Established by Jörg Rupf in 1982 in a small Emeryville shack, St. George began as one of the few American distilleries making eau de vie, a colorless brandy. He retired and moved to Mexico in 2010, and master distiller Lance Winters (who’d been with St. George since 1996) and head distiller Dave Smith (at St. George since 2005) stepped to the forefront. The pair has helped expand the distillery into a James Beard Foundation-recognized craft distillery that produces whiskey, vodka, brandy and more.
Winters told me that the key to St. George’s longevity is allowing the business to grow organically, as opposed to making growth the primary goal. Though St. George has indeed grown in production, it’s been deliberately slow to expand its staff. It began as a two-person operation and currently employs 35.
“Being able to grow in that organic fashion allows us to have a more financially conservative business,” Winters said, “and to protect ourselves and protect the people who come along for the ride.”
St. George Spirits 40th anniversary single malt release day
Saturday Nov. 12, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
2601 Monarch St. (between Red Line and Midway avenues), Alameda
Like a lot of small business owners, Winters refers to those 35 staffers as his family. It’s a tone that began with Rupf, Winters said. “He always operated more like he was my father than he was my boss, and he set up that family dynamic in the business.”
“He really shaped a huge part of our ethos here, just because he walked that walk the whole time he was here.” said Winters.
With the exception of their gin, all other St. George offerings, including absinthe, shochu and various liqueurs, are distilled locally. (The base for its gin is made in the Midwest, Winters said, as the process to distill it is extremely water-intensive, making it impractical to produce in drought-plagued California. It’s then redistilled locally with St. George botanicals, Winters said.)
Its line of offerings is another example of how growing organically has benefitted the business. “We don’t bring a product out at St. George Spirits because there’s a niche that needs to be filled,” Winters said, and “we don’t bring a product out because there’s a trend that’s blasting by that we want to jump on top of.”
“Looking back over 40 years, I’ve seen a lot of spirits come on to the market that are better than a lot of things that are out there right now,” Winters said. But “over the years they’ve failed because their timing was wrong. They couldn’t get the market support that they needed and the brand just withered away.”
It all goes back to the growth goals other, less successful companies might be setting, to their detriment. “If you start missing those goals then you’re failing,” Winters said. Then, “you feel like a failure and that can start influencing the way that you think.”
Instead, Winters said, at St. George “we’re doing something to make ourselves happy.”
Part of what makes St. George happy is supporting the STEPUP Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation that provides resources, education entrepreneurship training and mentorship to increase diversity in the spirits business.
As part of the St. George anniversary celebration, the company is donating $40,000 to the organization. “There’s a lot to be gained by having more voices and a diversity of voices involved in any conversation,” said Winters. “Because we tend to treat distillation as a form of self-expression, getting different perspectives to come in and espouse their own points of view is really important.”
Employees and mentees at St. George get to see the work being done, learn the language of distilling and how to distinguish where something came from. The distillery encourages experimentation and has a lab with two smaller copper still pots, a two gallon and seven gallon, that replicate what the larger pots will do. Mentees are able to learn product development by creating experimental batches that are not sold on the market but kept by the distillery for internal use.
It’s in St. George’s best interests, Winters said, to help nurture the next generation of spirit makers. “Probably the most important part from just a pure spiritual direction, is being able to let the next generation of creativity really shine here,” said Winter. “I need to figure out a way to step back, so that other people can express themselves a bit more.”
Also part of the anniversary celebration is the 40th Anniversary Edition of St. George Single Malt Whiskey. Bottled at 48% ABV, only be 1982 bottles will be sold, at a special event at the distillery on Nov. 12.
Finding the right blend for the anniversary edition release was an extensive process, Winters said. For example, over a period of several months, St. George head distiller Smith sampled more than 600 casks to decide which were best for the task. “It’s a slow plotting labor of love,” Winters said, “especially since there’s only so much you can expect to smell and taste and do accurately in a day.”
It’s a similar process for all their spirits these past 40 years, Winters said, work defined less by business demands than by the drive to create something beautiful. “We make things because we’re inspired by ingredients and we want to express something of that,” Winters said.
“I want our stuff to be sought after, but I don’t want it to be precious,” Winters said. “I want to see people drinking it. I want to see their faces light up when they smell it or taste it.”
Featured image: A bird’s-eye view of the St. George distillery. Credit: Alex Zyuzikov‘