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That’s the Spirit

Local distillers are catching the artisan food wave, and exquisite summer cocktails are the happy result


It takes 15 pounds of fresh raspberries to make one bottle of St. George Spirits Raspberry Aqua Perfecta. But that doesn’t deter Lance Winters, the company’s head distiller, from following traditional European methods. Let the big brands “infuse” their spirits with chemicals from perfume factories in New Jersey. St. George, in fine East Bay artisan food fashion, will stick to the hard way, because it’s the right way.

“When we distill fruit,” says Winters, “we’re taking something aromatic and taking a picture of the way it smells. The aroma is captured.”

At St. George Spirits, Winters works amid onion-shaped copper kettles imported from Germany. The distillery is housed in Hangar One, an old airplane hangar at the former Alameda Naval Air Station. Jörg Rupf, descended from a long line of German distillers, founded the company 23 years ago and moved into Hangar One in May 2004. Today, the distillery produces Hangar One Vodka and St. George Aqua Perfecta (eau-de-vie), whisky, grappa, and liqueurs. Rupf and Winters make all the spirits from scratch using only whole fruits and grains.

Artisan food production in the Bay Area, fostered in every area from organic farming of baby gem lettuces and peaches, to cold-pressed olive oil, to 70 percent cacao chocolate, has also captured the minds and hearts of area distillers. From the crew at St. George in Alameda, to Fritz Maytag at Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, to the Karakasevic family at Charbay Winery & Distillery on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley, local distillers, many originally from Europe, are enjoying the creative freedom of the Bay Area’s food community.

“There’s an aura here in Northern California,” says Miles Karakasevic, the white-mustached Eastern European patriarch behind Charbay. “Sourdough bread, pomegranate vodka, green tea vodka—there’s a freedom and exuberance in California. I bring the Old World concept to that. It’s a fusion of two worlds.”

Ample evidence of the fusion comes when you taste Charbay’s naturally infused blood orange, pomegranate, or green tea vodka. These spirits are so smooth, you could simply pour them over ice and have the perfect summer aperitif. Charbay also makes an actual aperitif, pastis, inspired by Karakasevic’s wife, Susan, who is fond of the anise-scented French drink.

The exuberance for spirits that Karakasevic describes is one shared by Fritz Maytag, owner of Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, although there might be a good bit of competitive bluster between the two men if you put them in a room together. Maytag started out in the beer business in 1965, and his company is still best known for its Anchor Steam Beer. But he’s also grown and sold wine grapes for many years, and now owns a winery called York Creek. At Anchor Brewing—a beautifully restored Potrero Hill building—Maytag makes an unusual 18th century–style rye whisky, but it’s his gin, called Junípero, that distinguishes him from other area distillers. Maytag was the first local distiller to make gin, and his product is a radical improvement on commercial brands. Junípero has a startling herbal bouquet, and its flavor is simultaneously refreshing and deep.

All of these handcrafted spirits are a bartender’s dream come true. “Northern California is home to many of the finest and most progressive distilleries,” says Scott Beattie, bar manager at Cyrus, a plush restaurant a block from the plaza in Healdsburg, which, in spite of its Wine Country location, mixes some of the best cocktails in the region using Charbay, St. George, and Anchor products. “These spirits, coupled with seasonal produce, make outstanding cocktails that allow each ingredient to voice itself.”

At Cyrus, Beattie takes the notion of local seasonal cooking and applies it to the bar. He makes different cocktails throughout the year based on locally grown produce. In the recipes below, you’ll find one of his favorite summer cocktails using Hangar One Fraser River Raspberry Vodka—St. George sells its vodkas under the Hangar One label and often gives a twist to standard infusions, as in Hangar One Citron “Buddha’s Hand” Vodka, the distillery’s take on lemon vodka. You’ll also find two other refreshing summer cocktail recipes: one that calls for Charbay’s Blood Orange Vodka and one that uses Anchor Brewing Company’s outstanding Junípero Gin.

Fritz’s Fantastic Gin Martini
Fritz Maytag’s Junípero Gin contains a proprietary blend of pure botanicals. Its refreshing flavor is a revelation, even for people who think they don’t like gin.

2 ounces gin
Spoonful of dry vermouth (optional)
Olive or lemon peel garnish

Chill martini glass in freezer. Remove from freezer and swivel dry vermouth, if desired, around the inside of the glass; shake out excess over a sink. Promptly shake gin in a shaker full of ice until the gin is so cold it hurts your hand. Strain into the prepared martini glass, and garnish with a martini olive or a lemon peel.

Fraser River Berry Sour
From Scott Beattie, bar manager at Cyrus Restaurant in Healdsburg. Note: A small shot glass holds one ounce.

5 ripe raspberries or blackberries
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/4 ounce simple syrup (one part sugar, one part water heated and then chilled)
3/4 ounce Hangar One Fraser River Raspberry Vodka
3/4 ounce plain Hangar One Vodka
Splash of club soda
Mint garnish

In a mixing glass or shaker, combine berries, lemon juice, and simple syrup. Muddle. Top mixture with ice, and pour the vodkas over the ice. Shake. Strain drink into a tall Collins glass full of fresh ice. Top with a splash of club soda. Stir. Garnish with mint.

Marko’s Magic Sea Breeze
Marko is Miles Karakasevic’s son and a 13th generation distiller in the family. The following is his favorite cocktail to make with Charbay Blood Orange Vodka, which requires no measurements; just eyeball it.

Charbay Blood Orange Vodka
Ocean Spray Cran-Raspberry juice
San Pellegrino sparkling water

Fill a tall glass with ice. Pour the vodka over the ice until the glass is half full. Fill the rest of the glass with equal parts cran-raspberry juice and San Pellegrino. Stir and enjoy.

St. George Spirits, tasting room, 2601 Monarch St., Alameda, (510) 769-1601, http://www.stgeorgespirits.com ; Anchor Brewing Company, (415) 863-8350, http://www.anchor brewing.com ; Charbay Winery & Distillery, (707) 963-9327, http://www.charbay.com ; Cyrus Restaurant, 29 North St., Healdsburg, (707) 433-3311, http://www.cyrusrestaurant.com.

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