Master distiller Lance Winters produces delicious small-batch gin, absinthe, whiskey, rum, and more at St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA. If we wanted to argue that spirits can express a sense of place (the way wine does), we'd use St. George as a prime example, pointing to their trio of gins and their funky rum made from California sugarcane. We recently chatted with Winters about what he's drinking, how he got started in the distilling business, where craft distilling is going in the US, and a few fun projects he's releasing soon. Here's what he had to say.
What are you drinking these days, Lance Winters? What's your go-to post-work drink?
A Negroni with our Dry Rye Gin, Carpano Antica Formula, Gran Classico.
What's in your fridge and bar for summer drinking?
I'm deeply into the St. George California Agricole Rum right now. This summer, we've been making a lot of simple Hemingway Daiquiris at home. We always have good tonic on-hand for G&Ts and a bowl of fresh citrus on the counter. And we try to keep our garden in good shape so that we always have herbs available.
We don't stock a lot in the fridge for summer drinking, but I'm fortunate to have a bottle of Hubert Keller's Alsatian Pinot Gris that I'm looking forward to getting into.
What spirits are you really excited about right now?
Amaro. Once you're past the hit of bitter, there's a lot of room for complexity and play. I see the category as a playground, very much like a gin. We've both infused and distilled a staggering number of different botanicals—for our absinthe, for our gins, and sometimes just to see what happens. They're all so lovely and so different, and they make us want to try to arrange them in different ways than people have experienced them in the amari that are currently available. Just like in any category, we're inspired first and foremost by the ingredients.
How did you get into the distilling business? How did you train?
I got into distilling in 1990, but didn't get into the distilling business until 1996. The first part of my training was trial and error at home, operating a 25-gallon moonshine still in my garage. Kids, don't try this at home. At the time, I knew that what I was making was good, but I didn't know why it was good. Drawn in by St. George founder Jörg Rupf's amazing reputation, I started visiting St. George Spirits in 1995 and asking a lot of questions. In 1996, I started a one-month trial employment that's continued for the last 17 years. When I first started at the distillery, it was with the desire to make a single malt whiskey.
Jörg immediately put me on distilling cherries, and then raspberries, and then pears. It was the distilling equivalent of Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi. What I didn't realize at first was that this insidious genius was not just going to teach me how to make whiskey, but to love everything about distillation. And that he did.
What are some of the challenges of the job? What are some of the surprises?
The biggest challenges are dealing with the myriad laws, both state and federal, that slow down the creative process. I'm all for the government keeping the industry safe, and I don't want to be completely unregulated, but this is an art form—and if an artist had to go through what we have to go through to create a painting or a sculpture, nothing would get done.
One of biggest—and best—surprises is the evolution in how Americans view spirits. When I first started 17 years ago, people were afraid of booze, but today's drinkers are amazingly open and adventurous. They've gone from wanting cocktails that hid the taste of booze to wanting to really taste and appreciate the spirits themselves. Before, people would never veer from their standard bar orders, but now they're trying all kinds of different things. It's been time for this paradigm to shift for a long time. If you look what's taken place over the last 30 years with beer, wine, coffee—all these categories have gone from bland, mass-produced products to distinctive offerings that all have valid points of differentiation. We're living in a remarkable era for both distilling and drinking right now.
Why distill in California?
We love California. You can grow just about anything here, even legally. The food and the cocktails rock. The weather doesn't suck. We have the opportunity to work with some amazing wineries, distilleries, and institutions like the CIA and UC Davis. All that said, if we were starting a distillery today, we probably wouldn't be doing it in California. While this is the birthplace of craft distilling (St. George Spirits, 1982), we lag behind the majority of the country in terms of the legal climate. Even Utah has more progressive laws when it comes to craft distillers being able to offer paid tastings and sell bottles to distillery visitors.
Where do you see the domestic craft distilling scene going? What's next for the industry?
The domestic craft distilling scene is heating up. It's where the domestic craft brewing world was 15 or 20 years ago. That's both good and bad. Just like with the earlier days in brewing, there are quite a few people out there motivated solely by the fact that craft distilling is experiencing double-digit growth. Those guys won't really contribute much that's new or worthwhile to the scene. On the other hand, there's also a segment out there that's inspired by what has yet to be done in distillation. They're the ones to watch.
What liquors (not from St. George) do you love and admire?
I'm a big fan of the Leopold Brothers. They make amazing products and have tons of integrity. I love what John Glaser does with Compass Box, re-imagining what whiskey can be. He was a big inspiration for our Breaking & Entering Bourbon.
Got any new projects up your sleeve?
I'm excited about the upcoming release of our barrel-aged Dry Rye Gin this fall: There are a lot of distilleries that have taken to barrel aging gin these days and it can be a hit-or-miss thing. Because rye is the base spirit of our Dry Rye Gin, it lends itself beautifully to barrel aging. It's a valid treatment of this particular gin, not just a gimmick. Be on the lookout!
It's a bit further out, but I'm also really excited about the organic California rye we have in the works. Nobody else is making a rye right now that's all California, even though California has long been a big grain producer for the rest of the country. On top of that, making whiskey brings me back to my brewing roots. Nothing smells as good as a brew day, and our California rye whiskey's going to reflect that love for a brew day.