Sante Magazine
"America's Artisan Spirits"

by Stuart Maclean Ramsay

Their small copper pot stills are capturing the true essence of fruits to make eaux-de-vie (waters of life)-aromatic, glass-aged young brandies that cleanse the palate as an after-dinner digestive. Pressed pomace, grape skins, and seeds left behind after the fermentation of grapes are distilled into fresh, fruity, grappas, imprinted with varietal and regional identity. Crisp, textured vodkas and naturally aromatic gins are revitalizing classic cocktails. Exotic whole fruit-infused vodkas are energizing bartenders, adding richness and intensity to moribund mixed drinks. Distillers are crafting world-class, Cognac-style brandies using superior grape varieties and innovative, small-production whiskeys.

California Pioneers
The origin and epicenter of today's artisan distilling movement is the San Francisco Bay

Area and northern California wine country. Pioneers such as Jorg (pronounced Yorg) Rupf of St. George Spirits, Miles Karakasevic of Domaine Charbay, and Hubert Germain-Robin-all European immigrants-began distilling eaux-de-vie, varietal grappas, and pot-still brandies in the early 1980's.

Rupf is the founder and master distiller of St. George Spirits, the first distiller of post-Prohibition eau-de-vie in America . The Alsace native came to the United States in 1978 and began distilling in the Bay Area in 1982. "Our eau-de-vie philosophy is to take the best of European traditional practices and combine this with what we do today in our environment," he remarks. "I look on it from a totally culinary perspective."

Rupf and his distiller, Lance Winters, create their pear, raspberry, and kirsch (cherry) eaux-de-vie, zinfandel, Muscat, and cabernet sauvignon pomace grappas, and 100 percent barley single malt using a 65-gallon Holstein still in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco. "Our pear eau-de-vie is the flagship, and this fruit brandy won the best-product award at the prestigious Destillata artisan distillation competition in Austria , "notes Winters proudly.

Master Distiller Miles Karakasevic and his family have been creating handcrafted wines, ports, brandies, spirits, and liqueurs at Domaine Charbay Winery and Distillery in St. Helena , California , since 1983. Domaine Charbay's comprehensive portfolio includes Charbay (an aperitif/dessert wine), Distillers' Port, California Apple Brandy, Nostalgie Black Walnut Liqueur, a single-malt whiskey, and Grappa di Marko Merlot (named for Miles' son, Marko, distiller of Charbay's malt whiskey and whole-fruit vodkas and also the director of sales).

"We're the thirteenth-generation alembic pot-still distillers and can trace our family roots back to 1751 in Serbia," proclaims Marko Karakasevic, who was born in California . "Seemingly everyone in my generation is drinking vodkas or whiskies, so I wanted to produce theses. I saw that the flavored vodkas in the late 1990s were not even close in [real fruit flavors], so we launched our ultrapremium flavored vodkas in 1998."

Marko Karakasevic uses only fresh-picked whole fruit: key limes from Veracruz in Mexico , ruby red grapefruit from Texas , and blood oranges and Meyer lemons from California . Karakasevic explains, "The fruit is shredded and goes through a six-month extraction process. A typical large-production flavored vodka uses essences and derived flavors instead of fresh fruit, and the essence fades away." To maintain "mouth-feel and viscosity," Karakasevic triple-distills the vodkas in a copper pot still from Cognac , France .

St. George Spirits has also launched a straight vodka and a range of exotic fruit-infused vodkas, named Hangar 1 after the distillery's home in a former military structure on the old Alameda Naval Air Station. The straight vodka uses a base of Midwest wheat vodka, which is then redistilled in St. George's pot still along with their own grape spirits distilled from Viognier.

For Hangar 1 fruit-infused vodkas, real fruit is macerated or steeped in the wheat vodka, then distilled through the pot still. Rupf and Winters have chosen distinctly different fruit for their vodkas: kaffir lime and leaves from Indonesia , mandarin blossoms and flowers, and "Buddha's Hand' citron, an Asian fruit that resembles long fingers. According to distiller Winters, "Hangar 1 vodkas are designed to stand on their own at room temperature."

Hangar 1 is a collaborative venture between St. George and Ansley Coale, the marketing ace who is also cofounder with distiller Hubert Germain-Robin of Germain-Robin, a distillery nestled in the hills above Ukiah in Mendocino County . Their brandies, hand distilled in an antique Cognac pot still from premium varietal grapes, have garnered extraordinary accolades from wine and spirits critics and are often rated as the finest spirits produced-anywhere.

"We brought our old Cognac still over in 1982 and came on to the market in 1987," explains Coale. "Our brandies are unique because Hubert is a great distiller and he's putting pinot noir through an old Cognac pot still by hand. In France , the stills are pushbutton, and the grapes in Cognac are not fit for the table. Nearly all the small-house Cognacs are gone."

"The Germain-Robin Select Barrel XO is our flagship and defines our level of quality," he continues. "We bottle just ten barrels a year, and it's 80 percent pinot noir." Germain-Robin also produces single-barrel pinot noir and colombard brandies, and varietal grappas from merlot, Viognier, and zinfandel. Coale notes, "They're all produced with whole berries-not pomace, so you preserve the flowery fruit flavor of the grape."

Oregon Artisans
Steve McCarthy, proprietor of Clear Creek Distillery in Portland , Oregon , is inbued with a passion for perfecting his pear eau-de-vie. "I've been making it for 18 years, and I'm still trying to make it better. I've got the distilling down, so it's all about nuances now."

McCarthy began distilling on a Holstein pot still in 1985, using fruit from his family's pear orchard in Hood River , about an hour's drive from Portland . He distills Blue Plum, Kirshwasser (cherry), and Framboise (raspberry) eaux-de-vie and makes a variety of grappas from Oregon grapes. McCarthy also distills splendid Calvados-style Eau de Vie de Pomme (apple brandy), which is aged eight years in Lomousin oak, and an aged Oregon Brandy from local wine. He was the first artisan distiller to make a single-malt whisky-a robust, peaty one at that.

Across the Cascade mountain range in the Oregon high desert, Jim Bendis has been distilling gin and vodka since 1996. Bendistillery is the company name, and if that wordplay isn't enough, Bendis's distillery and tasting room are located in the resort town of Bend .

"From 1996 to 2000, we grew at 20 percent per year, and it went from a hobby to a business," recounts Bendis, whose business, though still small at 3,000 cases a year, has grown 180 percent each of the last two years. "Gin was a natural choice for us, since we live in the heart of the world's largest juniper forest. Our hand-crafted gins use fresh, wild juniper berries as their sole flavoring.

Artisans across America
It's not just the West Coast where handcrafted spirits enjoy a passionate following, Nashoba Valley Winery in Bolton , Massachusetts , distills an off-dry spirits and cranberry cordial called Foggy Bog. The popular Bardenay restaurant in Boise , Idaho , serves its own gin, vodka, and amber rum in a plethora of cocktails. Customers can sip a house martini or mojito while they watch the distiller prime his Holstein still. Dogfish Head Brewing in Lewes, Delaware , makes a gin and distills molasses to create several styles of small-batch rum.

Steve Abramson and Jane Nichols of Water Mill Brands in Southampton , New York , developed Peconika vodka from a blend of potatoes and grain. The spirit won a Double Gold at the 2001 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, topping more established brands from Russia , Poland , Sweden , and France . "The potatoes are from a farm in Bridgehampton, Long Island , and the grain is a corn distillate from the Midwest." comments Nichols. "The ratio is 20 percent potatoes to 80 percent grain."

In the hill country of northeast Connecticut , we come full circle in the water of life. "Jorg Rupf of St. George Spirits was my mentor in establishing my distillery," acknowledges Margaret Chatey, founder and owner of Westford Hill Distillers. "My Holstein still is like a second child, and I love the way it adjusts and captures the aromatics in my fruit brandies. Eaux-de-vie are aromatic and dry and have an alcohol 'grip,' so they cleanse the palate beautifully after a meal. I enjoy pairing the spirits with desserts, cooking with them, and substituting them for conventional cocktail ingredients."

Artisans on Premise
When asked about on-premise promotion, Chatey remarks, "Restaurant staff are the key to success. Locally, they've all been supportive and eager to listen and learn, but education is so necessary. The artisan distiller's biggest task is to teach waitstaff how to market, serve, and even swallow it!"

Sharing Chatey's sentiment, Coale laments, "Staff training for vodka in restaurants, unlike brown spirits, has been quite abysmal." But Coale insists that a superior product gets noticed: "Give bartenders a good vodka like Hangar 1, and they will sell it for you. They know that something special can be made from it, and they'll have fun discovering which flavors work best in cocktails."

McCarthy understands that staff training is all part of the hand sell. "When I train waitstaff, I'll start with the pear, followed by apple, blue plum, grappas, and single malt. There's been an explosion of good-quality, small-scale bistro-style restaurants in the United States . They're the kind of place that invests heavily in staff training, so I fit right in. I'm starting to see more restaurants displaying menus with a half-dozen desserts on one side and a California brandy, a couple of dessert wines, and an eau-de-vie or two on the other. I like that!"

Tra Vigne, an award-winning restaurant in St. Helena , California , is one of those upscale restaurants and bars that have supported regional artisan distillers from the beginning. General Manager Burges Smith recalls, "I started here as bar manager in 1989 and was stunned by the brilliance of flavors from the local distilleries. We're in the heart of Napa Valley and, as with any wine region, a culinary identity develops. These distilleries help give us identity, too."

"The Karakasevic family of Domaine Charbay are neighbors, and I've carried every one of their products." Smith explains. "We took a staff trip to Germain-Robin 15 years ago, and everyone who went still remembers tasting those fruit-conscious brandies. Germain-Robin is close to the Jepson winery where Alison Schneider makes wonderful brandies from old-vine colombard. In San Francisco , Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing distills two rye whiskies and an aromatic Junipero gin. Dave Classick of Essential Spirits in Silicon Valley distills a bierschnapps from his own ale. We pour St. George's spirits and small batch grappas and fruit brandies from Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Rosa . I think all these spirits are brilliant, and the distillers are imbued with passion."

Chatey concludes, "Handcrafted spirits are an integral part of a region's food culture, but most important, they give us all permission to have fun."

he ancient alchemists were seeking immortality and the creation of gold from base metals. If these small-batch alchemist have not yet found the secret to prolonging life, they are certainly contributing to its enjoyment. Their spirits are energizing and enriching cocktails and food and are helping to create distinctive regional culinary identities. And the elixirs from their pot stills can be transformed into gold for at least a few bars and restaurants.


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[framboise] [pear william] [kirsch] [fraise] [poire prisonniere]

The making of aged brandy The making of eau du vie