A drinker's guide to San Francisco distilleries
A guide to distilleries in San Francisco for the drinks enthusiast
In spite of the country’s strong association with a certain dark spirit, it is arguable that the modern American craft spirit movement owes its beginnings not to whiskey, but to brandy.
The Californian pioneer - St George Spirits
Widely acknowledged as being at the forefront of the craft distilling boom in the country, St George Spirits was founded in Emeryville just outside of San Francisco in 1982 off the back of lawyer Jorg Rupf’s desire to make brandies and eau de vie with Californian fruit, but using the old world distilling methods learned in his native Germany. In the same year , the Germain-Robin Distillery was founded in nearby Ukaiah, California to produce brandies that would later go on to be favoured by American presidents, whilst a year later, the Karakasevic family began making wine and brandy in their winery/distillery called Charbay, also in Ukaiah. All three continue to make brandies, with St George and Charbay since branching out into other spirits.
Of the three, it is St George that has arguably grown to become one of the most well known American craft distilleries; in his article titled "The Cocktail Revival in 51 Critical Moments", drinks writer Robert Simonson references the founding of St George as having laid the groundwork for the American craft distilling boom that followed. Australians will also more likely recognise St George from the availability of its gins (and some selected spirits) in the local market. For visitors to San Francisco as well, it is St George that is the more accessible of the original trio – in addition to being a bit further away from the city, Germain-Robin doesn’t currently offer distillery tours whilst Charbay only offers tastings at its distillery by appointment (though you can drop by their winery in Napa Valley). St George, by contrast, is now only a 20 minute ferry ride away from San Francisco bay area in Alameda and offers guided tours five days a week that take visitors onto the production floor and for visiting Australians, give them the opportunity of acquainting themselves with the breadth and depth of the spirits now produced by the distillery. Technical information on production aside, the tour also includes anecdotal tidbits about the people behind the operations and the industry.
Located in a former naval hangar spanning 65,000 square feet , the current premises are a far cry from St George’s humble beginnings at its original location in Emeryville, where Jorg made do with tasting tables jerry-rigged on sawhorses. In some ways, this is no different to the rite of passage followed by many a craft distillery in Australia, who will likely also find some solidarity with their Californian counterparts over the inequality of treatment traditionally given to spirit producers vs wine and beer makers in the state. Being state based, liquor regulation in the USA is a hot 52-way mess but in California at least, distilleries (with the exception of brandy producers) were not allowed to host paid tastings at their premises until 2013 or sell direct to the public at their cellar door until 2015.
At St George, the guided tour of about an hour is followed by a tasting of six of their spirits and no more. In case you thought this mean, this too is regulated by the law in California, which limits tasting rooms to pouring a maximum of 1.5oz in total (approximately 45ml) of distilled spirit per guest per day. If you were planning on tasting their entire range, which is easily double what you’re allowed to have, you might want to travel with a friend and be strategic about what you each choose to taste. Californian fruit and produce feature heavily in the current line up, encompassing various vodkas, gins, brandies and liqueurs, all of which carry the essence of the source ingredient from which they were derived. And with good reason – each bottle of pear brandy for example uses 30 pounds of pears! For all of St George’s impressive growth and size however, reminders abound of a personal element still underlying the operations – the Douglas fir used in the Terroir Gin is grown on the property of a friend of current owner/master distiller Lance Winters (Jorg retired in 2010) and the NOLA coffee liqueur was inspired by head distiller Dave Smith meeting his wife over a coffee.
St George Distillery's tour and tastings can be booked via their website here (reservations recommended). Ferries run from San Francisco to Alameda and the distillery is either a short Uber/Lyft car ride from the ferry terminal or you can download the Limes app and utilise one of the bicycles for hire.
At time of writing, St George All Purpose Vodka, Terroir Gin, Botanivore Gin, NOLA coffee liqueur and the trio of mini gin pack is available at selected liquor retailers Australia wide (Try Vintage Cellars or First Choice Liquor).
Other notable distilleries
For those keen to explore more of the city’s burgeoning distilling scene, San Francisco has more to offer.
For vodka lovers - Hangar One Distillery
Located next to St George in Alameda, Hangar One Vodka is also worth a visit and runs distillery tours and tastings at times that you could easily schedule before or after your visit to St George. Unlike most other distilleries, Hangar One positions tasting stations at various points on the production floor, so you are effectively tasting as you go along on the tour, rather than at the end. With a focus also on using Californian produce, their vodkas don’t toe the conventional line, ranging from the Buddha’s Hand Citron vodka and a rose wine vodka through to more limited edition expressions such as a honeycomb vodka and the more questionable Fog Point vodka (supposedly using in its distillation water drawn from the fogs of the city). Interestingly, Hangar One was originally produced as a line of vodkas by St George and the co-founder of Germain-Robin. The brand was subsequently sold in 2010 to Proximo Spirits, a company operated by the same family that owns Jose Cuervo tequila. Sharing a building with Faction Brewery, Hangar One additionally runs a bar on its premises which is quite handy if you wanted to kick on.
Hangar One distillery tours can be booked here. As with St George, the distillery is accessible via ferry from San Francisco Bay.
For rebel whiskey drinkers - Seven Stills Brewery & Distillery
If ferry hopping is not your thing, consider a trip out to do a distillery tour at Seven Stills in Bayview, who are not just brewing beer, but then distilling the same beer into whiskey. If you’re a whisky purist (or hate beer), these whiskies won’t be for you but are worth trying nevertheless for those with an open mind. The brewery/distillery itself is located in a very residential area that is about a 20 minute car ride out of the city and offers a glimpse into a more motley side of SF distilling. At the time of writing, the distillery has just launched a round of equity funding to raise $1 million to fund the opening of a new 18,000 square feet location in the edgy suburb of Mission Hill, which will make it closer to town.
Further details of Seven Stills Brewery & Distillery tours can be found here. The company also operates a taproom and whiskey bar in other locations around the city.
For the urban experience - Hotaling & Co
Closer to town, Hotaling & Co runs a tasting room that provides tastings of its vodka, Junipero gin and whiskies that also encompasses information about the history of distilling in San Francisco as well as its own process. Currently located on the premises of one of San Francisco’s long standing breweries, Anchor Brewing, the distillery itself is not open for touring but that may well change soon. Drinks insiders might recognise Hotaling & Co as the new name for Anchor Distilling, which was part of Anchor Brewing until the latter was sold in 2017 to Sapporo. As the distilling arm was not included in the sale, the distillery is said to be looking for a new home so be sure to check in for updates on that front.
Details for tastings at Hotaling & Co can be found here.
Are there any other distillery tours in or near San Francisco worth doing? Let us know on here!