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.