It’s a thrilling time in Bay Area spirits. The same players who’ve made us proud in years past continue to reinvent themselves, while newcomers add flavor — literally — to the scene. In visits to four local distilleries, I came away inspired by their inventiveness and skill. And while none of the spirits I tasted use extracts or flavorings (like many of their big-brand counterparts), they do manage to fit in countless pounds of local, unexpected fruits, even natural herbs.
Even more exciting to the small batch booze enthusiast? Most of the following distilleries open their tasting rooms by schedule or appointment so the tippling public can discover for itself the motto emblazoned on the bottles of Old World Spirits: “Good stuff needs no special effects.”
ST. GEORGE’S SPIRITS
At the mighty St. George, inventiveness reigns, with a rock star attitude to boot. The distillery’s small staff experiments broadly and distillers Lance Winters and Dave Smith drive this license into genius. A behind-the-scenes journey through their labs unveiled nothing short of a wonderland apothecary: test tubes and bottles of spirits flavored with herbs, fruits, vegetables, foie gras — even beef jerky. You may (rightly) love their eaux de vie, absinthe, agave spirits, rum, vodkas, and whiskeys, but have you heard they’re toying with a carrot brandy? Clear and vegetal, it showcases the essence of the orange vegetable with a delicate hand. We can only pray they’ll bottle this one.
I also sampled St. George’s bourbon aging in charred American white oak that was a few years away from being officially bottled. Only five months young and made from the required minimum amount of corn (it needs at least 51 percent to qualify as bourbon) plus barley, crystal malt, wheat, and rye, it’s full of malty, rich promise. The same holds true of its white dog (clear-white whiskey) made from the same grains — one we could possibly see sooner on the shelves.
St. George’s next single malt whiskey, Lot 9, has been aging five to 12 years in barrels blended with 17 woods, including used American bourbon oak, sherry refills, port refills, and French oak. If you’re lucky, you soon may be able to purchase (in limited quantities) a single malt-single barrel selection that has been aged eight years in bourbon barrels then finished for four years in French oak apple brandy barrels. It is a wonder of complexity compared to their regular whiskey releases.
Only the brave attempt to down the scorching fire that is St. George’s in house habanero vodka. Grown men confessed of crying or throwing up just sipping it — only a handful of people have downed a legitimate amount and have been permitted to sign the distillery’s bottle of the burn. But my name is on that bottle — no tears, no throwing up, just a raging habanero sizzle.
2601 Monarch, Alameda. (510) 769-1601. www.stgeorgesspirits.com
On a winding road above St. Helena and under peaceful Spring Mountain pines, there’s more going on than this distillery’s impeccable line of vodkas. Thirteen generations have gone into this family business, founded in 1983 and run by Miles and Susan Karakasevic, their son Marko, and his wife Jenni. The distillery’s lineage is evident to the discerning tippler who sips their port, rums, pastis, brandy, grappa, wines — even their herbaceous tequila. Charbay’s father-son distilling duo traveled to Mexico to painstakingly learn traditional tequila-making technique, which they expertly riff on to make their distinct blends.
Don’t even get me started on Release II of Charbay whiskey! 110 proof, aged six years with a pilsner beer base, it’s a stratospheric $325, but one of the most exceptional things I’ve ever tasted. From its astounding complexity, I caught everything from hops to echoes of the pine trees surrounding the distillery. I also sampled an unreleased 12-year version of Release II: higher proof, rich, a stunner.
But there’s no rest for the Karakasevics. Future whiskeys are already aging in French oak barrels — the one I’m most thirsty for, a stout whiskey, won’t be ready until 2012. If early tastes are any indication, it’s already brilliantly complex with coffee, spice, and dark chocolate notes. Made with neighboring Bear Republic’s stout in copper alembic stills, it’ll age for two years to reach 90 proof and is expected to retail around $90 — part of a younger, more affordable line of whiskeys compared with the divine but costly Release II. The bold explorer spirit that propels Charbay to Mexico to make a fine tequila shines in their future whiskeys.
TEMPUS FUGIT SPIRITS
These importers have already made waves with their Swiss-produced Gran Classico Bitter, which I hailed for reinventing classic cocktails like the Negroni. They also import some of the best French and Swiss absinthes in existence. Absinthe historians and spirits experts Peter Schaf and John Troia are the masterminds behind Tempus Fugit — and owners of one of the finest vintage absinthe poster collections in the world. It was a thrill to check out these rare pieces while tasting the history and forward-thinking vision in their bitters and liqueurs.
Tempus Fugit’s modus operandi is reinventing classic recipes and distilling them locally. Petaluma-produced Liqueur de Violettes is next up for the duo, a taste along the lines of Creme de Violette and other violet liqueurs yet somehow unlike any of them. Made with less sugar, the liqueur is a more appropriate cocktail ingredient — it’s less cloying, more purely floral and light. Each time I sample it, its bouquet blossoms like a layered wine: a sophisticated, botanical aperitif.
Tempus Fugit future project (a two-man team, after all, only has four hands) is Crème de Cacao-Chouva, a chocolate liqueur that will change chocolate cocktails the way St. George’s Firelit transformed coffee liqueur. It’s dark, lightly sweet, lush and earthy. Tasting it, I envision a resurgence of my guilty pleasure cocktail, the Grasshopper, refined and grown up with Crème de Cacao-Chouva and creme de menthe. It came alive with soda water — an elevated egg cream soda materialized in my cocktail windshield.
Keep an eye on these guys. They have more spirits and bitters as exciting as the ones I’ve listed in the works. Their dizzying knowledge of the history and intricacies of forgotten or neglected spirits, along with refined taste, suggests revelatory possibilities for the future pours of Tempus Fugit.
(707) 789-9660, www.tempusfugitspirits.com
OLD WORLD SPIRITS
Just north of San Carlos in a nondescript smattering of office buildings, is Old World Spirits, which has been in production since 2009. Davorin Kuchan, its third-generation distiller from Croatia, says family plays an irreplaceable part in the operation, as is evident from the photos lining the walls of the distillery. The whole clan is involved — Kuchan’s young daughter even drew the girl peeking out from foliage that graces Old World’s playful absinthe label. The output of both Davorin and business partner Joseph Karakas is astounding for a two-person operation, with two absinthes, a gin, a black walnut liqueur, three eaux de vie/brandies, and more liquors slotted for future release.
Old World uses custom-made German stills and local fruits like the Indian blood peach, which Davorin calls the “heirloom tomato” of stone fruit. As with the best natural fruits, the Indian blood has cracks and flaws, its lower sugar content imparting a lush understatement of taste. Though he grew the peaches himself in Croatia, in California Davorin orders in from Placerville’s Goldbud Farms. The clear blood peach eau de vie impresses with notes of ripe, juicy fruit flesh and spicy skin. I found Old World’s eaux de vies well-balanced, both the pear-inflected Poire Williams and the three- to seven-months oak-aged O’Henry Peach. I sipped a raspberry eau di vie it has yet to release: clear and lightly floral, free of the cloying sugar common in raspberry liqueurs.
Watch for Old World’s sold out dark black walnut liqueur — another batch is out in two years. Kuchan’s Blade Gin stocks the shelves of many a Bay Area bar, journeying down a nontraditional, California-inspired gin route with whispers of ginger, citrus, cilantro, lemon verbena, and black cardamom. Two kinds of absinthe, a green (verte) and clear blanche/white (referred to as Bleue, as in Switzerland), take cues from classic absinthes but resound with Davorin’s interpretation of 20 percent more herbs than what enlivens a traditional absinthe. Old World’s next release: a Cognac-style double barrel brandy aged in French and American oak and finished in Kentucky bourbon casks, which they hope to release soon. My early taste straight from the barrel yielded an already rich, spicy brandy.
Thirsty yet? Visit Davorin and Joseph during their monthly Friday Flight nights. Davorin will turn on some fine French pop tunes as both pour spirits, transforming the distillery into a warm familial party.
121 Industrial, Belmont. (650) 622-9222. www.oldworldspirits.com
You can also find these spirits at Cask (17 Third St., SF), John Walker & Co. (175 Sutter, SF), and K&L Wine Merchants (638 Fourth St., SF).