Photos by Mike Brandeberry and Kayoko Akabori.
'Tis true: there lives a kickass distillery named St. George Spirits, just east of San Francisco, right across the Bay Bridge, in a little town that bleeds into Oakland, called Alameda, in California.
A group of us went a few weeks ago and experienced it in all its glory-- we learned about St. George whiskeys, eau de vies (fruit brandy), absinthe and their line of Hangar One vodkas. What an amazing afternoon! By far the most educational Umamiventure yet.
St. George started in Emeryville in the 80s before moving to Alameda. They occupied a spot on the reputable Rosenblum Cellars Winery estate down the street and then eventually moved into their current home, which is an old Naval Air Base. That in itself was reason to visit-- the space is so industrial and sexy, with clear views of the city right across the water. Bay Area Holler!
Going to St. George Spirits for my first Umamiventure in the U.S. was like having a morning cup of coffee on a clear sunny day. It was a perfect beginning for many Umamiventures to come.
Getting to the distillery was a bit of a challenge, but luckily I didn't give up. Truthfully, I have never been a real vodka fan so when I got slightly lost on the way to St. George, I asked myself ,"Is this really worth it?" But as soon as I saw the faces of fellow Umami-ers, I felt a huge sigh of comfort.
Yoko, thank god you made it. You would've been so sad for missing it!
I made a reservation for ten of us for the tasting, which started at noon. The woman I spoke with on the phone, Andy, was so hilarious and accommodating that I knew we were guaranteed a great time. You need to call in advance for large groups, so make sure to do that.
The tasting room was lively, but also relaxed.
A flight of 12 tastings is only $10. TWELVE! That is more than generous. If you want to try the absinthe, it's $15. Definitely do the absinthe.
We tried two fruit brandies (aka eau de vie); five vodkas (St. George distills vodka under the name Hangar One); one whiskey; two tea liqueurs (under the name Qi); and two more fruit liqueurs. They use organic fruits for all their infusions, which they seep into the alcohol for anywhere between a few weeks, to months, depending on what is being distilled.
The tasting room is set up with bars across both sides of the room. We got our very own bartendress, Sasha, who was so informative and took us through each tasting, explaining the distillation process and answering all our random questions (like, what the hell is an eau de vie???). So special.
Our booze-vixen Sasha was delightful, pouring perfect pours (and splashing liquor and water all over the place!).
My favorites of the tastings? Straight vodka. Buddha's Hand Citron infused, and maybe the Pear eau de vie.
The eau de vies and vodkas were a treat, but I am not sure if I would get hooked. Some were a bit too sweet for my taste (i.e. the Mandarin Blossom). But our bartender, Sasha, was great and she explained to us what a Buddha's Hand was, in addition to the amount of fruit it took to make one bottle of Fruit-Infused vodka. Although I wasn't crazy about the vodka, they earn mucho points for their passion in the production and serving process.
The eau de vies were very pop and likeable-- almost like a mosto in terms of thickness and sweetness but with a subtle alcohol punch that I can imagine can work quite well on a hangover day.
The Buddha's Hand-infused vodka was so tart and sharp. The fruit is basically all rind, so it cuts right into your mouth, but not in any over-powering way. It was subtly sweet, with a unique citrus distinction.
I personally liked more the vodkas with citrus rather than the berry-based (except the kaffir lime vodka which was too in your face).
Agreed, Enric-- the lime one was just too potent. I actually use it at the bar at my work, and it really overwhelms all other flavors in anything you add to it.
Like Ido, among my favorites was the straight vodka. It was so dangerously sippable! I know Paystyle calls vodka the illegitimate, bi-racial stepchild of the liquor world, but I could definitely get used to drinking this straight, or on the rocks.
I enjoyed the range of vodka that was offered, the infusions were remarkable. I wish maybe they had something to eat to cleanse the palette between tastings though.
First of all I would like to give vodka two thumbs up. Oh, vodka you are always so good to me and hardly ever leave me with a hangover! I especially liked tasting the fruit brandies and infused vodkas here. They were really good.
My favorite drink was their single malt whiskey. I never thought I was a whiskey fan, but this blew me away. The smell of the casks released themselves in my nasal and throat passages -- it was unlike any whiskey I have had. Maybe it was the freshness? Maybe it was because they distill them in such small batches? I am certainly not a whiskey-aholic, so although I don't know much about it, I just knew this was rocking my taste buds. Apparently, the oak casks lend an aroma of vanilla and cocoa to the whiskey, respectively.
By this point, my Asian face was turning similar in color to the Fraser River Raspberry eau de vie we had a few tastings ago. But never mind, I was going to finish my whiskey, dammit! The golden, deep, swirly liquid was definitely something I was getting lost in, as I was staring into the last drops of my serving, wondering "how much is this stuff?" I soon knew the answer as I wandered into the check-in area where they had a 750ml bottle of it selling for $60. Steep (but understandable).
I too, was super bummed when I saw the pricetag for this whiskey. I will need to save my pennies so I can get myself a bottle soon.
Loved the black tea liqueur: had way more attitude than the meh-too-subtle white tea liqueur.
It was nice that, unlike wine tastings that are all about subtlety, these were punchy, in-your-face-flavors. You either like 'em or you don't.
St. George was the first distillery in the U.S. to start making absinthe when it was first re-legalized. It tasted of potent herbs and the drinkability really delighted me. It numbed my mouth! Sasha suggested that we wait for the ice to melt a little, so the absinthe can expand and grow. Watch how the liquid goes from clear to foggy, and the particles moving, dissolving, and evolving. It's chemistry in action!
I might have included the absinthe in "likes," but I didn't get to enjoy the whole glass (driver).
The tasting lasted an hour, with the tour promptly following at 1pm. Suddenly, about 50 people flooded in, and we spent the next hour being ridiculously entertained and schooled by our guide Andy. She was by far the best part of the entire afternoon-- wicked smart, witty, hilarious. And HOT! Loved this girl.
Loved the vodka-vixen attitude. Very tongue-in-cheek and such a refreshing change from boring wine tours. Racier comments, more tight black pants, more non-PC drunkard culture, more WTF.
Andy with the distillery guardian, the shark from the movie Deep Blue Sea. Oy.
Where all the distillation happens. Intensification columns and its short and stubby Oompah Loompah counterpart.
Whiskey, bourbon, ports. Aging is a beautiful thing.
This place rocks. It was way out in Alameda but it was really cool to see where everything is made. The distillery is actually a LOT smaller than I expected it to be. They seem to run a pretty tight ship though.
A rockin' Umamiventure it was. How the hell'd they end up with a hangar on the water? I want one too!
Thanks everyone for coming out! What a fantastic event, worth going again and again for the tasting and tour. I highly recommend to everyone to try to do their tasting BEFORE the tour. I was adverse to the idea at first, but the tasting room was WAY more mellow than the state it was in when we were leaving the tour.
Special thanks to Andy and Sasha from St. George-- you made the day so special!
ST. GEORGE SPIRITS
2601 Monarch Street
Tasting Room: 510.864.0635
Tasting Room open Wednesday-Saturday, noon-7pm, Sunday noon-6pm
Distillery tours every Saturday and Sunday at 1pm
*Umamiventures are organized monthly, traveling far and wide to find good, cheap grub off the beaten path. Umamiventure #23 will be at Sammy's in NYC on Sat. 2/20. Please come out!
**Become a Facebook Fan of UM to stay updated on all future trips!
Past Umamiventures include:
1.) Ocean Jewel Restaurant – Flushing, NYC; June 2007
2.) Red Hook Ball Fields - NYC; June 2007
3.) Taste of Jackson Heights – NYC; October, 2007
4.) Sripraphai Restaurant – Woodside, NYC; November 2007
5.) WINTERMARKET – South St. Seaport; December 2007
6.) Jackson Diner- Jackson Heights, NYC; January 2008
7.) Pacificana – Sunset Park, NYC; February 2008
8.) Puerto Alegre – The Mission, SF; March 2008
9.) Dinosaur BBQ – Harlem, NYC; April 2008
10.) Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden – Astoria, NYC; May 2008
11.) Brooklyn Banh Mi Crawl – Sunset Park, NYC; August 2008
12.) Sheapshead Bay Lobster Crawl – NYC; September 2008
13.) Flushing Food Circuit – NYC; October 2008
14.) Strong Beer Month – SF; March 2009
15.) Loisaida Throwback Crawl – NYC; April 2009
16.) Harley Farms Goat Dairy – Pescadero, CA; June 2009
17.) Tomales Bay Oyster Farm – Marshall, CA; August 2009
18.) Din Tai Fung – LA; September 2009
19.) Din Tai Fung – Tokyo; September 2009
20.) Schroeder’s Oktoberfest – SF; October 2009
21.) Fish Taco Crawl - San Diego; November 2009