Deep insights into spirits, cocktails, and drinking
Of Sharks, Monkeys, and Barrels – A Visit to St. George Spirits Distillery
Hybrid pot & column still, St. George Spirits
Distillery visits are the Cocktail Wonk’s E-ticket ride. During my recent California visit it was a foregone conclusion that I’d visit the Lost Spirits distillery. However, on our last day, circumstances also allowed a stop at St. George Spirits and a quick visit to Forbidden Island. Without knowing the St. George Spirits background, you might be tempted to assume they’re just another of the small craft distilleries that have popped up in the past ten years. The reality is that St. George Spirits has been going for over thirty years and played a crucial role in bringing the craft distillery movement to life. Along the way they’ve gained a reputation for their gins, fruit brandies, absinthe and agricole-style rum. Keep reading for what I learned and saw on the tour.
St. George Spirits
Although St. George Spirits started off small, these days they’re based in a 65,000 sq. ft. hangar at the former Alameda Naval Air Station. Driving to the distillery on a Sunday afternoon, we experienced an eerie feeling driving through a pancake-flat military facility, with streets named after aircraft carriers, yet with no people or cars to be found. It was only in the St. George parking lot, adjacent to the Hangar One Vodka distillery in its own building, that we saw other people–evidence that we weren’t in a military ghost town. From the parking lot you can see ships being loaded in the working harbor, and across the bay, the San Francisco skyline:
View from St. George Spirits parking lot. San Francisco in distance.
Once inside the hangar doors, you’ll see that the tours and tastings are a highly organized endeavor. It’s highly suggested to book your tour online in advance: $15 for “Basic Training,” i.e. tasting, or $20 for “Advanced Training,” comprised of a roughly forty-minute tour, then tasting. Within the entry room, along with the reception desk and store, are two long tasting bars, akin to what you’d find at a large winery. They can serve up to about fifty people, broken up into groups of between four and eight. We opted for the “Advanced Training,” and it wasn’t long before our name was called to join a group of about twenty people.
Stills at St. George Spirits
Stills at St. George Spirits
Upon exiting the entry room we found ourselves in a completely open, high ceiling hangar with all the obvious fixtures you’d expect in a distillery – pot stills, bottling equipment, life-sized animatronic shark, aging barrels … wait, shark? The guide explained that another hangar on the decommissioned base had housed a movie prop house. The prop company had moved elsewhere, but somehow didn’t have room for the shark. The St. George folks struck a deal for storage that eventually ended up with them taking possession of it. Giant meat-eating sea creature notwithstanding, everything about the distillery looks highly organized, polished and photogenic. Lots of gleaming copper and chrome, with nothing obviously out of place.
Shark prop at St. George Spirits
This will soon be crushing pears!
The tour consists of multiple stops, each in front of a particularly photogenic location. At each stop, the guide gives a lively overview of one of the distillery’s products, deftly weaving elements of the current stop into the story about the particular product. The trek starts with the pot and columns stills, all elevated on a platform about three feet above the main floor. This stop focused on the pear brandy, and the guide spun a tale around the many tons of pears soon to be arriving at the very spot we were standing–including how each bottle of pear brandy starts with thirty pounds of fruit.
Holding tanks and bottling line, St. George Spirits
The tour then moves to the proofing area (where the highly distilled spirits, typically above 90 percent alcohol by volume, are diluted to a more drinkable mix), the bottling line, aging barrels, Mako shark, the botanical basket held high above the stills for gin, and an interactive display of various absinthe ingredients, to smell and experience. The walking is minimal — we covered no more than ten percent of the hangar–yet we saw all the critical elements of a working distillery you’d expect to see.
Aging barrels at St. George Spirits
Our guide showing spirits clouding because of added water
Our guide was very upbeat and informal. Since most people on these sorts of tour are unfamiliar with the spirt-making process, the guide expectedly covered a lot of very basic material about spirits and distillation, intermixed with stories and anecdotes. There were also demonstrations, including adding water to a flask of distillate, demonstrating that it draws out certain oils that turn the distillate cloudy. I found myself wandering off to poke around corners and through the barrels to get more photos, but the stories, including one about the monkey on the Absinthe Verte label pulled me back in. To her credit I didn’t notice her say anything incorrect, a feat made even harder by all the material she covered. Kudos for that!
Gin botanical basket, at top. St. George Spirits
Absinthe ingredients, St. George Spirits
Back in the tasting room after the hangar tour, we broke into small groups of four to six, each being assigned a particular tasting station staffed by a person pouring samples. We tasted a total of six spirits over the course of about thirty minutes. Each spirit was properly introduced, along with a refresher on some the backstory we had heard on the tour. The tasting progresses from the more subtle, sweet spirits toward the more powerful spirits, chosen in this order to preserve your palate. Starting with the pear brandy, we then tasted the rye gin, followed by the NOLA Coffee liqueur). At this point there’s a spot where select one of four possibilities. I selected the Agricole-style Rum to absolutely no-ones surprise. Mrs. Wonk selected the Terroir gin, inspired by the flora that grows on and around Mt. Tam, in Marin County. Last up was the Absinthe Verte, diluted as you’d expect.
Tasting room, St. George Spirits
The highlights for Mrs. Wonk were the two gins, while the pear brandy and agricole style rum were my favorites. I’m saving a proper write-up of the agricole for a later time, but the short version is that it has a strong funk, in the best way possible. During the tasting, I chatted with the server and mentioned that rum is a personal passion. He shared with me that while the current agricole-style rum isn’t aged, they have been aging some for eventual release. I’m very interested to see how long they choose to age it and if they go at least three years, the minimum for a Martinique AOC agricole rum to be labeled rhum vieux or “old rhum.”
Barrel, St. George Spirits
After the tasting, you can purchase bottles of St. George spirits, although I didn’t see anything you couldn’t find elsewhere (and for a few dollars less). An adjacent counter sells T-shirts, tasting glasses, books, and so on. I grabbed a pair of the somewhat unusual looking tasting glasses, just like the ones we enjoyed using for the tasting. (Mrs. Wonk noted that the glasses were wrapped for travel in silver ballpark-style hotdog wrappers—a whimsical touch.)
The St. George Spirits distillery is solidly in the middle ground, size-wise, of the distilleries I’ve visited: Enormous in comparison to the hand-built Lost Spirits, but tiny next to giant behemoths like Auchentoshan, near Glasgow, Scotland. Although I wasn’t fortunate enough to have one-on-one interaction with the distillers at St. George Spirits like I’ve had elsewhere, I came away very happy with my visit. While you may not see any mash fermenting, barrels being filled, or bottling lines running, if you have any more than a passing interesting in spirits, the up-close view of the equipment, good story about the products, and a generous tasting of their products make this a worthwhile visit.