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“Drink it down in one go and then breathe out through your mouth. We call it ‘booze yoga!’” Andie Ferman, the guide at St. George Spirits, is teaching me through a mix of speech and exaggerated gestures the best way to consume her drinks. “Don’t swish it around in your mouth like this” she says, aping the affectations of the snobbiest wine connoisseurs. “You’ll make the spirit angry. And you won’t like the spirit when it’s angry.” With these words she pours a quarter ounce of vodka into a tasting cup. I place it to my nose, sniffing the surprisingly full bouquet. Then I swig it down in full, as commanded. “Now that you’ve tried it,” she begins, a mischievous twinkle in her smiling eyes, “What do you taste?”

St. George's "Absinthe Verte"

St. George’s “Absinthe Verte”

She has to lean in when she says it. Gaggles of visitors jib and jabber in the background, their voices rising to cacophonous levels in the warm midday air. St. George’s tasting room may need to work on its acoustics, but the architectural sensibility is just right. Steel and copper accents on the bar lend a fashionable industrial aesthetic, while a sign posted to the door reading “consumption of beer, wine, or spirits may cause pregnancy” symbolizes the business’s winking irreverence. Located on the former site of Naval Air Station Alameda, the distillery looks across the bay to the gleaming concrete and steel pillars of the San Francisco skyline. “We’re fortunate in many ways” Andie says with a wistful air.

Indeed. Andie is a longtime employee at St. George Spirits, a relatively new distillery located in Alameda, California. The key word is “relative.” Operating since 1982, the distillery is young compared to some of the older names in the business. Bushmills in Ireland, for instance, has been around since 1608. Glenturret is Scotland’s oldest at 240. 33 years isn’t a long time in the spirit world, but St. George’s youth has been an asset: the first craft distillery to open their doors in the United States, they’ve been in the vanguard of all the changing trends in the industry, from small-batch distilling to the reintroduction of absinthe (“one of our prouder moments”).

Youthful vigor has made them influential in the industry, but it’s their intense focus on customer outreach that really sets them apart. “We were one of the first [distilleries] to start offering tours, and now we get 30,000 people a year. They’re eager to learn, and they can do it in a place where education plus inebriation pair beautifully. It’s a great coming together of industry and customer.” They don’t show up just for the excellent spirits, however. “It’s stories that bring people here, the stories we tell, and the stories they tell about their experiences. It’s not chance.”

During her almost ten years as a guide of the St. George grounds, Andie’s had her fair share of stories. “The first time we tried agave spirits we were so stoked” she says giddily, and I can sense the “but” hanging in the air. “But everything we knew about spirits applied to grains and fruits. It was complete combat with the agave pina. Every step of the way was hellish: we tried machetes, didn’t work. Then chainsaws. They jammed. Then we rented a woodchipper. Clogged it. We got this crazy machine that was supposed to turn it into pulp, didn’t work either. After we finally made it happen, we vowed never to make agave spirits again.” She laughs and smiles broadly. “But we’re doing it again.”

Lance Winters, Master Distiller at St. George

Lance Winters, Master Distiller at St. George

This can-do attitude in the face of immense challenges has served St. George since its founding. Former master distiller and founder Jorg Rupf started St. George with a single still and a dream to unite the Bay Area’s bourgeoning food culture with the best that Old World distilling had to offer. Accolades quickly began pouring in, and by the time he retired in 2010, he left a business that had grown far beyond his early experiments with fruit-based eau de vie. Setting aside agave, master distiller Lance Winters had been tinkering with an absinthe recipe for the better part of a decade, sharing the result with his colleagues in a slow process of refinement. When it was finally legalized for sale in 2007, St. George was ready: “[we had] America’s first domestically distilled absinthe” Andie says. “There were lines out the door and way down the street.” After trying it, it’s easy to see why. Despite its 60% ABV, it goes down smooth on a wave of silky botanical flavors and floral accents.

However, the fruits and failures of genius were not the biggest challenge to St. George’s remarkable success. “We were growing faster than the tech could accommodate us. On an average Saturday, we would have multiple groups of 15-20 people show up without reservations. We had to deal with a lot of individual cash or credit card transactions, and it would take 20 minutes to get through them all. Then, people would get angry, cut lines, or just leave. Now we’re using AnyGuide, and we still get upwards of 30,000 reservations per year. But we only need one person to do a quick check-in. Basically, AnyGuide is helping us not piss people off.” Master distiller Lance Winters agrees. “It’s great to be able to hand off all the mind-numbing admin work to people who are good at it. That frees us up to focus on what we’re good at: distilling.”

So what’s next? “I’d like to see the laws changed. Because we’re a supplier and not a tap room, we can’t do events or parties, we can’t even sell our own product here. If you’re producing at your facility, you should be able to do things in a less than limited way.” Until that halcyon day, she’s going to stick with what she does best: “When I first came here after they opened the tasting room, I fell in love with this place. Then I demanded a job… and I got it. I love taking tours, and now that I’m on the other end, I want to share my knowledge with people.”

St. George Distilling is located at 2601 Monarch St in Alameda, CA. You can visit their website and book tours here. If you’re interested in having your touring company featured in the next guide spotlight, send us an email or let us know in the comments!

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