The Indie Spirit 

Jörg Rupf of Alameda's St. George Spirits inspires a whole new generation of small American distillers.

California's gubernatorial recall election boosted more than just Arnold Schwarzenegger's profile. For example, porn star Mary Carey came 9,600 votes closer to her dream of taxing breast implants. Gary Coleman went from being an Internet advice columnist to appearing with Tori Spelling in the recent Hallmark Channel remake of A Christmas Carol. And a tiny distillery in Alameda found itself literally splashed all across America after a hotel bartender in Washington, DC created a drink called a "Total Recall."

The mixologist, Michael Brown of the Ritz-Carlton, wanted a drink that combined a little bit of California recall with a touch of Florida presidential recount and a dash of "anti-American" France. He mixed Hangar One vodka, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and the raspberry liqueur Chambord with some cranberry juice and ginger ale, and a timely new cocktail was born. Brown sent out a press release, and soon his concoction was doing the trick in more ways than one.

In the competitive world of high-end vodka, where Belvedere battles Stolichnaya and Grey Goose grapples with Ketel One, word of mouth is one of the few ways for an upstart vodka to spread its name. For the makers of Hangar One, the attention conferred by the Total Recall cocktail was a boon, even though they took pains to point out that they had nothing to do with their company's sudden notoriety.

"Accch," says distiller Jörg Rupf dismissively at the mere mention of the recipe, visibly embarrassed to be associated with zany American politics. He is humbly grateful for the nod to his product, to be sure, but being known for a drink that celebrates the election debacle makes him shudder. Still, the vodka's inclusion in Brown's drink wasn't exactly a fluke. The bartender knew of Hangar One's reputation among epicureans, who have been singing its praises for some time. And for that recognition, the vodka's plucky, middle-aged developer smiles contentedly.

Rupf is the founder of St. George Spirits, an Alameda microdistillery he started in 1980. Although it has taken two decades to put his company on the map, its four-person operation is now known for making some of the best vodka ever produced in this country. The Spirit Journal, F. Paul Pacult's independent review publication, gave Hangar One's Kaffir Lime vodka the "Best White Spirit of 2002" vote, adding that its aroma was better than "anything I have experienced in thirteen years of professional spirits evaluation." Vodkaphiles.com, a Web site for vodka fans, is full of praise for Hangar One: "The smoothest, best tasting vodka I've ever had" (Janet R.), "Without a doubt the finest vodka I've ever had the pleasure of drinking" (Jerry), and "You would be crazy not to try this vodka!" (Brad S.).

Microdistilleries such as St. George and a handful of others are dazzling people for many reasons, the most obvious being that they really have no competition. There simply is no comparison between the quality of products made by large-scale liquor factories and those made by this careful distiller who sees himself as part artist and part alchemist.

Rupf is the godfather of the American pot-stilling movement or, as his partner Lance Winters prefers to call him, "the Mack Daddy of microdistilling." Many of the nation's other small distilleries -- including the Anchor Brewing Company's Anchor Distilling offshoot -- got their stills from Rupf, who imported them from Europe. He reckons he has sold at least six pot stills to upstart distillers, trained another six distillers in their use, and taught seminars at the University of Southern Missouri and Michigan State University. "Anybody who knows anything about microdistillation these days learned something from Jörg," Winters says. Rupf is the man who got the ball rolling in this country, although his industry is still young.

Small distilleries are popping up all along the West Coast and in other parts of America, just as independent wineries did in the early '70s. Dozens of brewers and vintners have moved on from beer or wine, fascinated by the more complex process of creating hard alcohols such as brandy, whiskey, and rum. And, like St. George, several of these distilleries make vodka. Some say that in a few years, America will be producing the world's best vodka: better than Sweden, Poland -- even Russia.

St. George Spirits also produces grappa, whiskey, and Rupf's favorite progeny: fruit liqueurs and brandies. Yet it is the vodka that put the company on the map. Rupf is the first to admit that he doesn't really care about the spirit, but the businessman in him created Hangar One in the hope that it might call attention to what he really cares about. What truly excites Rupf about his vodka's success is that maybe now more Americans will taste his true passion: eau-de-vie, a strong aperitif made from fermented fresh fruits.

Rupf's personal goal is to introduce Americans to a different way of drinking. He sees himself creating alcohol for foodies, a discerning set more often associated with wine. Rupf has made it his mission to help Americans acquire a more European appreciation of the hard stuff. For him, it's not so much about the drink itself, but what is imparted by pausing to drink after a great meal: patience, friendship, and pleasure. Europeans have a much larger vocabulary when it comes to spirits. They imbibe before-dinner drinks, during-dinner drinks, after-dinner drinks, cognac, brandy, and various liqueurs. Americans, on the other hand, generally don't drink alcohol for taste; we are more interested in booze that can be mixed into a gulpable cocktail. That's probably why vodka is the number one liquor sold in the United States. It's the ultimate mixer -- the easiest hard liquor to mask behind other flavors.

Americans have picked up the European wine habit; we've also taken to drinking heavier beers, another Continental import. And even espresso and cappuccino seemed eccentric to us a few decades ago. But will we ever take to after-dinner drinks? Jörg Rupf bet the distillery on it.

Rupf arrived at UC Berkeley in 1978 to do postdoctoral legal research on federal arts funding, and liked the United States so much that he soon decided to stay. Then he made an even bigger decision: he quit academia altogether. Rupf had been a lawyer, a judge, and a professor, but he gave all that up to do something that he thought was more worthwhile: moonshinin'.

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