they will not only keep coming back to St. George Spirits, but they will also be more wiling to try the larger selections St. George offers. Rushing a group through all of them will leave a person with little to go back to - overwhelmed and under appreciated. All in all I would still recommend you visit the place if you're in the Bay Area.

In 2007 St. George released the first absinthe in the U.S. since 1912:

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your review of St George Distillery. A great place to visit and experience a tour, which was very entertaining as well as informative. I must admit the spirits were a little much for this wine enthusiast palate but I am willing to give it try.

    Lance Winter's video, a thumbs up!