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'.

Hooch doesn't usually enter into the equation when Americans think about making an honest dollar. Distillation of alcohol is an idea as old as the ancient Persians, who are credited with developing it about a millennium ago. But its long history in America has been a roller-coaster ride. Although many Americans love to drink, our government hasn't always made it easy. After all, Prohibition was called the "noble experiment," which implied that drinking alcohol was ignoble. We haven't entirely shaken that idea. Alcohol is infused with the same mythology as the Wild West, a paradoxical blend of lawlessness and America's independent character. Our history of boozemaking conjures up visions of bootlegging mountain folk synthesizing hooch in the shed out back, or square-chinned gangsters stirring up giant batches in the bathtub.

In some ways, not much has changed since Prohibition was repealed seventy years ago this month. Until the late '70s, the US government even made it hard for individuals to brew beer. And if you wanted to run a still, you had to have an armed agent of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms stand guard next to it 24 hours a day. These agents even put locks on stills that only they could open. To distill liquor for consumption today, or distribute someone else's brand, you must deal with complicated restrictions and fees from a host of government agencies. Only someone very determined or very foolish would ever bother.

Enter Jörg Rupf.

In his exuberance about dropping out of the rat race and becoming an "alchemist," Rupf dove headfirst into something very few Americans had done. But then, he was looking at the world through fruit-colored glasses. After Rupf observed the great variety of seasonal California harvests, thoughts of making eau-de-vie began to overtake any plans he had of practicing law for the rest of his life. His family had been extracting and distilling flavors from fruit for years in the Black Forest city of Freiburg, and the abundance of California's agricultural bounty was just too tempting to pass up. "I was bolstered by seeing the wine industry here flourish," he says, "a lot of which has to do with how great the fruit is here." If Alice Waters could build an empire on seasonal, organic fruits and vegetables, surely Rupf's unbridled enthusiasm for brandy made from the same fruit could prevail as well.

"For me, the attraction of making eau-de-vie was to get out of working for a big organization, to do everything on my own; something manual," he says, still using the precise hand gestures of an excited professor. "I wanted to be satisfied with doing something hands-on; to say, 'Hey, I did this.' ... It has an element of my personal past, and the heritage of the land where I came from, as well as the fact that this culinary cornerstone of European tradition -- the after-dinner drink -- that had never been translated in this country."

Rupf bottled his first product, eau-de-vie, in 1982. He claims to have been the first person to distill fruit brandy in the United States since Prohibition. The roots of this spirit go back to 16th-century Holland, but Rupf's family has been making it in Germany for generations. His great-grandfather started the business in 1877, which wasn't dissolved until the death of his uncle in 1979. Rupf learned most of the tricks of the trade from growing up around his family's operation. "I guess you could say that the distilling tradition transferred from the Black Forest to California," Rupf jokes, "or 'Kahlifonia,' in our new Austro-English."

Getting a still wasn't easy. The only ones produced in America were either gigantic ones for commercial use, or smaller ones from Kentucky designed specifically for bourbon-making. But being German helped. Rupf contacted the German company that manufactured the still used by his family. That firm, Holstein, saw him as a potential liaison between Europe and the United States. Holstein officials knew there wasn't yet a market for their contraptions over here and hoped that Rupf could create one. For a time, he became the company's middleman.

Rupf developed a distilling method that he felt enhanced the flavors of fresh fruit instead of harshly leaching them out. He creates his pear eau-de-vie by mashing pound after pound of California Bartlett pears, skin and all, and then fermenting the mush into wine, which is then distilled. No other ingredients are added except water. Rupf and Winters like to compare their work to that of a perfumer, someone who doggedly tries to bottle something as fleeting as an aroma. The result is the very essence of the pear, followed by a quick kick in the pants. To an American palate, eau-de-vie is indeed different, but extremely worth it. Sip it and there is a sort of small explosion in your mouth, a subtle burst that has a crisp aftertaste of the fruit, the memory of which sticks around for hours. This stuff is strong.

As it turned out, Rupf couldn't have picked a better time to take up his family's craft. In the early 1980s, an important tax law was changed, making it easier for smaller distillers to operate. Previously, brewers had to pay taxes on any alcohol they created, before they even sold it. Now they pay tax only on any alcohol that leaves their bonded production facility.

St. George Spirits also avoided one of the larger costs associated with distilling alcohol by avoiding liquors that required extensive time spent aging in a cask or bottle. "The spirits that are really interesting, that are a lot of fun, are the aged spirits, and there's a whole lot of time filling your internal pipeline with product that you're creating, all this stuff that has to sit somewhere," Winters says. That, of course, takes capital, for all the years of inventory that must be distilled and then stored before any revenue can be realized. Recently, Winters has developed a single-malt scotch, the first batch of which was aged three years, but St. George's other products require no time on the shelf.

The company's full range of products runs from that whiskey and a grappa to various reserve batches of brandy; an eau-de-vie called Aqua Perfecta in three flavors (pear, raspberry, or cherry); and of course vodka, both straight and fruit-infused (mandarin blossom, Kaffir lime, and Buddha's hand citron). If Rupf loves his eau-de-vie, then Winters' baby is the single-malt whiskey, which, he says, rather embarrassedly, tastes to him like "love."


St. George Spirits is both a play on Jörg's first name and an homage to the Catholic patron saint of distilling. The name fits in more ways than one. Rupf himself can be said to be the patron saint of American microdistilling. "No one is going to go into a business like this without a role model," says Bill Owens, a Hayward resident who serves as president of the American Distilling Institute and edits the newsletter American Distiller, "and Jörg is that role model." When Rupf began, there were no small pot stilleries in America -- at least no legal ones -- and no one at all was making eau-de-vie.

That's not to say others around the country weren't interested in the idea. Steve McCarthy of Portland, Oregon, had similar ideas around the same time Rupf was getting his business off the ground. He was fascinated with distilling, but had nowhere to learn how to do it. For one thing, all of the manuals were written in German. (Even to this day, there are no undergraduate distilling degrees to be had in America.) He wanted to find an apprenticeship, but where?

Brewing, winemaking, and distilling enthusiasts are a tight-knit group, and though it wasn't as big a network back then, after some careful research McCarthy eventually discovered that a German immigrant in Northern California was distilling his own fruit brandy. He had to meet Rupf.

"I went down to see him," McCarthy says. "Realizing that it wasn't fair to ask him to help me out of the goodness of his heart, I paid him a handsome sum to teach me everything he knew about distilling." In exchange for $70,000, McCarthy says he then learned the entire process, from how to choose the best fruit to how to clean the tanks to when to bottle it.

The two entrepreneurs had a lot in common, not the least of which was a love of eau-de-vie. McCarthy had several hundred acres of fruit that he wanted to use to create something different, something more imaginative than cider or jam. Rupf helped McCarthy purchase a Holstein still from Germany, and McCarthy eventually began making fruit brandy at his new Clear Creek Distillery.

Slowly, pot-stilling enthusiasts began to come out of the woodwork, and Jörg Rupf's name was on everyone's lips as the guy who could get you a still, install it for you, and show you how to work the damn thing. His partner Winters attributes Rupf's huge influence on the US growth of pot stilling to his outgoing personality. He loves to socialize, and spent many hours up and down the West Coast dining and imbibing with other foodies. Word soon spread that Rupf was distilling his own alcohol, and winemakers and brewers who had previously considered distilling out of their reach began to dream of creating their own liquors.

It has been slow growth, though, especially when you compare microdistilling to microbrewing. According to Owens of American Distiller, there are only about 38 small distilleries in America, compared to roughly 1,500 microbreweries. But interest in distilling is definitely on the rise. San Francisco's Anchor Distilling now makes two whiskeys and a gin with a still that Rupf sold them.

And seventeen years after its humble beginnings, McCarthy's Clear Creek Distillery also appears to be booming. "We can hardly make eau-de-vie fast enough now," he says. He does admit pouring money into the business for years. "Then I got smart," he says. "I cut back on people, products, and distribution. I said, 'This thing has got to pay its own way.'" McCarthy always believed that it would happen but that it would take time, and now he says his bet has paid off.


Lance Winters is a tall, shaven-headed former brewer who was crazy enough to move from the safe confines of beermaking into the exciting world of hard-liquor production. He worked at several breweries, including Buffalo Bill's in Hayward, but when the opportunity arose to work with Rupf, he jumped at it. Rupf now refers to Winters as "the son I never had," and the lovefest is reciprocated by the young charge, who sees the older man as a "father figure."

"I have probably learned more from him than from anybody else; even things like how to communicate in a relationship," Winters says. "He's a hell of a guy." Winters had heard about Rupf through the grapevine, and was excited to have the opportunity to work with him and move beyond beermaking into the more complicated -- and possibly experimental -- world of hooch. He came on board in 1995, and became a part-owner a year ago.

The distillery where they work sits at the center of a long strip of warehouses directly across from the old Alameda Naval Air Station. The office and tasting room are tucked into a vast room that used to be a repair shop, but the bulk of the space is devoted to the business of alcohol production.

The tasting-room counter is decorated with bottles of St. George products and jars of odd-looking fruits and vegetables. There are Kaffir limes floating in vodka, looking like bumpy greenish brains in formaldehyde; and perhaps the strangest fruit you'll ever see, the Buddha's hand, a yellow citrus with thick wisps that hang down like dreadlocks, making it look like something Dr. Seuss could've created. It is all pith and contains no juice, but the abundant zest seems to combine all the best qualities of other citrus fruits.

In the main room, big vats of distillate bathe this season's Buddha's hands, their flavor leaching into the vodka over several days. On one recent afternoon, Winters is receiving a tank truck full of wine to be distilled, and the pulpy, deep-purple liquid begins to leak out of a portal on the side. "Shit!" he exclaims, rushing to tighten the seal and fix the problem. "That's a word we never use around here," he jokes. When you're basically a two-man operation, things can go wrong.

The heart of St. George Spirits sits on a platform to the right: two stills for making hard alcohol. The devices look like time machines from the Edwardian era, with portholes and levers and shiny copper skin. Steam and condensation escape from them all day as they wheeze along, using heat to create and then collect vaporized alcohol particles like fireflies in a jar. The alcohol eventually emerges in a slow, clear trickle into a bucket at its base. The result has gone by many different names: booze, firewater, white lightning. On this day, since the alcohol inside has been heated to the regulation temperature, the result is what the Russians dubbed "little water," or vodka.

Winters dips his finger into the bucket and tastes the elixir. "Nice," he says, drying his finger off on his wine-stained jeans. Never mind that drinking a cup of the stuff at this stage could kill a man. This is almost pure ethanol, and even leaning over and taking a big whiff can knock you down. It must be cut with water and other ingredients to be drinkable, but even in this earliest incarnation, Winters can tell a good thing when he tastes it.

The official definition of vodka is a distillate heated to at least 190 degrees. It is supposed to be colorless, tasteless, and odorless, but no vodkas are, which leaves one to wonder why the definition exists at all. At its core, vodka is simply pure ethyl alcohol and water. But how one arrives at that end product can vary; potatoes are usually associated with vodka, but vodka also can be made with any grain and, in Hangar One's case, a little bit of distilled wine, too.

Hangar One vodka begins with fermented and distilled American wheat that is transferred to giant vats. Depending on the varietal, the fruit is poured into the alcohol and left to steep from anywhere from three to 21 days. Viognier grapes are added and then everything is redistilled, cut with water, and bottled. The exact measurements and combinations are a trade secret.

In keeping with his surroundings, Winters describes his vodka in pure wine-snob vernacular in an interview on the St. George Web site: "Wheat provides some softness, a nice soft feel in the mouth as well as a neutral palette as in color palette. The viognier is allowed to have a little bit more of its way with the vodka because of the neutrality from the wheat and it brings in the beautiful, light, sweet, fruity notes."

But one sip of their creation and you may find yourself sounding like an epicurean. The Kaffir lime vodka tastes like a lime Lifesaver on the tip of your tongue, then warms its way back through your mouth. The orange blossom is fresh and girly; the Buddha's hand rounded, sharp, and wispy, just like the fruit itself.

Before Jimmy Carter signed home brewing into law in 1978, it was illegal to make your own beer, the lingering residue of Prohibition. The slow flowering of the American microbrewery industry followed this change in the law, gathering momentum and finally attaining terminal velocity in the '90s. Beermakers such as those at Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada, and Pyramid Breweries were attempting to re-create the kind of beers they had drunk in Europe: heartier, more hoppy beverages with more character than weak lagers such as Budweiser or Miller. As it turned out, many Americans really did prefer the headier stuff.

The microdistilleries are aiming for the same audience -- foodies and others tired of the same old options. But microbreweries took off for a few reasons, not the least of which is beer's versatility. It can be drunk by the glassful with meals, at the game, or after work on the couch. Grappa, brandy, and other liqueurs are not so easy to imbibe. Owens of American Distiller doesn't see pot stilling growing at the same pace as microbrewing, but he does expect the practice to increase. "Distillation will never get as big," he says. "You are dealing with a different level of culture and sophistication." He also points out that home distillation, unlike home brewing, remains illegal. Consequently, future distillers won't be bred in their garages the same way that future brewmasters are today.

As a result, the success of microdistilleries might have to be measured differently than that of their microbrewery predecessors. For instance, even though St. George Spirits makes a quality product and has a 23-year track record, that doesn't necessarily mean that finding a solid customer base has been easy. The real work for microdistilleries begins in the places that need to be convinced to carry their product: bars, restaurants, and liquor stores. When your competition is a billion-dollar industry, that's a daunting proposition.

Aside from the changes in the law, something else was happening to the American alcohol industry in the early 1980s. Profits were down, its demographic was getting older, and year by year it was moving fewer and fewer cases of product. Newly health-conscious yuppies seemed to equate hard liquor with cigarettes, fast food, and all those other disgraceful lifestyle choices. But some booze peddlers figured out that Me Decade consumers would buy their products if they somehow made them seem chic. Jack up the prices, create a hot ad campaign, and make the brand seem exclusive and special. Absolut Brilliance. It didn't take long for the liquor multinationals to realize that what sold vodka wasn't so much taste, flavor, or even price -- it was its hipness factor. And you can't create true hipness overnight. It's all in the branding.

Liquor marketer Geoff Smith spent five years heading up sales and marketing for Skyy Vodka, a San Francisco vodka startup that flourished in the 1990s. Even with the success of Skyy behind him -- Italy's Campari Group purchased a controlling interest for $207.5 million in 2001 -- Smith believes that liquor is one of the riskiest industries out there. "There are a tremendous amount of failures, and that is equally true across all the spirit categories," he says by phone from the St. Helena office of his latest project, Precis Vodka. "Only a handful of them actually do make it to the next level, but those who do make it, make it at such a huge level, that it's pretty fun and attractive to be associated with that when it actually happens."

The question is, how does it happen? Especially for a tiny business such as St. George Spirits?

Liquor trends can get started in at least two ways: either by advertising, or by word of mouth among aficionados that moves into the general population.

There are several tiers of marketing a vodka product, the first of which is the bottle itself. "Vodka is very fashion-oriented, very hip," Smith says. "It's a lifestyle beverage, so the packaging is important in terms of connecting with people who are living a certain lifestyle and want their aesthetics all around them." Precis went to great lengths to create a beautiful, handblown, ice-blue bottle that will have visual appeal to the high-end vodka consumer. St. George, meanwhile, knew that the bottle design for Hangar One would be an important part of its own business plan, but both Rupf and Winters were smart enough to realize they knew nothing about that end of the business. So they turned to Ansley Coale, the owner of a Ukiah brandy microdistillery called Germain-Robin, to handle their company's marketing.

"It's a collaboration," Coale says of the relationship. "St. George makes it and owns the brand, but the design, the packaging, the concept, the sales literature, the marketing, the publicity -- that's all ours." Coale has a long-term contract with St. George, and takes his profit in the form of commission. "The basic arrangement is that we split the profits."

Besides the quality of the product itself, distribution is the biggest hurdle that most liquor entrepreneurs face. It's also the giant companies' biggest strength. "The two white spirits that you can count on to generate revenue, vodka and gin, are dominated by these huge companies that have millions and millions of dollars," Winters notes. "It's really difficult to be able to jump into that market."

Oregon's Steve McCarthy audibly groans at the mention of distribution. "It's very difficult to get distribution," he says. "It's really an enormous challenge." For smaller makers like McCarthy, it comes down to word of mouth. Luckily, foodies such as those behind Berkeley's Chez Panisse and Portland's famed Wildwood restaurant pride themselves on finding locally made, hand-distilled liquors to put in their restaurant and bars. "Those people really get into this and they like it," he says. "They put it in their recipes, they put it on their menu, they give it away."

That was certainly the story behind the Ritz-Carlton's praise for Hangar One. Ansley Coale has developed relationships with distributors all over the country for the last seventeen years, and one of his "operatives" in Maryland was responsible for bringing the vodka to the hotel where bartender Michael Brown works. Liquor distributors are something like Hollywood agents. They will sign on with you if they believe you have something they can sell. In Hangar One's case, according to Coale, they tasted the product and knew that it would fly. "We've had people tell us that this is the best brand that they've seen in years," he says.

There are distributors nationwide, and Coale is working in at least 38 states. Each distributor has a sales force that makes its presentations on the street, and it was one of those people who introduced the Ritz-Carlton to Hangar One. Brown, who created the Total Recall cocktail, says he took one sip of the vodka from a salesperson and said, "This is God's gift to vodka. I compared Hangar One to Absolut, and I said, 'Wow, this is way better!' It kills them. I knew this was a product we could use."

He began to push the product in his bar, and he says the response has been great, with people asking for it by name. Closer to home, Dave Ezzo, the bar manager for Paragon at the Claremont Hotel, says he began carrying all four Hangar One varieties about five months ago and that it is now the bar's most requested premium spirit. "We go through a couple of bottles a week," he says. "It pushes itself; people ask for it by name."

Coale says major beverage companies have been known to pay large bars to stock their products -- one big nightclub allegedly asked for $5,000 in exchange for stocking Hangar One -- but St. George has selected a more low-key approach. "We didn't want to go out and borrow five million dollars and turn this into a huge marketing company," Coale says. "The difference between this vodka and everybody else's is that it really is genuinely handmade, and it really is genuinely a superb product. If we sold it the way Absolut does, which is to basically give a bunch of it away to get people behind it, we think that what we'd be doing would be undercutting what excites people about it."

Winters admits that the vodka has yet to make a profit, although he concedes that a lot of investment went into the front end. But Rupf takes pride in the fact that St. George is now self-sustaining, and Winters credits his partner's financial conservatism with the company's slow but steady growth. "He has stayed out of debt this whole time," he says.

Sales have increased more than tenfold in the past decade. Ten years ago, the company was selling about 1,500 cases of all its products combined. Now it is moving 16,000 cases of the vodka alone, and Winters reckons that St. George is selling two to three times as many bottles of eau-de-vie as it did in 2002. "It's been a roller-coaster ride," Winters says. "We had hard-slog periods and then some nice periods."

Of course, at least as far as Rupf is concerned, the real measure of success will be whether European-style after-dinner drinks catch on in the United States. Would he like eau-de-vie bottles in all the liquor cabinets of America? Sure, but he's waited twenty years to get this far. He can wait twenty more.

In the meantime, St. George Spirits is moving into an actual hangar in Alameda that overlooks the bay, complete with a deluxe tasting room. It should open by early summer, if all goes well. But you know those distillers. They're patient folk.

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