America’s west coast is better known for its superb wines, but as always, there exist a number of eccentric entrepreneurs who decided to start distilleries. Some distil the region’s fine fruit; others prefer to produce whiskies and more traditional spirits.
Last year, there was a window of opportunity to visit some of these “boutique” distilleries. Their products are truly superb and well worth seeking. Their production is limited and distributed strictly on an allocation system. Specialized retailers get a few cases and their best customers are privileged. Yet, if you ask you may be able to buy a few of these rare bottles.
Fritz Maytag, the founder of Anchor Brewing in San Francisco distils and bottles two ( Old Potrero two years old, Old Potrero Single Malt straight rye three years old) whiskies, in addition to an aromatic Juniper Gin. The distillery is at the rear of the brewery and grew out of a research project. The first rye whiskey (1100bottles) was first marketed in 1996 and this rye whiskey has sold out ever since despite considerable yearly production increases.
All Maytag distillates are available in better-known San Francisco bars and restaurants.
Jorg Rupf, born in Alsace and raised in the Black Forest region of Germany emigrated in 1978 to study law at Berkeley, but the idea of starting a distillery was more appealing. In 1982 he started St George Spirits. It is worth pointing out that both Alsace and Black Forest are well-known for their fruit spirits, a.k.a eau-de-vie (water of life). The original idea was to use the fruit of the land, but eventually he branched out into other spirits.
First he bought a 65 gallon capacity state-of-the-art Holstein still, manufactured by the Holstein Family, who are still in business at lake Constance in southern Germany bordering Austria and Switzerland.
Holstein stills are designed to extract both the maximum of aromas and congeners. He is also the sole importer of Holstein stills and has been instrumental in encouraging small distillers to start.
St George Spirits rye is produced from the first pass of the wash using only the “heart” of the run. The foreshots and feints are discarded. Practically no other distillery goes to such lengths to achieve quality. Most distillers re-distill foreshots and feints in the next run. St George Spirits rye is aged in Bourbon barrels (82%), Limousin oak barrels from France(12%) for vanilla tones and mouth feel, and old port wine casks (6%) for cocoa flavour and barely perceptible tint of colour.
The distillery also produces three grappas (Zinfandel, Traminer, Gewurztraminer), raspberry, kirsch and quince eau-de-vies, and two liqueurs (raspberry and pear).
Dave Classick’s Distillery (Essential Spirits Alambic Distilleries) nestles in Mountain View between Palo Alto and San Jose in the heartland of Silicon Valley. Dave and his wife Mirenda pursued information technology careers. Thgeir biershcnapps from Sierra Nevada Brewery ale at 40% ABV is modelled after the Bavarian custom to distil beer. There, breweries are allowed to distil only 300 litres per annum. The couple also distils a beerschnapps (Classick, the Original American Bierschnapps) from in-house ale at
per cent ABV distilled out at 40 per cent ABV. Classick uses a Stupfler still by Jean Louis Stupfler in Bordeaux, well known for its unique design to extract the best of fermented fruit juices.
Carneros Alambic in Napa is famous for its RMS Special reserve brandy first released in 1992. It also distils a pear brandy and will be releasing a QE (Quality Exceptional Brandy) in a few years.
A young, French distiller and an American entrepreneur started Germain-Robin in Ukiah with the sole objective to producing superior quality fruit brandies. Germain-Robin fruit distillates (pear, apple, soft fruits and brandies) are always extraordinarily smooth and fragrant.
Bonny Doon Vineyards, owned and managed by eccentric Randall Grahm produces wine first and foremost, but also grappa di moscato from Muscat grape skins after fermentation, cherry, prune, pear brandies. All are well crafted and aromatic. The diatilelry is now sold, but operates under its original name.
Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon is dedicated to producing the best distillates from local fruit, and wine by-products.
Muscat, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris grappas are excellent, as are kirsch (cherry), Poire Williams (pear), and apple eau-de-vie. This distillery exports to the U.K, Germany, Japan and three provinces in Canada.
Creekside Vineyards, Domaine Karakash, Jepson Vineyards and Woodbury Winery also distill brandies ands fruit distillates of distinction.
ANCHOR DISTILLING company 1705 Mariposa St San Francisco Ca 94107 Tel 415 863 8350 Tours by appointment only.
ST GEORGE SPIRITS 5421 Belgrave Place Oakland Ca 94618 Tel 510 658 7934 www.stgeorgespirits.com
ESSENTIAL SPIRITS ALAMBIC DISTILLERIES 144 A Sou5th Whisman Road Mountain View, Ca 94040 Tel 650 962 0546
Tours by appointment only
BONNY DOON VINEYARDS Santa Cruz, Ca Tel 408 425 3625
CANEROS ALAMBIC, Napa, Ca Tel 707 253 0116
CLEAR CREEK DISTILLERY, Portland Oregon Tel 503 248 9470
CREEKSIDE VINEYARDS, Murphy Ca Tel 209 728 1251
DOMAINE KARAKASH St Helena Ca Tel 707 963 9327
GERMAIN-ROBIN Ukiah Ca Tel 707 462 3221
JEPSON VINEYARDS Ukiah, Ca Tel 707 468 8936
WOODBURY WINERY Marin County, Tel 415 332 7719