Inu A Kena Visits St. George Spirits Distillery
On a cloudless Sunday afternoon one day shy of the 78th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition, I took a ride across the island to our hometown distillery: St. George Spirits. Most notable for their Hangar One vodka, St. George actually started with Eau de Vie, and has recently burst onto the gin and bourbon scene to heaps of critical acclaim.
The distillery sits just feet from the San Francisco Bay within the confines of the vast Alameda Point complex—formerly the Alameda Naval Air Station. Many of you have likely seen the runway just opposite the distillery on the ever-popular Mythbusters TV show. Other sites of note on or adjacent to the former base include Rosenblum Cellars, Rock Wall Wines, and the USS Hornet, a WWII era aircraft carrier turned floating museum.
St. George is actually located in Hangar 21 of the old base—formerly home to a long-range attack squadron from whom the distillery borrowed one of its logos. The building has a great nostalgic feel that’s enhanced by the minimalist décor. In the front of the building is a tasting room and a retail shop where one can purchase their spirits as well as shirts, hats and other merchandise. The tasting room affords you a view of the runway, the Bay Bridge and the San Francisco skyline. You could do much worse when locating a distillery.
The tour was led by St. George’s Director of Inebriation, Pauly. We began at the beginning, learning about the distillery’s history as the first Eau de Vie distillery in the US. From there Pauly took us from the raw ingredients to the fermenter, and onto the distillation process. Two bee-you-ti-ful hybrid pot/column stills made entirely of copper and stainless steel are where the real magic happens. Over about three hours, the fermented material makes its way through the column. Pauly described the operation of the distillation column and the artisanal nature of its control (there’s no automation whatsoever). Letting the first part of the batch (the heads) go removes the methanol, leaving the best part of the batch (the heart) which makes up the final product–about a 10% yield. The last portion of the distillation is also sent to drain, as it carries the fusel oils, which can contribute to off flavors and is thought to cause hangovers.
From the distillation area, we moved to the proofing and production area where the high strength alcohol (~95%) is diluted with reverse osmosis water (now I’m with you) to achieve the proper alcohol level, then bottled.
At this point in the tour, we moved to the large model of a great white shark to learn about its origins and then learned about the distillery’s history in absinthe production. I won’t give away the secrets of the shark, but the story of the approval process for new spirit labels in the US was truly comical.
Onto the barrel area…While most of St. George’s products are sold un-aged, a few others are rested in oak for a period of time. The aging barrels include used bourbon and sherry casks that are then re-used five to six times at St. George. Spirits in the barrels today include whiskey and rum.
With that, the tour concluded and we adjourned to the tasting room for “Basic Training”. I never thought I’d laugh or learn this much on a distillery tour, but Pauly was as funny as he was thorough. If you have the chance and don’t take this tour, you’re totally blowing it.
Now for my notes on St. George’s “Basic Training” tasting package…
So while the hour-long tour is free, St. George does charge a fee for the tasting. For the low price of $15, they’ll pour you ten different spirits into a cordial flute which is yours to keep. Given that the flute isn’t branded with their logo, I’m guessing they just don’t like doing dishes 🙂 The folks tending bar in the tasting room give you instructions and background on each spirit that are definitely worthwhile and make the tasting a rich experience.
Different spirits are poured based on availability–here’s what I sampled along with a few quick notes:
- Pear Eau de Vie
- You can tell they’ve been doing this a while. Slick and bursting with pear flavor.
- Botanivore Gin
- Loads of herbs and spices–worthy of the buzz it’s generating
- Rye Gin
- Just like the name–it’s got a prominent rye note from start to finish along with a heap of other herbs, fruits, and spices: pepper, mint, lime, grapefruit
- Hangar One Vodka
- St. George’s flagship product could be called its least creative, but it’s a damned fine neutral spirit. Zero astringency, oily mouthfeel and just a hint of sweetness on the finish. If you drink vodka, you should have this one on the shelf.
- Raspberry Vodka
- Powerful raspberry flavor–completely natural and it shows.
- Coffee Liqueur
- This brandy-based liqueur has a coffee flavor as strong as it is smooth. The coffee is slow brewed in a cold process–I’m guessing that’s why.
- Qi White Tea Liqueur
- This one was very exciting from a mixology perspective, and I need to buy a bottle. It’s got pronounced tea flavors, but it’s also got citrus flavors that make me think it would be a really great replacement for triple sec. They need a couple of good hang tag drink recipes for this one.
- Pear Liqueur
- As if you took the pear eau de vie and proofed it down with pear juice.
- Raspberry Liqueur
- Again, as though fresh raspberries were pressed directly into the bottle to lower the alcohol content and add sugars. Tasted like granny’s raspberry jam–except it could get you loaded.
- Absinthe Verte
- As the undefeated palate killer, absinthe was poured last (with an ice cube). I don’t care much for absinthe myself, but I must admit this one was pretty damned good. Definitely better than what I have in the bar presently. They also offered a float of root after I had a few sips of the absinthe–a cocktail they call the Root of All Evil.
Summing up, these folks make a fine host of spirits, and there is undoubtedly one or more in the line that you will love. I know I’ll be back when they’re pouring the rum and whiskey–if not sooner. I’m proud to call St. George my hometown distillery.
ST. GEORGE SPIRITS
2601 MONARCH ST. ALAMEDA, CA 94501 USA
VISITORS WELCOME WEDNESDAY–SATURDAY NOON–7PM, SUNDAY NOON–5PM.