The Indie Spirit 

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

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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In some ways, not much has changed since Prohibition was repealed seventy years ago this month.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."

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