The Indie Spirit 

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

Page 4 of 6

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.

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