When Jorg Rupf moved to America way back in 1982, he did so with a dream: he was going to create an artisanal ‘Eau de Vie’ distillery inspired by the Bay Area’s raw materials. Armed with a 65-gallon Holstein pot still and a plethora of fantastic raw materials from the Bay Area, he set to work.
Over three decades later and St George Spirits is a tour de force, going from a one man band affair to an enormous operation, with a big distilling team, a tasting room, laboratory and all star line up of stills occupying a 65,000 square foot Naval hangar. In 2010, Rupf passed the company over to his colleague, distiller Lance Winters; a former US Navy engineer and brewer who has been part of the St George team since 1996.
Since taking St George Spirits on eight years ago, Winters has expanded the portfolio beyond recognition. There’s a single malt whisky, absinthe and an ever-growing gin range. “We’re about the furthest thing from an overnight success that anyone could possible be,” Winters told us. “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.”
The gins – of which there are three – are simply incredible affairs. They are some of the most transporting spirits we’ve ever tasted, plucking us out of our lives for a brief second and transplanting us straight into the forests of California. We absolutely adore them, so without further ado, let’s get stuck in!
St. George Terroir uses three botanicals inspired by the natural bounty of California. These are helped along by a handful of others, the result of which culminates in a flavour that the team at St. George’s Spirits calls an ‘ode to the Golden State’. The gin takes its lead from forest floor notes of Douglas fir, bay laurel and sage, while coriander seed and juniper berries bring in an enormous aromatic bouquet.
An unconventional gin requires an unconventional approach to make it and St. George’s Terroir Gin is made using several distillation techniques which are then blended together.
The fir and sage are distilled separately and independently on a 250-litre still to minimise the impact of seasonal variation (while seasonality is all well and good, consistency is king for those seeking out their favourite gin). 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 as part of a thirst distillate.
These three separate distillates are then blended and cut to the right ABV, at which point the gin is ready for bottling. We aren’t going to make any wild stabs at what the other botanicals may be in the wider juniper / bay laurel run, but there’s a clear citrus note and an earthy cinnamon warmth that suggests there’s probably more to the story than the listed five would let on.
The gin is a unique proposition and tastes like no other on the market. That’s a statement we made when we first reviewed it five years ago and it’s one we stand by in 2018. Sure, provenance has become king in the years since St George emerged and each distillery’s locality brings different offerings. While others have created home town gins with equal aplomb, we feel it was St George that set the benchmark for what it meant to truly imbue a sense of place in a bottle and in many way, still do.
It’s certainly worth considering the use of the word “Terroir” as a metaphor here. With wine it refers to the geographical location of its ingredients, with St George, it’s about where it takes you. This is a gin that is inspired by the Californian woods, not literally of the them. In this, it achieves its goal – it really does remind you of a walk on a mountain trail.
The aroma is thick with Douglas fir, but take your time and you’ll note the underlying cinnamon and roasted coriander seed. Overall The juniper is subdued with the defining characteristics being the bay laurel and Douglas fir, which burst out on the taste with their gloriously verdant and distinct tones, leaving behind a lingering earthy coriander seed spice and a warming citrus. It makes for a one-of-a-kind gin, but it’s gin in the progressive New Wave American sense, not London Dry territory to say the least.
St. George’s Terroir Gin distinct profile may not be for all but as far as we’re concerned it is poetry in a glass. It remains one of the most memorable, evocative and transformative gins we’ve had the pleasure and good fortune to come across. It has an inimitable way of transcending a moment and forcing you to 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, coriander, cinnamon, citra hops, coriander, dill seed, fennel seed, ginger, lemon peel, lime peel, orris root, Seville orange peel and star anise. A handful to manage each time they distil it, no doubt, and one that promises all sorts of savoury goodness.
The process begins with layering the juniper berries, bay laurel and coriander in the botanical basket, while the remaining 16 botanicals are left to steep overnight in the 1,500 litre copper pot still. The still is run the morning after, with the macerated spirit vapour infusing the contents of the basket on the way up. The result yields a run of 800 bottles per batch once cut down to 45% ABV.
Despite the reasonably high alcohol content, it’s the botanicals that leap on the nose, as opposed to the spirit. The bergamot, lemon and lime aren’t as aggressively zingy as their volatile nature would suggest, and on the nose, they are weighted down by an earthy angelica and bay laurel. After a quick citrus flush, and a fleeting piny juniper, dill, fennel and ginger provide a slightly dank herbal backdrop on the finish, with mentholic caraway, verdant bay laurel and a cheeky twist of cracked pepper return in what could easily pass as a Scandinavian Gin. Just when you think it’s all over, the gingery warmth lets you know it’s still there and endures long after the sip has finished. It’s not Aquavit nor Absinthe by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s more than just an impression of both and those who love one would no doubt find a familiar enjoyment in the other.
It’s less distinctively different than the Terroir (in fairness, so are most gins) but overall in our opinion it’s a more balanced affair and works much better in a G&T. Both have different roles to place in this set; If Terroir is about capturing a single moment in time and stopping you in your tracks, Botanivore is more of a story. There is drama. Characters come and go; it’s elusive yet enticing, with its central protagonist (in this case juniper) staying the par. 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, both pleasing and challenging in equal measure. Is it Gin as we know it? Is it even legally a “gin” in the Uk given the rules around base spirit and the extent to which they need to be neutral? We’re not sure and discussing the merits and nuances of this would miss the far more important point – It’s tasty and you’ll love it.
To make it, the team at St George add Rye spirit in the same 1,500 litre copper pot still as Terroir and Botanivore, along with a blend of six botanicals (including 50% more juniper berries than in the previous gins). Black peppercorn, caraway, coriander, grapefruit and lime peel make up the rest of the line up.
Packaged in their usual, beautifully designed bottles, it’s the cereal tones that are evident on the nose. Their malty nature is similar to a Genever, yet with the botanical intensity you would expect from a contemporary gin. The caraway and grapefruit peel manage to rise over the pack to be our picks on the nose, but such is the heavy nature of the malty rye – it’s a barrage of aroma, rather than a singular note.
The lime peel flushes the fore, followed by a gin core of juniper (shy) and coriander (citrussy) before the caraway commands centre stage – all of them carried with Rye undertones and can only be discerned through it’s sepia like tint. The finish has that characteristic Rye nip too, that’s been further accentuated by black peppercorn to provide a satisfyingly warm sensation. It’s a remarkable spirit, that because of it’s difference will divide opinion and have some spitting feathers while others will be holding out their tongues for more.
In the years that have passed since our initial review, perhaps ironically St. George Rye Gin is the one that has become more normal. It is still very different, yet, different base spirits, grains and New Make whisky being added both before or after distillation, as well as other techniques to hybridise Gin into Whisky territories have become normalised in the world of modern gin. The Dry Rye Gin has a recognisably typical gin profile on a whiskey base, where as the Terroir and the Botanivore are completely unusual gins. Once completely bonkers as an idea, this once alien flavour still marks you with its alternative point of view, but it’s one that many will now have heard elsewhere and not be entirely freaked out by any longer.
In our opinion, St. George’s Rye Gin has got a lot going for it. It’s an example of a gin that you have to return to in order to get all the flavours, and it also brings up the concept of American Genever, as it’s neither gin nor genever, but somehow somewhere in between. We think it’d be perfect for a Martinez!
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, and were obtained by distillery Dave Smith’s brother Matt, who runs nearby Blacksmith Cellars. It’s delicious too, but that’s a bolt on to this review for another day.
To say that St. George Spirits has been busy would be a grand understatement, but while an awful lot of work has been done, and a lot of experimentation with it, all of the products produced have been of great quality. Everything has been thought out, from conception to finished product; the packaging and bottles embody that very fact and what really strikes us is the tag. It’s simple yet intricate; it makes you appreciate it from afar, but there is still 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…).”
The cunning delivery of design and combined use of different distillation techniques showcase the sheer breadth of skill present in the St. George Spirits team. This is 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.
From a flavour perspective, these gins pushed the category forward, foraging their way through new frontiers of flavours and challenging preconceptions around what Gin could be. It’s truly astounding to see the gins that have followed theirs, and we can’t help but wonder just how much they inspired the trend towards ‘star’ botanicals.
We’ve often wondered if they could (or would) stay on the right side of this progressive attitude or whether they would eventually create something that took it too far outside the realms people would be used to. So far, so good and they’ve stayed true to the their ideals and not just ploughed on releasing gin after gin. They come from a place of deep respect for the category, and while many of those that came afterwards have tripped into folly, St George Spirits remains the bar at which to aim.
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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