The St. George Spirits Distillery holds three core gins within their ever growing portfolio, which already houses absinthe, bourbon, single malt whisky, rum, fruit brandies, liqueurs and vodka. It’s impressive and we’re more than just a little smitten with what they have produced…
St. George Spirits was originally established by Jörg Rupf in 1982 as an ‘Eau de Vie’ artisan distillery using a 65 gallon Holstein pot still after arriving in America from his own home the Black Forest, Germany. Inspired by the Bay Area’s raw materials and fledgling foodie culture and combined with his family history, it was only natural to start distilling. It has taken them up to 30 years to grow from a one man band to the 65,000 square foot Naval hangar that stands today, that includes a diverse team of distillers, a tasting room, a laboratory and a huge line-up of pot stills. In 2010 Rupf passed the company over to colleague and distiller Lance Winters, a former U.S. Navy engineer and brewer, who had worked with him since 1996 and is now the sole proprietor of St. George Spirits.
The distillery is based in what was historically Alameda Naval Air Station. Lance had big ambitions for the company and expanded their product range very quickly from just eau de vie to single malt whisky, absinthe and gin. Talking to Gin Foundry during Junipalooza 2014, he added context to the heritage of the distillery; “We’re about the furthest thing from an overnight success that anyone could possibly be. Going on 33 years of operation, St. George Spirits is one of the oldest craft distilleries in the United States. The love for raw materials and the desire to take the characteristics that we loved and deliver them to the glass has driven us to distil nearly everything under the sun. Our first big splash was with a vodka that we launched almost 15 years ago. While the gins are some of the newest spirits in our line-up, even they have been gestating since the summer of 2007.
St. George Terroir uses 3 botanicals inspired by the wild Golden State that is California, along with others that help bring them to life in what the team at St. George’s Spirits call an “Ode to the Golden State”. The gin takes its lead with the foresty notes of Douglas fir, bay laurel and sage. Coriander seeds and juniper berries are the notable other botanicals contributing to an aromatic bouquet.
St. George’s Terroir Gin is made using several distillation techniques and then blended together. They distil the fir and sage individually on a 250lt still to minimize the impact of seasonal variation. Separately, fresh bay laurel leaves and juniper berries are vapour infused in a botanical basket, along with other botanicals which go in the pot of their 1,500lt still.
These separate distillates are then blended and cut to the right ABV, at which point the gin is ready for bottling. Whether there are other botanicals other that the 5 mentioned (as they imply there are others and so does the clear citrus note detectable when you taste the gin) or if only some / all of the botanicals come from the state is undisclosed. To some extent these details don’t really matter anyway.
The gin is quite a unique proposition and tastes like no other on the market. Consider the use of the word “Terroir” as metaphorical, rather than with wine or with Origin Gin, when “terroir” actually refers to the geographical location of where ingredients are sourced. This is a gin that is inspired by the woods, not literally “of” the Californian woods. In this, it achieves its goal – it really does remind you of a walk on a mountain trail.
The Juniper is slightly subdued with the defining characteristics being the bay laurel and Douglas fir which burst out beautifully alongside a lingering earthy coriander seed spice and warming citrus. It makes for a one-of-a-kind gin, but it’s gin in the American sense, not London Dry territory (or “terroir” if you will).
Readers who have explored the hundreds of gin reviews on Gin Foundry will know, we rarely overburden praise on any given gin (we try and keep it to a minimum and focus on facts) but this is one of the exceptions. St. George’s Terroir Gin distinct profile may not be for all but it’s undeniably poetry in a glass. It is to date, the most memorable, evocative and transformative gin we’ve had the pleasure and good fortune to come across. The gin has a inimitable way of transcending a moment and forcing you travel with it back to its sense of place – a calm woody forest on a mid-summer’s evening. It has us completely captivated, no matter how often we’ve returned to try it once more.
The list goes like this, juniper berries, angelica root, bay laurel, bergamot peel, black peppercorn, caraway, cardamom, cilantro, cinnamon, citra hops, coriander, dill seed, fennel seed, ginger, lemon peel, lime peel, orris root, Seville orange peel and lastly star anise. The process begins with layering juniper berries, bay laurel and cilantro in the botanical basket, while the remaining 16 botanicals are left to steep overnight in their 1,500 litre copper pot still. The still is run the following day, vapour infusing the contents of the basket on the way up. The result yields a run of 800 bottles per batch at an ABV of 45%.
Despite the ABV, the gin is exceptionally smooth both on the nose and to taste. The fresh and light botanical complexity plays its part in a rich and nuanced profile.
The flavour journey of this gin sets it apart too. Herbal elements give way to citrus and onto spice and then back once more to a warm lingering finish. It’s less distinctive than Terroir (in fairness, so are most gins) but overall it is more balanced and works better in a G&T. If terroir is about capturing a single moment in time and stopping you in your tracks, there is more of a story here. Their is drama, characters come and go, it’s elusive yet enticing and the central protagonist (in this case juniper) stays the par and leaves with a satisfying ending. Delicious!
With the base spirit they use as a starting point imparting its malty undertones, the St. George’s Rye Gin is quite a special product too, both pleasing and challenging in equal measure. The Rye spirit is placed in the same 1,500 litre copper pot still as Terroir and Botanivore, but with a mix of 6 botanicals including up to 50% more juniper berries than the previous two gins, black peppercorn, caraway, coriander and lime peel once again. They threw in one newbie for this expression, grapefruit peel, to accentuate the punchy pepper notes found in juniper.
Packaged in their usual, beautifully designed bottles, the soft cereal and nutmeg aromas come off with a subdued, but fresh juniper. Violet lavender notes are prominent to taste and herbal flavours emerge too – all carried with Rye undertones. St. George’s Rye Gin has got a lot going and is an example of a gin that you have to return to in order to get all the flavours. It also brings up the concept of American Genever, as it’s neither gin nor genever, but somehow somewhere in between and perfect for a Martinez cocktail. Genuinely – try this gin if you ever have the chance. It’s not for everyone but it is interesting and completely unlike anything you might expect.
And if this wasn’t enough…
In August 2013 a limited edition of Dry Rye was released, called Dry Rye Reposado Gin. The team took the malty, spicy Dry Rye Gin and rested it in French and American oak wine casks for a year and a half. The casks had previously held Grenache Rosé and Syrah. The barrels were sourced from local Blacksmith Cellars, run by winemaker Matt Smith (the brother of distiller Dave Smith) and the resulting gin has a slight pink hue.
To say that St. George Spirits have been very busy would be an understatement, but while they keep on producing new gins and expressions that break the sheer conception of what gins should taste like, the team produce quality products above all. Everything has been thought out from conception to finished product, their packaging and bottles embody that very fact and what really strikes us is their tag. It’s simple yet intricate; it makes you appreciate it from afar but there is a lot of detail for those eager to look closer.
The variations on the label are also intriguing and make for a beautiful portfolio when sat next to each other. Describing the design process, Winters explained – “While it’s the spirit in the bottle that we really want to stand out and be the show stopper, the bottle has to grab your attention and hold it long enough to get you to the inside. There’s quite a bit of creative energy that goes into our packaging. The base inspiration is old paper ephemera. Bank notes, stock certificates… As the old guys in the industry here, I wanted a package that looked as though it could have been around for a while, have some gravitas. The cheeky side is usually somewhere in the illustration. The Terroir, for example, shows the California grizzly bear, but wearing a cowbell as an homage to our absinthe label. The Botanivore and Dry Rye Gin both sport a bear trap with a cocktail coupe to lure the grizzly (which was actually modelled after my wife Ellie…).”
Their cunning delivery of design and combined use of different distillation techniques showcase that breadth of skill present in the St. George Spirits team. They are clearly an intriguing and innovative group who produce considered, high quality spirits from the heart of California. This kind of thinking has allowed them to transcend the typical description of a distiller (a maker of simple “anesthesia”), into a team which has the capability to make something that really inspires. We know that this has been true for us and thank them for it.
From a flavour perspective their gins are on the edge of a category, pushing the frontier and challenging preconceptions around what Gin could be. We’ve often wondered if they could stay on the right side of this progressive attitude and whether they would eventually create something that took it too far outside the realms people would be used to even, or err into the realm of gimmicks. In the years we’ve spent tracking their progress the answer can be unequivocal. No. That’s not on the agenda here. They have managed to consistently release gins with genuine pedigree and a sense of place and a considered profile. Their gin range is first and foremost, exactly that. Gin. There is a reason they are now a common sighting in bars across the US and the UK – they offer something different, are evocative, unique and achieve this rare mix of accomplishments in a way many ginsmiths can only aspire to.
Clearly, we’re fans and we can’t wait to see their future endeavours – gin or other!
For more information about St George, visit their website: www.stgeorgespirits.com
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