The Indie Spirit 

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

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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.

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