ALAMEDA -- St. George Spirits is celebrating 30 years of revolutionary distilling and forging into the future with an astrophysicist at the helm of the Alameda-based operation.
OK, so owner and master distiller Lance Winters isn't technically an astrophysicist. And they can't pin down the actual "birth day" of the artisan distillery Jorg Rupf founded in 1982.
But the 46-year old Oakland resident who dreamed of intergalactic travel as a kid growing up in Fremont commands a distillery whose reputation soars on products including an Agua Libre Rum that goes down golden like California sunshine and a St. George Gin evocative of coastal forests filled with Douglas firs, sage and bay laurel.
Giving free rein to his boyhood ambitions, Winters is a scientist, exploring the physical properties, interactions and behaviors of fruits, grains, California sugar cane, absinthe and more exotic fare, like piñas, Christmas trees, popcorn and cantaloupe.
Recent finalist nominations include Wine Enthusiast's "Distiller of the Year" and Good Foods Awards' nod to the company's Aqua Perfecta Pear Eau de Vie and the Agua Libre Rum. In 2011, three St. George gins were named "best spirits of 2011" by Esquire and Chow.
Under the redwood ceiling of Hangar 21 that formerly housed the "Firebirds" attack squadron as part of Alameda Naval Air Station, the 65,000-square-foot facility now contains custom-made copper stills, barrels of spirits, an expansive
"The rules that have to be followed here are about working clean, so the results are reproduceable," Winters said. "After that, it's about breaking rules."
The small lab still, resembling a disassembled, oversized clarinet but still boasting a hefty $75,000 price tag, is where Winters experiments.
"We try anything, but we only move on with things we absolutely love," he said.
Winters said the public's palettes weren't as curious 13 years ago and introducing the unexpected required patience. People wouldn't even try his single malt whiskey at tastings, which today is a highly sought item, because it wasn't a scotch or a bourbon. A 2007 rum with truffle and black olive tones and a grassy aroma was initially "too wild" but now "attracts crowds in droves." And the sales department frowned on a Terroire Gin that bears the smell of Bay Area park lands and is his "ode" to the Oakland hills.
"It's our lead seller," he said, "which astounds them."
There have been disappointments, but even those surrender to his magic wand of determination.
"I tried making a liqueur with cantaloupe and nothing I did worked," he said, "but that doesn't mean I'm going to stop. I can do cucumbers, so I can distill the melon family."
Winters deliberately avoids outside influence from other distillers. He draws inspiration for fresh ideas from walks in the woods, eating flavorful food and smelling perfume.
"If what's in our bottle is not quantitatively different, there's no reason to buy our product," he said.
Offering a whiff of an apple brandy in production, Winters dumped buckets of Mendocino apples, pumps fermented juice into the swirling mix and narrated the particulars of processes learned during his 16 years at the distillery.
"It's biology, making sure you eliminate unwanted organisms or bacteria, controlling fermentation temperatures, keeping the PH in right range, understanding heat transfers, how water and salt impact boiling point, barrel chemistry ..." he said.
Winters patted the nearby still and concluded: "You have to know what's going on inside this metal beast, without seeing it."
The recent, phenomenal interest in artisan distilling and mixology has only surprised him in the amount of time it has taken to arrive.
"We stopped drinking bland beer or just having red wine, white wine years ago. Big industry not wanting to show how it's done is the reason it took so long," he claimed.
Additionally, a multitude of laws around tastings, distribution regulations, big tax tabs, licensing to operate a still and filing for approval of formulas and labels are formidable barriers for smaller enterprises. It took six months and 30 changes for St. George's absinthe label to win approval.
"If I was just starting out -- man, it would take a lot of work," he said.
In 2013, he's working on an all-California bourbon, with Mount Shasta rye, corn from Woodland and barley from Chico. And the former Navy man plans to "find the best quality materials and manipulate them as little as possible" as he continues the hunt for the perfect cantaloupe liqueur.