"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.
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."
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
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
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.