Today I participated in a field trip to Hangar 1/St. George sponsored by the Northern California chapter of the USBG. This was all part of a week of activities held as part of the Bar Guild’s annual meeting. The folks at the distillery kindly put together a very rich and packed set of educational events for us during our visit, beginning with a lovely Mexican style breakfast complemented by some very delicious Bloody Marys, created by Sasha. These were made with the Hangar 1 chipotle vodka, fresh tomatillos, and a bounty of fresh greens and pickled veggies. A perfect complement to a lovely St. Patrick’s day.
Shortly after arriving, I found myself invited to sample a new gin formula directly off the still. (It was the second time this week I had been given such an honor, in fact.) The run was already well in progress when I arrived in the late morning (the heads having already been diverted) and it was still going when we all left around 4 PM. I sampled the run several times just by sticking a finger right into the stream and so was able to observe how the quality of the distillate changed over the duration. (Just try that in Scotland!) The taste was minty and vibrant when I arrived (showing notes of bay laurel and eucalyptus) was became noticeably darker and more earthy by the time I left. (I am told the run was only about half way through at this point.) Samples of the complete collected run were also made available so I got to see how things were “summing” over time. It gave me a great insight into the complexities of distilling and handling the resulting product.
The first formal event after breakfast was a demonstration of the distillery’s new sugar cane press, which will be used to make their agricole-style rum (Agua Libre) once this year’s crop is delivered. Lance Winters gave the demo (using some locally provisioned cane) and talked a lot about how the juice is handled and converted into rum. We were offered a chance to sample the very green tasting free-run juice. Some of us, not satisfied with that, also gave the pressed cane stalks a taste. Om nom nom!
Next, we had a second more critical gin tasting opportunity, led by Dave Smith (AKA Distiller Dave) in one of the upstairs tasting rooms. Here we got a chance to try various runs from the still and then see how they changed, depending on the percentage of alcohol present in the still at the start of a run. There were also samples of spirits which had been treated with just a single botanical, in this case hops. Both samples were quite green and vegetal tasting, though also exhibiting more aromatic notes, scents and flavors we’re more familiar with when expressed in a beer. Dave then blended a very small amount of one of these sample into a batch of the gin. The effect was really quite striking, giving us a chance to see how small amounts of intense flavors can radically change the product.
No rest for the wicked, we also had the great fortune to get a talk about eau de vie by Jörg Rupf, the founder and master distiller of St. George Spirits. I found it very interesting to hear Jörg talk about the origins and influences behind Aqua Perfecta as well as how the eau de vie process was adapted to the creation of the Hangar 1 vodka line (as well as all the other St. George/Hangar 1 spirits). Jörg encouraged us to ask questions. I was very surprised to learn that the Williams variety of pear used in European eaux de vie is in fact the same variety as Bartlett, which Jörg feels makes the best most fragrant pear brandies. (We also previewed a rock video style tribute to Jörg that we are told is going to show up on youtube.com in the not too distant future.)
As a final treat, a few of us got taken deeper into the bowels of the warehouse were we sampled two secret barrels: a bourbon and a rye, both of which were incredibly delicious. (Think fruitcake and spice and cereal. Wow!) Unfortunately, these are likely to be the only tastes any one will ever have as there’s so very little. These were, however, a potent reminder that the folks working here are ever experimenting, ever looking for great new product. Let’s hope some descendant of these experimental barrels makes it way to market one day.