“My last drink ever would be a Hemingway Daiquiri with my agricole rum.” – Lance Winters
Craft Distilling is definitely on a winning streak these days. With distilleries popping up globally and many of them creating award-winning products – it’s a great time to be a bartender and imbiber.
19 years ago, Lance Winters approached St. George Spirits founder Jörg Rupf and handed him a bottle of whiskey he’d made at home. That was his résumé.
What follows next is legendary. Lance Winters leaves his nuclear engineering job with the US Navy to learn the art of distilling. With his brewing knowledge, Lance works with Jörg to start making and aging whiskey, within a year.
Since taking the reigns as Head Distiller, in 2010, Lance is still kicking out the jams. A definite risk taker, Lance has earned a reputation in the spirits world for doing things his own way while putting a very California spin on his products. He firmly uses the best possible ingredients and shows the world that this makes his spirits taste better. If running a distillery and delivering some of the best spirits on the market isn’t enough, Lance is collaborating with some awesome local and national talent, creating custom spirits, eau de vies and working on edible treats like single malt gelato and jams. With a product range that spans like the nearby Bay Bridge from Agricole Rum (made from California sugar cane) to experimental agave spirit projects made completely from agaves grown and roasted in California – there hasn’t been a category Lance can’t enter and create something worth going out of your way to taste. On the heels of his latest release, three beautifully crafted vodkas – filling the void Hangar 1 left after its purchase over 2 years ago – we caught up with Lance Winters.
Hear more about the man behind the St. George label, in his own words.
Are you putting something in the kool-aid over at St George? You’re an “Evil Genius,” everyone on your staff is awesome, Andie Ferman is the best brand ambassador, every product you make is killer. Does St. George have a mantra or ethos you would like to share?
“Thanks very much. As far as my adopted family is concerned, I’ve really lucked out. Everybody here is the absolute best sort of people. Nearly everyone here came in through our tasting room. They came in because they loved what we were doing, and then realized that they wanted to be a part of it. It’s been a sort of organic hiring process, which really feels like the best way to grow.”
“If there’s an ethos/mission statement that we wrap ourselves around, it’s that we like to make sure that when we enter into any category, we’ve got something to add to the conversation that the category represents. Something that’s both new and valid.”
What made you want to leave your job as an engineer to pursue a career in distillation?
“Have you ever partied with engineers? If you had, you wouldn’t have asked that question. Seriously, while I’ve got a decent head for engineering, my passion is for making things that people eat or drink. If I hadn’t gone into beverages, and was certifiably crazy, I’d have tried to be a chef.”
What is your definition of both the terms “craft” and “small batch”? At what point should these terms not be used by brands?
“I’m not really sure what “small batch” truly means. It’s such a relative term. Compared to the industry, even our highest volume spirits are small batch. Compared to many of our colleagues, we’re anything but. I think that it should go unused or be qualified in some way.
“Craft” is easier. What it means, to us, St. George does everything with passion, innovation, quality, integrity and transparency.”
Your single malt whiskey was the first of its kind in the States, any plans of breaking back into the American Whiskey category? Specifically with bourbon or rye?
“We’re playing around with some rye and a bit with bourbon as well. You should come by and taste some barrel samples. We have a one-year-old organic, Mt. Shasta Rye in the barrel now that’s dynamite.”
Any new and exciting projects on the horizon?
“We’re working to build up whiskey stocks. We’ve played with a new single malt that’s the California take on the Japanese spin on Scotch whiskey. We’ll be making Umeshu (Japanese plum liquor) in the next couple of weeks to condition barrels to finish in. My mouth is watering just typing about it.”
Can we talk about the “Cal-Maguey” project?
“The agave experiments are just that now. They’re really just part of our continuing love and education on all things distilled.”
Do you think agave spirits from other places outside of Mexico is a category worth investing in?
“I think that any spirit, from any place, that’s well made is worth investing in. At the end of the day, it all comes down to how the spirit itself resonates with you without the marketing bullshit having an influence.”
What are your views on what’s happening in mezcal culture? Specifically, do you think Americans should be trying to change mezcal regulations? (Link: TequilaInterchangeProject.org Mezcal NOM 070 Petition)
“Americans have absolutely no business influencing mezcal regulations.”
Do you think the resurrection of craft cocktail culture and overall popularization of cocktails has had a direct influence on craft distilling?
“Chicken or egg question. Everyone in the craft segment owes their collective existence in some way to what’s going on with the resurrection of the craft cocktail. At the same time, the resurrection of the craft cocktail scene owes its existence to quality made spirits.”
Your online bio says that you have a “penchant for gleefully shunning the spirits world conventions.” If you could give a trend in the spirits business permanent cement shoes, which trend would that be?
“Let’s deep-six the trend of large companies and Venture Capital firms starting ‘craft’ labels, trying to look small and crafty and never distilling a single drop. I’d also love for more people to be willing to challenge their taste buds. More agricole!”
Have you ever had an idea or concept that you thought would work but was completely rejected, or misunderstood?
“Originally, our single malt was rejected/misunderstood. My mom still calls it Scotch.”
You’re an extremely creative dude. What’s an album that you consider inspirational?
What do you do when you have hit a “creative roadblock” and need to produce results on a project?
“There’s no way to go through a creative roadblock. You can’t force that shit. We wouldn’t be us if the clock (or our accountant) was in charge.”
Is there a product you have created that you initially thought was impossible until you made it?
You’ve collaborated with some great people and businesses. If you could work with anyone in the world who would that be?
“I’d love to collaborate with (sculptor) Andy Goldsworthy, just because I’ve always been a big fan of his work. I’d also love to work with Ferann Adria (former chef of El Bulli), because he turns the idea of food upside-down.”
I think you’re a badass, reading you were an US Navy Nuclear engineer totally made me think of 80’s movies. Who is your favorite 80’s movie badass?
“Just remember what ol’ Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big ol’ storm right square in the eye and he says, “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.” – Jack Burton, Big Trouble In Little China (1986)
Last drink ever, what would it be?
“A Hemingway Daiquiri with my agricole.”
The Laura Palmer, at Blackbird Bar, San Francisco
1.75 oz Terroir Gin
1 oz Lillet Blanc
.25 oz Benedictine
Stirred and strained into chilled coupé. Garnished with a juicy natural maraschino cherry