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Drink: Wild Spirits: Small-Batch Bay Area Distillers Take Big Risks 

Wednesday, Mar 7 2012

If you're one of San Francisco's many locavores, you know which farms your meals came from — and maybe the names of the farmers themselves. But when it comes to who makes the hooch in your cocktails, even a locavore's idea can be hazy as a hangover.

The Bay Area boasts more than a few distilling pioneers. Jörg Rufp, who started St. George Spirits in 1982, was one of the first to establish a craft distillery, importing small-pot stills from Germany to create eau-de-vie, or fruit brandy. Not long afterward, up in Mendocino, Hubert Germain-Robin became the first small distiller to apply cognac production techniques to California grapes, incorporating nontraditional varieties like Viognier and Pinot Noir into brandy. Other innovators followed right through the 2000s, when distiller Lance Winters of St. George Spirits became the first person to legally produce absinthe domestically since 1912.

Our guide to area distillers of small-batch spirits might have you visiting distilleries and mixing some local flavor into your cocktails. At worst, you'll actually have someone to blame the next time you overindulge.

St. George Spirits
2601 Monarch (at West Midway), Alameda
(510) 769-1601,
Tastings: noon to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

Operating out of an old airplane hangar in Alameda's shuttered Naval Air Station, distiller Lance Winters and his band of three produce a large range of spirits, from whiskies (both single malt and bourbon), liqueurs, and most recently a line of gins that incorporate wild harvested douglas fir, sage, and other botanicals from the wilds of Marin. Winters tells us, "The thing that keeps me going is a love for the way things smell, and the desire to capture those aromas that are either the most beautiful or the most evocative."

Old World Spirits
121 Industrial Road #3 and #4, Belmont
(650) 622-9222,
Tastings: last Friday of the month, with reservations

One of the newest kids on the block, Old World Spirits has been in operation since 2005, when it quickly won attention for its beautifully fragrant Blade Gin, a less juniper- and more spice-focused gin, and the Kuchan O'Henry Peach Brandy, made entirely from peaches fermented and then pot-distilled onsite. Davorin Kuchan, a Croatian-born third generation distiller, is the lone employee producing and developing these spirits. The small size seems to keep him nimble, as he's always playing with something new, like the upcoming Goldrun Rye 100 percent organic rye whiskey.

Craft Distillers
(707) 468-7899,

Using antique cognac stills to distill Mendocino grapes including Semillon, Viognier, and Pinot Noir, the distillery team lead by Joe Corley continues to produce some of the most exceptional brandies around despite the fact that Hubert Germain-Robin himself hasn't been involved in the operation for quite some time. The entry level Craft-Method Brandy and Select Barrel XO are both superb, but it's the truly remarkable single-barrel releases, each showcasing a single grape variety, that are an outstanding study of age and fruit.

Distillery No. 209
Pier 50, 400 Rock Mission (at Terry A. François), S.F.
Tours by request

It's hard not to admire and envy Bay Area native Arne Hillesland, the one-man operation at No. 209, especially if you're surrounded by bottles of the company's delightful gin at the scenic distillery built over the water on Pier 50. No doubt the man works hard; along with making all of the spice- and citrus-forward gin, he has also started producing a line of kosher vodka and gin. "It was surprising and challenging to make the world's first kosher-for-Passover gin, especially as I am not Jewish," Hillesland says, "but I'm learning all the time!"

4001 Spring Mountain Rd., St. Helena
(707) 963-9327,
Tastings: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, by appointment

This small winery and distillery is probably best known for the flavorful vodkas that Miles Karakasevic and his son Marko infuse with local citrus. With a product line that extends to rum, brandy (made from their wine), and even tequila that they produce in Mexico, the family keeps themselves busy. Miles has officially passed the distillation torch on to Marko (making him the 13th generation distiller in the family since 1751), and the talent for spirits seems to run in the family: Marko and his team innovate with products like the Double & Twisted white whiskey, while continuing to produce the products that earned them their reputation.

Anchor Distilling Company
1705 Mariposa (at De Haro), S.F.

Distilling away in a little corner of the brewery since 1993, Anchor Distilling started out with a goal to create a whiskey in the style of the spirits George Washington made at Mt. Vernon. With historical documents in hand, the company built custom stills to resemble Washington's, and created a recipe for a whiskey made with 100 percent rye grain. The classic spirit is complemented by the company's two gins, Junípero, a London dry style, and Genevieve, a Dutch-style malty gin.

Osocalis Distillery
5579 Soquel San Jose (at Olson), Soquel
(831) 477-1718,
Visits by appointment only

A three-person distillery located on a family farm in Soquel, Osocalis is focused on creating products in the French tradition with California influences and ingredients. Sourcing grapes and apples from the surrounding cool, coastal Santa Cruz area, Dan Farber and his team take great care in producing their brandies and even more in aging the spirits. Farber believes the time spent in the barrel is the key to great brown spirits, which could be what makes Osocalis brandies so impressive.

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