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.

Of Goliaths and Dragons – Lost Spirits’ Salinas Distillery

It’s 5 PM on the Friday of Labor Day weekend. I find myself not manning a grill or lounging in the sun on a Santa Cruz beach, but rather, driving a rental car through the agricultural fields of Monterey County, California. Into Castroville we go, past the giant artichoke, and back out into more farmland. Mrs. Wonk and I are headed to visit Lost Spirits Distillery, one of the more unconventional and unconventionally located distilleries you’ll likely come across.

A bit of backstory before continuing: Lost Spirits has quickly made a name for itself in just a few years, producing first whiskeys and then rums that win awards and cause spirit aficionados to gush about the incredibly bold flavors and unusual production techniques. The very short synopsis is this:   Distiller and co-owner Bryan Davis is a biochemistry hacker who deeply understands the chemistry of spirits flavor and has developed a number of innovations to hyper-accelerate the production process and accentuate whatever flavor profile he targets in a given release. I’ve written quite a bit about Lost Spirits in the past, so will simply point you to a few recent posts that contain a large amount of scientific details:

The picture doesn’t do Goliath’s size justice.

After a few turns away from the coastline and inward toward the artichoke fields, we pull up to a brick and wood gate. Without the GPS we might never have found it. James, the distillery’s only employee beyond Bryan and partner/co-owner Joanne Haruta (and Joanne’s brother), opens the gate and we pull in. As I exit the car, an enormous German shepherd wanders up and begins to take my spot in the driver’s seat before being called off. Goliath is 140 pounds and I imagine a very effective guard dog when called upon. He takes an instant liking to us, rolling on the ground for belly rubs.  (Never mind that he could likely pin any of us to the ground with little trouble…)

Fermentation vat platform on the left. The still is behind it in this photo.

A scan of the surrounding grounds shows the distillery property surrounded by fences and walls; beyond in all directions is agricultural land, with the nearest building way off in the distance. To the left is what we came to see:  A raised, covered platform with a very large dragon head and neck sculpture attached to one end, as if it were the bow of a Viking ship. (More on this—the Lost Spirits still—a bit later.) Directly in front of us is a small stucco barn, the Lost Spirits logo hand-painted on the doors. Between the two structures is a cement walkway and a Japanese-style garden in-progress, including an above-ground swimming pool. To the right is a single-story structure, housing the small tasting room used for the occasional tour and tasting, but also where Bryan and Joanne stay sometimes when working late.

Steam vents from the dragon’s mouth – Quite a sight, especially at night.

But, back to that dragon head. As I approach the tarp-covered platform, I can see the spirit production process laid out linearly from left to right. First is the raised platform, upon which sits a unique square wood and copper vat.  The vat holds a dark, thick liquid which I correctly guess is molasses–a batch of Polynesian-inspired rum is just starting, slowly warmed by coils to aid the eventual fermentation process.

Copper fermentation vat on pedestal.
Baking grade molasses warming up on its way to becoming rum!

Moving to the right, you see the unusual looking still – It doesn’t look anything like those used in Scottish distilleries or like the shiny copper and chrome bulb-headed stills you might find in many modern distilleries. The Lost Spirits still is relatively small at 600 gallons and was constructed by Bryan out of sheets of copper roofing.

Current homemade copper still at Lost Spirits Distillery.
Still cap, found on Ebay.

Prior to our visit, I had learned from Bryan that he had studied sculpture, and now seeing the still and its dragon head, it suddenly made sense: Bryan has a very strong “build it yourself” ethos. In fact, the Lost Spirits site itself was originally not much more than a “mud pit” with a small building on it, as Joanne described it. Joanne and Bryan spent an enormous amount of their own time preparing the land, pouring concrete and building things by hand to get their distillery going.

Lyne arm, headed to the cooling coils/mock spirits safe.

Continuing to the right, a mock “spirits safe” like those used in Scottish distilleries is fed by a long lyne arm resembling a dragon’s tail coming off the top of the still. It’s in this area that the distillate is cooled before being piped over to an area to the far right, where it’s collected in tanks. The tank area is off limits to everyone, including yours truly–a requirement for the patent process that’s under way for several of Bryan’s innovations.

But what about that dragon? It’s more than just an idle curiosity. Both the fermentation vat and still are heated by steam created via natural gas powered boilers. In a stroke of good luck, the land where the distillery is located is very close to a natural gas distribution point. As a result, the boiler used to heat the still and vat costs only a few dollars an hour to run. And what of all the steam that’s created? It’s piped over to the dragon head where it emerges from the mouth, a very impressive sight when the boilers are running full out, and even more so after dark, when it’s lit from below.  Needless to say, a few gawkers pull off the road to peer over the fence when the still is running at full power.

Japanese-style garden with pool in near background.

As for the swimming pool, it has its own interesting if unfortunate story. In the past it was used as a giant source of cooling water for the still operations, and could reach temperatures of up to 105 F, creating the side benefit of an oversized hot tub. Unfortunately, at one point the pool developed a leak, and when the water mixed with the underground organic materials, TCA (aka cork rot) was formed. TCA is a foul-smelling compound that can completely ruin wines and spirits in very small quantities. To make a long story short, the TCA found its way into Lost Spirits’ original wooden still, rendering it useless, which is why Bryan and Joanne now use a copper still.

Prior to my visit, I had obtained two of the Lost Spirits whiskeys, the Leviathan III and the Seascape II. Both are in short supply and I asked Bryan why he didn’t simply make more to capitalize on the demand. He mentioned a few reasons: For starters, rum is easier to produce. Most of the hard work of processing grain for whiskey (including moving it around and milling it) aren’t required with molasses, which he buys from a supplier. Also, the fermentation for some of the whiskeys uses salt water. While the salt water helps create a better environment for distillation, it’s hell on the stills and other equipment. As Bryan related to me, the Scotch distilleries in Islay replace their stills far more frequently than other Scottish distilleries, and Bryan speculates that salt water in their mash is at least partially responsible.

A new batch of empty bottles has arrived!

After quite a long time exploring the main production area, we wandered over to the barn area. Much as I wanted to see the barrels and goodies within, it’s also off-limits for now due to those patent law requirements. Instead, we stood around palettes of molasses buckets and boxes of soon-to-be-filled bottles while Bryan told us all sorts of interesting stories and factoids about the distillery, potential future projects, and general spirits industry scuttlebutt. Eventually we made our way into the tasting room/laboratory where we continued to chat while tasting some of Lost Spirit’s exceedingly rare products, including the Fire Dance whiskey and the (hopefully soon) forthcoming Anejo Blanco rum, which is based on the current Cuban-inspired rum.

I’ve toured a number of distilleries, big and small, as part of my interest in spirits. I’ve seen my share of big warehouse buildings, enormous vats, and gleaming stills. The Lost Spirits distillery is the opposite of that, reminding you that in the not-too-distant past, spirits production used to be just another agricultural process, and not a particularly glamorous one at that. It becomes clear that while basic distillation of consumable spirits isn’t rocket science, the bio-hacking that Lost Spirits performs behind the scenes makes all the difference between a $10 bottle of whiskey or rum swill and something that blows you away with its flavors and intensity.

Clockwise from left: Cocktail Wonk, Bryan Davis, Joanne Haruta, Goliath.

Although we were lucky enough to be invited to the Monterey compound for a tour, the Lost Spirits distillery is not currently open to the public for tastings or tours.

The origins of rum at St. Nicholas Abbey in Barbados

In April 2103 my wife Carrie and I visited Barbados for the first time. A few months earlier we’d won the bidding for a week’s stay at a home in Barbados after remembering that Barbados is considered the birthplace of rum. It went without saying that we planned to visit every distillery on the island, but the story of St. Nicholas Abbey made it the obvious first stop.

The Abbey has a long and storied history going back to 1658, which I won’t attempt to replicate here as it’s well documented elsewhere. What you need to know is that the Abbey was a fully functioning plantation and distillery, growing its own sugar and doing nearly everything else in-house. The owner’s mansion on the property is enormous, beautifully maintained, and would be worth a visit even if there wasn’t rum involved. At some point in the late 1900s you could visit the house as a heritage attraction, but the Abbey was no longer a functioning plantation after 1947.

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