Island Spirits 

For two decades, an Alameda distiller has produced the "waters of life."

"That tank holds five thousand gallons of crushed pears," says Jörg Rupf, founder and owner of Alameda's St. George Spirits, pointing up at a two-story insulated vat. "That's twenty tons of fruit."

It's the second or third day of St. George's annual pear eau-de-vie distilling process. Rupf, the scion of an Alsace family of distillers, founded St. George twenty years ago and is still one of only three full-time employees. We're standing next to his two German-made distillation units, which are shaped like giant brandy bottles, in one corner of the cavernous converted military structure he shares with Rosenblum Cellars near the old naval shipyards. From the heated base of each large copper unit, the fragrant distillates rise ten feet through a series of chambers before emptying through stainless steel tubes into a silver-jacketed cooling tank. The smell of cooking pears fills the entire room.

The Bartlett pears arrived several weeks ago from Mendocino and Lake counties, and sat in the hangar for several days, ripening to the perfect point. "You tell by smell when they're ready," says Rupf. "Then you only have a 24-hour window."

Once the pears are crushed, wine yeast is added to the pulp. It ferments in the tank for sixteen to eighteen days, with occasional stirring to keep the solids and juices from separating completely. The purée, which Rupf lets me taste, blooms with pears in the nose but tastes sour and winey.

Rupf and his assistant, a viniculture student from the republic of Georgia who's interning at Rosenblum for a couple of months, pump 65 gallons of pulp into one distiller and turn a few knobs. After 45 minutes or so, a thin stream of clear liquid emerges from a spigot on the bottom of the cooling chamber. Rupf and the intern occasionally dip fingers in the stream and bring them to their noses, then look at the reading on the alcohol meter and make a few adjustments. "We get drunk here all the time," Rupf jokes.

The entire process lasts two hours and produces little more than three gallons of eau-de-vie. It takes ten days to distill the entire fermentation tank contents; the batches are then combined, blended to create the perfect flavor, and diluted with deionized water to forty percent alcohol content.

Rupf used to distill his spirits only during the autumn harvest season, and would spend the other nine months bottling and selling them. But with many of his eaux de vie, the raw materials -- such as cherries and raspberries -- are now just as good flash-frozen, which makes the timing less crucial; these days, a single-malt scotch and the new Hangar One line of infused vodkas help keep Rupf and his master distiller busy year-round.

But food-processing innovations be damned; the time to make the best Poire William (pear eau-de-vie) is still right after the harvest. Rupf claims it takes 25 to 30 pounds of pears per 375 ml bottle -- that's almost one pear per teaspoon. With flavors so concentrated, a master distiller can't afford to miss the perfect point of ripeness. He can only wait, and smell. The pears will know when they're ready.


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