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S.F. Widens the Definition of Whiskey 

Wednesday, Aug 12 2015
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As thirsty as San Francisco is for bourbon, the overwhelming majority of the liquor is imported from Kentucky and Tennessee, where centuries-old traditions are never threatened. But a new wave of Bay Area distilleries is figuring out ways to honor whiskey's proud past while also navigating into unchartered territory. A sense of place infuses the booze they're bottling as much as the tasting notes do.

When Anchor Brewing fired up its beautiful copper pot still in Potrero Hill over 20 years ago, its team was inspired by the full-bodied ryes of pre-Prohibition America. Yet with all this reverence for history, Anchor headed in a new direction, producing Old Potrero Rye from 100 percent malted rye. Released after just one year in the barrel, which results in a very young expression with limited oak influence, it brought more earthiness and spice than American palates were accustomed to at the time.

Back then, it was groundbreaking. Nowadays, Old Potrero is so coveted that it's on tight allocation, mostly to the bars and bottle shops that have carried it for years.It's easier, and slightly cheaper, to procure a $65 bottle of Anchor's 18th Century Style Whiskey. Although aged for nearly three years, this particular expression rests in oak barrels that are toastedrather than charred. This means fewer caramelized notes in the whiskey, and more of a raw-grain character. This was a more common way to experience whiskey over 100 years ago. Since you probably weren't alive back then, it's new to you.

In the whiskey game, nothing is more traditional than single malt — distilled by the Scots for generations, using only 100 percent malted barley. That hasn't stopped Lance Winters, St. George's Master Distiller, from imparting his own take on the hallowed hooch. He smokes a portion of unroasted barley over beech and alder wood, then ages the spirit in used barrels that previously housed bourbon, port, or sherry. Ultimately, he bottles a product with sweetened aromas and a heartening complexity. The next release, due out in October, expands ever so slightly the conception of what a single malt ought to be.

But when it comes to pushing the envelope entirely, Seven Stills of San Francisco is the one to watch. Billing itself as a "whiskey for craft beer lovers" is hardly marketing jargon; the spirits are distilled from high-quality Bay Area beer.

"Seven Stills was founded on this idea that traditional whiskey recipes don't use the wide palette of ingredients available to brewers," says founder and distiller Clint Potter. "By tapping into these ingredients, there is a lot of room to explore new flavors that have never been brought out in a whiskey."

Seven Stills' Chocasmoke, distilled from a chocolate oatmeal dark ale, elicits the roasted tonalities of stout without encroaching upon the space of a heavily-smoked scotch. Whipnose is a whiskey for hopheads, entirely unlike anything else on the shelf today.

Since launching three years ago, Seven Stills has enjoyed a rapid rise to stardom. As a result, Potter, along with co-owner Tim Obert, will soon sign a lease on a new location in the Bayview, where they plan to produce all of their whiskies in-house by 2016. By then, we can expect even more distilleries to have opened. Thanks for all your help, Kentucky. We can take it from here.


About The Author

Brad Japhe

Brad Japhe

I enjoy my whiskey neat, my beer hoppy, and my meat medium rare. I have been covering craft spirits, suds, and gourmet cuisine for a decade, with work published from New York, across Montana, and up and down the Pacific Coast.

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