St. George Spirits: Interview with West Coast Spirit Masters.
St. George Spirits were founded in 1982 and has grown into a diverse operation that makes a unique range of craft spirits. They are a diverse team of individuals and they are passionate about artisanal spirits. We were beyond excited to speak with the Master Distiller and President Lance Winters and Head Distiller Dave Smith.
Did your background in science lead you to brew, or in any way enhance the way you saw the world of spirits?
Lance Winters: A love of beer and of making things lead me to brew beer. It was a way to make something that could express who I was, that I could serve whenever I wanted. What my nuclear engineering background really helped out with (nerd alert) was understanding the inner workings of a still. Operating a nuclear power plant, you change the operating parameters of a system that’s deep inside a lead-lined compartment, covered with insulation. You can’t immediately see the effect of your input, so you need to learn to anticipate. It’s mostly about understanding heat transfer and fluid flow, as well as the ensuing chemical changes. Operating a still is similar, with none of the radiation. You reposition valves, change cooling water flow, etc., and have to understand what the effect will be on the product flowing out.
How do you bring innovation to something like the classic and traditional spirits like whisky and vodka, without it being gimmicky?
LW: Again, excellent question. It’s really all about going back to the roots of a traditional spirit, and understanding why it was made that way. Then I try to look at how it might have been different from square one. Maybe it’s a different base material, maybe the process is changed. Either way, it’s kind of a reimagining of how that history might have been different. It gets gimmicky when you take a traditional spirit and then just try to put frosting and sprinkles on it.
Do you sit down and try to think of new ideas for liquors or do you just wait until an idea hits you and start to experiment?
LW: The world is full of amazing flavors and aromas. I try to approach life by being open to them all, and then let myself be inspired to create based on what I experience.
I’d like to ask about how some of the ideas for your spirits came about. The Green Chile Vodka is something that at first you might think is a one-trick pony, but it’s actually incredibly versatile! How did this idea come to fruition?
LW: A great personal friend and friend of the distillery, Scott Beattie, was making cocktails at an industry party at St. George. He made a cocktail called the Irian Jaya. Scott’s as meticulous about his garnish as he is about the balance and flavor of his cocktails. He’s a genius. Part of the garnish for the Irian Jaya was a couple of rings from the center of chili pepper. He ended up using one-third of each pepper. When he was done with his prep, there was a big bucket of pepper parts left over. They smelled like a great opportunity to me. That night, I infused them in neutral high proof. The following week, I ran it through one of our lab stills. Amazing aromas of vegetal pepper, with no heat. That was the start.
Later on, I was thinking of the flavor of the liquid that forms from a nicely made salsa Fresca. That became the target flavor profile for the Green Chile Vodka. Lime peel, fresh cilantro, and sweet bell peppers round out the flavor, while serrano and habanero peppers provide a touch of heat. It’s all about balance. If you haven’t tried it with a melon agua fresca, I highly encourage you to stop reading immediately and try one out.
The world of Italian bitter aperitifs can seem quite daunting and be defined in multiple ways, Bruto Americano is a real killer liquor. Was the process of tinkering with the flavor and choosing herbs, roots, and botanicals difficult, or did you have a good idea of what you wanted going in?
LW: The main reason that the world of Italian aperitivo is so daunting is that there are so many that are so incredibly good. That said, most are that good because the creator had a point of view that they wanted to express.
With Bruto, I knew that we had to tick the bitter box, but that part is easy. I wanted to incorporate some ingredients that spoke to me and my personal history. Growing up, my parents would sometimes burn sandalwood incense in the house. (It was the ’70s in California…) Cascara sagrada, buckthorn bark, gives aromas of sandalwood and cinnamon. I fell in love with balsam fir on a trip to a friend’s wedding in Maine, and felt that it would work in harmony with the rest of the ingredients, and give a warm, green, comforting note. From start to finish, Bruto took about three years to really come together.
What’s the process of making a four-grain whiskey and how do you make sure one grain is not overly dominant?
Dave Smith: Balance is important to everything that we make at St. George Spirits. A fruit liqueur needs acid to balance the sweetness, otherwise, it just doesn’t tell the full story. Each component in a whiskey needs to make a contribution to the blend, otherwise, it’s just a distraction. Twenty-five years ago, Lance founded our single malt program with a brewing background and the mindset of a brewer—which is to say that he didn’t rely on oak alone for flavors and aromatics but instead needed to ensure that the grains in the mash bill would shape the whiskey before it touched a barrel. Once satisfied with the grains, then we can be patient and allow the oak barrel to further develop the whiskey.
B&E is a great example of this as well. Each type of whiskey that goes into B&E (rye, bourbon, and a few different malt whiskies—each with their own grain bills) comes together to create a uniquely American blended whiskey. Each one needs to complement the others. By blending, we can tell a more complete story as each barrel and whiskey play a role. Most shows have both main characters and supporting characters, but each has its moment in the spotlight. If they don’t demand that moment, then they have no business being there. It’s kind of a similar thing with the grains and the mash bills and barrels of whiskey in a blend. I love being inspired by each individual part, as each tells us how it will contribute to a more complete story together than it would on its own.
What are some huge misconceptions that people have about the world of liquor?
DS: One of the biggest misconceptions that we hear often is that if a spirit is older then it must be better. Many people think that since the 18-year-old whiskey is more expensive, it is, therefore, better than the 12-year-old whiskey. It certainly could be, but there are few hard and fast rules.
Most distillers that I know to love unaged agave spirits because they speak more to the raw materials and distillation than to the barrel influence. For years, before Japanese whisky was big, I loved Yamazaki 12. The 18 was beautiful as well, don’t get me wrong, but there was never a Wednesday night where I went home craving 18. The 12, though, that was another story.
Often, these things come down to our own wonderfully subjective personal preferences. That’s okay. Be fearless in enjoying what you enjoy however you want to enjoy it.
Sometimes an old whiskey really is an ancient art, and sometimes it’s just old. Sometimes young whiskey is immature and that’s not worth your time either, but don’t rush the judgment on either one.
What are your favorite cocktails right now?
DS: My favorite cocktails tend to be relatively simple, classic drinks. If it’s my first time at a particular bar, Manhattan is usually my go-to drink order. A simple and timeless classic like a Manhattan will communicate a lot about the bar and its execution. Other favorites include a Hemingway Daiquiri with Agricole rum. And of course, there’s never a bad time for a Baller highball.
We often pre-batch cocktails in my house, so that we always have a bottle of Manhattan or Negroni on our bar. Recently, I’ve been pre-batching this sherried Manhattan inspired by one that friends used to serve at a restaurant in San Francisco that has since closed.
2.5 oz of Breaking & Entering American Whiskey
0.5 oz Dolin Dry vermouth
0.5 oz PX Sherry (Lustau makes a good one)
1 dash Angostura Bitters
Stir over ice, then strain and serve neat or on a single large rock with a couple of Luxardo cherries.
What do you like to eat with those favorite cocktails?
DS: This can go a lot of ways, but I’ve got a thing for a great cheeseburger and a Manhattan. When we worked on B&E in the past, we believed that generally, we would enjoy whiskey with salty and fatty foods, so we went so far with our blending trials as to have salty and fatty foods while we were adjusting the final blend. You might get nuance and beauty into a blend, but if it doesn’t show up because of the bar snacks, then we should be aware of that.
My brother is a winemaker and it’s how I got my start in the industry. In winemaking, we openly recognize that some wines are better when paired with particular foods. Conversely, some wines are completely ruined by certain foods. We wanted to bring that level of intentionality into our blending. We want our whiskey to make a statement on its own in a glass, and to say something else if ice is added and it’s diluted, and finally, it needs to have something unique to say in a cocktail.
What was the best advice founder Jörg Rupf gave to you about craft spirits?
LW: Jörg is the kind of guy who leads by example, so while it may not have been direct advice, one of the most important things that I learned from him was to be your own harshest critic. That’s why Bruto took three years.
How does California influence your spirits?
LW: Being in California gives us access to a world of different cuisines and raw materials. From incredible fruit, grains, and produce, to cuisines from all over the world, there’s really no end of inspiration available.