ALAMEDA, Calif. — I didn’t visit Lance Winters, the master distiller at St. George Spirits, with the expectation of going on a stroll through the redwoods. But that’s what you get when you visit a guy who has spent the last three years distilling the aromatics of Mount Tam — the Bay Area’s iconic hiking peak, characterized by dry, dusty chaparral, Douglas fir, coastal sage, wild coastal California juniper berries, and coyote mint — into a bottle.
The walk in the woods was, of course, olfactory: I had my nose in a glass of Winters’s new Terroir Gin. The idea, he told me, was to evoke a hike in the foggy northern California landscape. The whole project was inspired by a trip he took to pick his son up from camp in the Oakland hills.
“There was a lot of redwood, fennel, and bay laurel, and I just started thinking about the synergies between that parkland and gin,” said Winters, who is known for creating California spirits with ingredients from the area: fruits, vegetables, herbs, grasses, grains. “Gin also has all those foresty aromas. With this, I was almost working like a perfumer, to capture that sense of place.”
Best known for its Hangar One vodkas, St. George Spirits is situated in a historical airplane hangar in Alameda. Its distillery and main tasting room are on the premises, and attract about 25,000 visitors a year. But if you are looking for a more intimate way to sample and learn more about St. George’s latest releases, make a reservation for “cocktail flight school,” a class held in the private upstairs “pilot’s lounge” bar and tasting room that teaches you how to mix tasty libations created by local bartenders.
On my visit, I settled into a pair of first-class American Airlines seats, picked up from a salvage yard, while Winters and his wife, Ellie, served me a sample of each of the distillery’s three newest gins. (The seats had a colorful back story: Winters had hauled them up to the roof of the hangar for his first date with Ellie.) The Terroir, of course, had that redwoody character; the Botanivore had a sweeter, milder flavor, with a hint of green; and the Dry Rye Gin, being made with a base of pot-distilled rye, had a spicy bite to it, as well as a hint of pear-banana sweetness.
The pilot’s lounge had all kinds of other cool aircraft-inspired touches, including a bar clad in custom-riveted aluminum and three paintings of artfully clad women, of the sort usually found on the side of vintage airplanes. “We found a guy named Don Ricci, who did nose cone art for the Air Force, and he did these for us,” said Winters. Out the window were exceptional views of downtown San Francisco, with spooky tendrils of fog burning off the water. From this perch, it was clear this was a singular way to taste California.
Andie Ferman, who designed the flight school tasting program and is St. George’s main “spirit guide,” led my tasting tour. She was a lively and hilarious companion in what was essentially a Mixology 101 class, with the best of St. George’s latest: vodka-, whiskey-, and gin-based cocktails were all on the menu, along with a dash of absinthe and pear eau de vie for good measure.
“We like to incorporate straight spirit tasting into cocktail-making itself,” said Ferman, as she presented me with a small glass of Hangar One vodka. She explained that since most people don’t typically drink strong spirits alone, she likes to educate them in the subtleties of an unadorned spirit, so that her guests begin to appreciate the way a well-made cocktail can enhance those flavors.
Our first cocktail was a pear martini made with the vodka, pear eau de vie, lime juice, and simple syrup. “The lime helps brighten the pear,” Ferman explained, as she squeezed the juice into a measuring cup. “And remember that ice is the last thing to add into the mixture before you shake it — you don’t want a watery drink!”
She handed me the shaker, and I did my best impression of Tom Cruise in “Cocktail,” trying hard not to hit the counter while agitating the concoction. We poured the drink into a fluted glass, and it was like summer: crisp and fruity, with a hint of citrus and sunshine.
The second cocktail was something Ferman called the Apple Thief; she created it with St. George’s new Breaking & Entering Bourbon, made from favorite barrels that Winters and distiller Dave Smith selected from Kentucky’s top bourbon distilleries. After bringing back 300-plus barrels to St. George, Smith got to work sampling each individual barrel and experimenting with different combinations.
The result is a bourbon with warm breakfast flavors: maple, banana, and cloves, along with a little bit of pepper and a woodsy quality. Ferman wanted to punch up the holiday flavors — the brown sugar and cinnamon — so she infused simple syrup with cinnamon and brown sugar, and added apple and lemon juices. The drink had a nice roundness and complexity (and didn’t shout “Christmas!” — it’s happily appropriate year-round).
The final cocktail, Monkey Rides the Bear, was unexpected. Ferman played around with the Terroir Gin — the “bear” part of the drink, it can be a challenge to mix, since it has so much forest-forward flavor — and came up with a pineapple juice pairing, which compliments the pine-y menthol with acidity and sweetness. She also experimented with a gum syrup, a traditional syrup that she liked for its velvety mouth feel, and finished with lemon juice and absinthe — the “monkey,” in part, to help demystify the formerly taboo drink for her guests and make it more accessible.
Absinthe often has an overpowering anise and licorice flavor, so it was a testament to Ferman’s skill that her cocktail held up so well — the absinthe comes into play only at the very end of a sip, just a wispy hint that enhances the complexity of the gin. And the cocktail is fun to watch: As the absinthe’s soluble oils precipitate in the water, the drink fogs and clouds.
Come to think of it, a nice accompaniment to that commanding view of the bay.
St. George Spirits 2601 Monarch St., Alameda, Calif., 510-769-1601, www.stgeorgespirits.com. Tasting room open Wed-Sun; call for flight school details.
Bonnie Tsui can be reached at bonnietsui.com.