Califonia Bountiful

Capturing the spirit of California

Nov./Dec. 2016 California Bountiful magazine

Distillers bottle the essence of state's farms, fields and flora

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Master Distiller Lance Winters experiments with ingredients and formulations that highlight local produce in the Alameda lab of St. George Spirits. California-grown jalapeños, bell peppers and cilantro, top, are key ingredients in St. George Green Chile Vodka, center. Photos: © 2016 Matt Salvo

The crispness of an early morning spring hike through Northern California's coastal mountains. The sear of a California-grown jalapeño lingering on your lips and tongue. The aroma of a Central Valley Valencia orange grove at the height of blossom.

Those are what Lance Winters seeks to capture as a master distiller at St. George Spirits.

The creative force behind the Alameda distillery's recipes, Winters has spent nearly two decades bottling the essence and experience of California—one that would be impossible to create without the fundamental element of the farms, fields and flora of the state.

"There are a lot of opportunities to bring awareness of products, of California-grown ingredients, outside of the traditional food world," Winters said. "The craft distilling industry is a place to do that."

As the first craft distillery in America, St. George Spirits was largely born out of founder Jörg Rupf's appreciation for California fruit and his family legacy in distilling in Germany's Black Forest. The company's flagship brandy, first produced in the early 1980s, was made from pears grown by California farmers.

Since that time, St. George has been joined by hundreds more craft distillers, many in California. Rising much like the craft brewery movement, craft distillers have differentiated themselves as purveyors of artisan products, crafting small batches of spirits inspired by ingredients that move consumers to a connection.

"We take a picture you can see with your mouth and nose of what a fruit or vegetable is at its best," said Winters, a former Navy nuclear engineer. "All the emotions I feel about a raw material at the time, I'm able to convey that through a glass of something that people can taste and have the same experience."

Winters forages for wild-grown coastal sage and bay laurel for St. George Terroir Gin. The distillery's Green Chile Vodka begins with 35,000 pounds of crushed California jalapeños and is accented by California-grown cilantro and bell peppers. The Kirkpatrick family in the San Joaquin Valley provides the citrus fruit for a number of St. George's fruit vodkas, and the sugar cane used to make St. George California Agricole Rum comes from Carson Kalin's farm in Brawley.

All these ingredients form the showpiece in Winters' work, with the ingredients added to a neutral base of alcohol—the blending, boiling and eventual bottling process represent an endeavor in drawing out the best the Golden State has to offer.

"I try to express the terroir and the beauty of California," Winters said. "A lot of what makes our spirits beautiful is that we use California-grown ingredients. We live in a state that makes it easy to share this, and working with farms helps us make our best products."

Alchemy Distillery owners Amy and Steve Bohner, creators of Boldt whiskey, visit the farms where they buy their wheat and thus have become friends with the owners of Hindley Ranch in their home county of Humboldt. Photos: courtesy Alchemy Distillery and Hindley Ranch

From grain to glass

As craft distilling takes off, spirit-makers across the state turn to farmers to help them develop flavor profiles unique to California. In Humboldt County, a local grain farm has helped Amy and Steve Bohner of Alchemy Distillery make their Boldt-branded whiskey distinctive.

The Bohners had always planned to use wheat as the primary ingredient in their whiskey, but Amy Bohner said she thought their Arcata business would have to buy it from out of the area—until she found a mouthwatering bread at a local bakery and asked what made it so delicious. She learned the wheat used for the bread was actually grown in her home county by fourth-generation Hindley Ranch.

The Bohners immediately placed an order. The hard, red Hollis wheat and soft, white Alturas wheat grown by Hindley Ranch in southern Humboldt County's Mattole Valley is now used in the distillery's clear whiskeys, released earlier this year. Bohner said getting the wheat so close to home has allowed the couple to make a distinctive spirit.

"We get the grain as close to harvest as we can and keep it in a barrel until we're ready to cook it," she said. "We mill it right before we cook it. It's like grinding coffee beans right before you make a pot. You taste the difference."

Being a small distillery has allowed the Bohners, who also own a construction company specializing in radiant heating, to make a unique product using local crops and stay hands-on in the process. The learning curve from construction to distilling wasn't too steep, as the distilling process relies heavily on heating methods, Bohner said. The biggest change, she noted, has been a newfound connection to California farmers and a fervent curiosity about the crops used for Alchemy's spirits.

"Opening a distillery, we never thought we would be talking to farmers and learning about grains, but now we can't know enough," Bohner said. "We've gone out to see harvest, we've learned about different varieties and seeds. Knowing now that we can have that connection with farmers, we will always look to use grain from a farmer that we can build a relationship with."

Opening their distillery, Almendra, has allowed Butte County farmers Berton and Carol Bertagna to share their crops in a new way, with a new audience. The couple's mandarins, almonds and winegrapes all serve as ingredients for their spirits. Photos left and right: courtesy Almendra Winery and Distillery

An avenue for education

For California farmers, too, spirits have become a way to showcase their own bounty beyond the plate.

Berton Bertagna, a fourth-generation farmer in Butte County, has roots in farming that span nearly a century. Today, he and his wife, Carol, farm almonds and walnuts, own a hulling and shelling business, are partners in a cattle ranch, and grow winegrapes and make wine under the label of three different wineries.

Late this summer, the Bertagnas released their first spirits through their newest venture, Almendra Winery and Distillery.

The spirits at the family-owned distillery include a mandarin-infused brandy, made from mandarins grown on the Bertagnas' winery in Oroville, and a toasted almond-infused brandy using almonds grown just down the road in their orchards.

For Berton Bertagna, this new venture with Almendra—which translates to almond in Spanish—is just another way to introduce a new audience to their California-grown products. 

"Everything I've always done, it always leads back to farming. That is the root of it. I never started with the final product; I always started with the ingredient from the farm," Bertagna said. "We're going to come from starting with growing a product and making it into something people can enjoy. I see the progression of the field to the bottle and want to share that with people."

It's making that connection to the land and sharing the story of California that Winters, of St. George Spirits, said lies at the heart of his work and what he sees being accomplished by many craft distilleries in California, including Alchemy and Almendra.

Though a distiller's tools are a bit different from a chef's, Winters said the end result, whether from the still or the oven, seeks to marry great taste with an emotional connection to place and experience.

"When you're in a place like California, and surrounded by the incredible bounty and the cultural influences, you have these sources of inspiration that we as craft distillers can respond to," Winters said. "We create an emotion, a feeling that is taken from that point of inspiration. This isn't just a commercial endeavor; it's a very emotional experience that can take someone to a different place."

Toni Scott

California in a glass

Photo: © 2016 Matt Salvo

At the Oakland eatery Ramen Shop, Bar Manager Chris Lane continually crafts cocktail recipes that push the palate toward a California experience. He says the whiskey, shochu and green chile vodka made by St. George Spirits are some of his favorites to work with.

"It really shows when you're working with something of good quality," he said. "Just like cooking with fresh tomatoes or basil in season, you can taste the difference in the final product. With St. George, you're going to have that freshness and flavor of the spirit come through, just like you would fresh produce."

Lane's "Everything's Gone Green" cocktail is reminiscent of a morning spent at a farmers market, with fresh, vegetal flavors that pair well with St. George Green Chile Vodka.


Everything's gone green

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