Review: St George Spirits

Douglas fir being distilled for their Terroir Gin

It was my last day in the USA and I had a plane to catch. There was no way I could be in the San Francisco and the Bay Area and not visit St. George Spirits.

I had arranged a private visit ahead before I left Australia to be able to see behind the scenes and meet the team, and so it was a 30 minute Uber from downtown to Alameda where the distillery is housed in a ex-Navy air station hanger.

One can look across the old airstrip and Bay and see the city, and it was very evocative on a rainy day.

Whilst many of us tend to think the current gin craze is a new phenomenon, it’s important to note that this distillery was established over 30 years ago and has been influential ever since.

Looking across to San Francisco from the distillery.

Founded in 1982 by Jorg Rupf, who was a pioneer in the craft distilling movement in America, starting with eau du vie back in 1982. Whilst they may be well known for their distinctive gins, they have an extensive range of spirits and other products that stays true to their premise of a respectful and natural expression of the ingredients they work with.

In a very competitive market they have some of the highest profile nationally of American spirits, and of course, an international reputation and distribution network which shows the work that has been done over the decades in building that up.

Compared to the scale of most Australian and other distilleries I’ve visited over the years, the scale of their operation is well, another level. They moved  to the 6000 square metre hanger in 2004 and that houses their well appointed tasting room and shop, administration, cellar storage, five stills (no names, just #1 > #5) and a new bottling line.

On the day I visited they were distilling the Douglas Fir that is a key note in their well known Terroir Gin.  They had hand foraged a rather large amount just recently and it’s treated separately due to it’s natural intensity.

Arriving at 10am was it too early for a taste?

Nope, and Tasting Room Manager, Fred Burrell went out his way to make me welcome and show me about.  So whilst working through the range I was joined by one of the the distilling team, Dave Smith.

His fellow distiller Lance Winters had been nominated the day before for the prestigious James Beard Foundation for the fourth year running  in the category of Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Producer, no small feat.

There is a lively discussion in the industry as to what constitutes ‘craft distilling” and whether it’s a matter of process, or scale of operation.  During our conversation one thing was very evident, that scale aside, there was an absolute commitment to the art of distilling and the handling of each ingredient and stage of production.   The team were also very interested in what Australian distillers were up to, and I’m aware of quite a few trans Pacific connections between distillers here and there.

A variation on their unaged Rye Gin release.

Naturally, each distilling industry has it’s challenges, in Australia it’s the high level of taxation on spirits and carving out market share. In the US there’s a myriad of regulations depending on what State, City, County et alia you produce in, and want to sell into, and if you’re unlucky to be exporting to the European Union, whilst your local Federal excise may be very low under the current Administration, you’re getting hammered by EU tariffs.

There is also still a challenge in getting locals drinking gin in a Vodka loving nation, plus competition generally with over 1300 craft distillers in the USA, not to mention big corporates at both the production and retail level to contend with. It’s all relative as they say.

So the thriving and laurels being awarded after so many years speaks for itself at St George Spirits.

The good stuff.

About the Gins

For most of us, we know St. George for their gins, but they produce well over a dozen labels and styles of spirits, brandies and liqueurs.  In context, the New Western, or Contemporary style of American gins are aptly big on personality and flavour profile. In that way, there’s some common ground with say, Australian gins.

  • Dry Rye Gin: this is a singular expression that could also be a sly way of getting non-gin drinker to enjoy gin!  Based on an unaged Rye spirit, there’s spice added with black peppercorn, caraway and coriander as part of the mix. The nose is clean and lightly malty, and the spirit has a lovely mouth feel, with a very dry, finish. The palette is very subtle, notwithstanding the botanicals, and if you like barrel aged gins for instance, you’d dig this for its lingering toasty cereal notes.  I like this neat on ice, or tall with soda, highball style, let it speak for itself!
  • Botanivore Gin: My personal fave of the line up.  With some 19 botanicals that are closely woven into the spirit, it’s a more subtle number than the other two. It’s very balanced and subtle. I adore this in a Dry Martini (recommend Dolin or another lighter style of Vermouth) with it’s delicate juniper and white pepper notes, with some lingering citrus flavours in the finish.
  • Terroir Gin: This is the one most folks are familiar with.  Intended to be an immersive evocation of a Californian forest, it definitely succeeds.  Plenty of intense floral aromatics, and a pleasant natural oiliness on the palette, and mildly dry finish. Not so much a Dry Martini gin (perhaps for an interesting twist on a Dirty or Gibson style), I think it needs a free expression just on ice with a lime peel garnish, or with a premium tonic to shine with it’s big piney, lime and herbal notes.