Reflections on a Craft: An Interview with St. George Distillery’s Lance Winters

Reflections on a Craft: An Interview with St. George Distillery’s Lance Winters

Today, there are over 2300 craft distilleries operating across the country, but back in the 1980s, when St. George got its start in northern California, there were barely a handful. The distillery’s founder, Jörg Rupf, was one of the godfathers of the craft distilling movement, but his passions were initially pretty narrow, focusing on eaux-de-vie made from local fruit. The 1980s and ’90s were of course the bad old days for American whiskey, but even if bourbon had been booming then, there’s a good chance Rupf would’ve stuck to his brandies.

In 1996, a whiskey-curious Lance Winters joined the St. George team and helped kickstart decades of innovation at the distillery, not just in American whiskey but in a wide range of unique spirits that helped put St. George on the craft distilling map. Today, the distillery is respected as much for the quality of their diverse products as they are for their creativity and commitment to self-expression. I sat down recently with Winters to talk about his long history with the distillery, some of his favorite St. George spirits, and his thoughts on the upcoming American single malt designation, among other topics. I honestly can’t remember it all. Drinks were definitely involved.

This interview has been lightly edited for readability.

Drinkhacker: Whiskey got you into distilling. What was your gateway bottle?

Lance: After the Navy, when I was working at a brewpub, a buddy of mine gave me a bottle of Lagavulin. I had never tried a whiskey before that I had actually enjoyed. Up until that point, every whiskey was just a faster path to a buzz. As I was sipping that Lagavulin, I realized this was a whole different world, and it was one I wanted to learn about.

Drinkhacker: How did you transition from brewing to whiskey-making?

Lance: I picked up some books on whisky and started reading about it. I realized I had half of the process down already, so I needed to figure out the other parts. Around 1994, I set up a 25-gallon pot still in my garage, and I started bringing home beer from the brewpub. I played with all kinds of different beers. The one that I loved the most was an ESB. It was a big, rich beer, much more malty than it should have been. As I was tasting it coming off the still, I thought it was really good. But I had no idea why it was really good.

Drinkhacker: How were you introduced to St. George Distillery?

Lance: I knew St. George by reputation. They primarily made eau-de-vie and some liqueurs. I showed up, asked for a job, and the founder, Jörg Rupf, told me they’d try me out for a month and see how it goes. I quit my job right then.

Drinkhacker: I read somewhere that you brought a whiskey to your job interview. Was it the same distilled ESB?

Lance: Yeah, I brought that whiskey. Jörg said two things. One, that it was really oaky. I had put it on oak chips because I couldn’t afford a cask. Then he told me it was “inoffensive.” It shattered my heart at the time, but I learned later that that was actually high praise coming from him.

Drinkhacker: What did Jörg teach you about distilling?

Lance: I told him I wanted to distill whiskey, and he promised me that we would get to that. But first we had to get through harvest. So, I was distilling pears, cherries, and raspberries and these other things that I had no real interest in, but I found the beauty in it. It was a Mr. Miyagi training experience. The whole time I was learning my karate, but I was “waxing on, waxing off” and all that. I was learning a love of distillation before becoming a whiskey maker, and it allowed a very different perspective on things.

Drinkhacker: How did the Hangar One brand come about?

Lance: We make eau-de-vie that smells and tastes just like the fruit it’s made from. The flavored vodka guys are making something with an empty promise on the label. I realized that the problem wasn’t that we were making something people didn’t want to drink. The problem was that we were speaking the wrong language. We needed to speak vodka instead of eau-de-vie. We started applying our techniques using quality fruit to make flavored vodkas, and that was the Hangar One brand. We ran with that for 10 or 11 years before selling to Proximo.

Drinkhacker: Hangar One seemed to be a turning point for the distillery. How did it impact things?

Lance: The [Hangar One] sale to Proximo allowed Jörg to retire and me to take over the business. Jörg had told me years before the sale that if we started making money, we’d discuss partnership. Hangar One was the money maker. One day, he handed me a big check. He told me that I could cash that or sign it over to him for a 25% stake in the company. I didn’t bat an eye and signed it immediately. With my proceeds from the sale of Hangar One, I was able to buy up his remaining shares.

Drinkhacker: How did the distillery change under your ownership?

Lance: Our current leadership at St. George is more about breaking boundaries and creating new things, things that are more intentional compositions. With eau-de-vie, the best you can do is not screw it up. You can never make it better than the fruit is. With something like a whisky or a gin, you are constructing something that has no real reference point. It better not have a reference point, or you’re making someone else’s product. There’s an opportunity to say something new. It better say something new. It better not just be a local version of something like Tanqueray gin. It’s already out there.

Drinkhacker: Speaking of gin, St. George has three different expressions. Why so many?

Lance: There are so many botanicals and so many different ways to arrange them and you can have a lot of fun with them. I’m crazy proud of our Terroir Gin. It actually does what I set out to do. It smells and tastes like a walk in the woods. I was picking up my son from summer camp and got the inspiration. The Terroir gin is oftentimes my favorite thing we make. I have a special place in my heart for our whiskeys, though, because they’re what got me into distillation.

Drinkhacker: St. George was one of the pioneers of American single malt way back in the 1990s. What was the craft whiskey landscape like back then?

Lance: It was a weird and kind of sad environment. I had made this whisky and I was really proud of it, and I took it to WhiskyFest in 2000. People asked what it was, and I told them it was single malt. And they asked if it was Scotch. And I said no, it’s California single malt. Is it bourbon? No, it’s a California single malt made with 100% barley. How old is it? 4 years. They’d pass. That was the story with pretty much everyone that year. Fast forward seven or eight years later and the tables that were getting mobbed were the craft distillers. Everyone wanted to try their stuff before it ran out. It changed a lot.

Drinkhacker: The recipe for St. George Single Malt hasn’t changed much since those first barrels were laid down in the mid-1990s. Has the cask program?

Lance: It has evolved dramatically. First it was a very, very deliberate use of used bourbon casks – ex-Ancient Age actually – French oak, and a little ex-Port cask. Over the years, as we got access to other barrels, we used sherry barrels from Bonny Doon, apple brandy barrels, wine casks from places like Far Niente, rum casks. Dave Smith, our Head Distiller, has made his job a lot harder. He has to sit and go through hundreds of different barrels for the blend.

Drinkhacker: Your Baller Single Malt expression is one of the more unique whiskeys on the market right now. What inspired that one?

Lance: It started as a lark. We loved this ramen joint in Oakland. We went there like three times a week and ate our body weight in noodles. The highball is the perfect foil to a rich pork ramen broth, but our single malt was too chocolaty to pair, so we went through our barrels looking at experiments. We found one that was two-row pale and Munich malt, just that, aged in ex-bourbon. We ran it through maple charcoal to give it some smokiness. We liked it as is, but we had also made a small batch of umeshu. I rinsed a Glencairn with umeshu and added some of the whisky to it, and I showed it to Dave. It was great. He was not happy. We had to track down more ume fruit and make a big batch of umeshu. It’s two and a half years in ex-bourbon with a little French oak and then six months in the umeshu barrel.

Drinkhacker: Where does your sourced whiskey, Breaking & Entering, fit in the portfolio?

Lance: It’s an oddity. We like making stuff, so being a merchant bottler is not our thing. But, that said, Dave and I were talking one day about what we could do with more barrels to pick from, and we said it in front of our business advisor who has lots of relationships in Kentucky. So, we decided it could be another outlet for fun self-expression, but we wanted it to be clear on the label that we didn’t make this. Hence the name. Initially it was going to be Barrel Thief, but someone else had already registered the name.

Drinkhacker: Breaking & Entering has changed a bit over the years, correct?

Lance: Yeah, there was an evolution for B&E. We started doing the whiskey 13 years ago, and then bourbon exploded. It was getting harder and harder to get the barrels we wanted. We had to make a choice to bastardize the brand or stop bottling, so we stopped bottling. We couldn’t get bourbon at any price that would fit the bill. About 4 or 5 years ago, some new distillers presented themselves from Kentucky and Tennessee, and we decided to do more of an American whiskey style, so it’s now Tennessee rye and Tennessee bourbon with a little of our single malt in the blend.

Drinkhacker: As an early pioneer of the style, have you been involved in any of the efforts to establish an official designation for American single malt?
Lance: Reluctantly. I don’t want to be a member of any club that will have me. The reality of it is that for the longest time I resisted because I didn’t believe American single malt had gone through enough evolution to actually start having rules put on it. It needs room to grow into itself. Another part of it is that distillers have a lot of different opinions, and every single one of us is right. I also don’t care much about your categories. I want it in your glass. What convinced me to join the [American Single Malt] Commission is that if we don’t set the regulations, someone else will who isn’t involved in the process.

Drinkhacker: Where do you see yourself and the distillery in a decade?

Lance: In 10 years, I would love to see our distillery have a peaceful transition of power and let some of the new kids take over the creative process and express themselves. I would run off into the sunset and set up a whiskey distillery somewhere, take St. George single malt into that space and just operate that. I’d probably also want a lab still to just screw around with a few things, too. As long as they keep making my gins and get those to me, I’ll be happy.

Drew Beard is assistant editor for Drinkhacker and winner of several booze-related merit badges, including Certified Specialist in Spirits and Executive Bourbon Steward. A former federal employee turned hotelier and spirits journalist, he looks forward to his next midlife crisis.

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