When most of us want some tequila, we run to the liquor store on the way home from work. Lance Winters prefers heading to Mexico to find the best agave cactus and bringing it back to his laboratory in a 65,000-square-foot aircraft hangar on a dormant naval base on the edge of San Francisco Bay. Winters is a craft distiller at St. George Spirits, whose vast workspace has three large stills, numerous tanks, a bottling line, and many cases of high-octane, high-priced hooch, including the top-selling Hangar One Vodka.
It’s an ideal place for making and aging liquor. The five-story ceilings, foot-thick concrete floor, and cool Pacific breezes yield stable indoor temperatures that never exceed 76 degrees Fahrenheit. But the most interesting rooms are the maze of former offices that Winters has converted into a geeky playground to entertain fellow workers and lucky visitors, as well as a refuge to tinker and experiment.
In an upstairs tasting room, bartenders, restaurateurs, and distributors can sample his latest wares. They retire to the adjoining conference room to talk business, where Winters holds forth from a repurposed ejection seat from a B-52 Stratofortress.
In another room sits a 100-year-old Chandler and Price offset printing press rescued from a Napa barn. Winters tracked down a manual and two refrigerator-sized cases of lead type for it; he’ll use it to make labels for a gin he’s creating, which he insists must smell like Redwood Regional Park in the East Bay hills.
That gin will be born in his personal office, where a desktop 10-liter still sits next to his computer, across from a shelf of rare books that provide recipes, wisdom, and inspiration. A leather-bound French perfumer’s guide from the 1700s helps locate the most aromatic (and flavorful) portions of a fruit. Monzert’s Practical Distiller from 1889 breaks down distilling equipment and processes. A 19th-century housewife’s guide holds forgotten secrets from when making alcohol was often a DIY enterprise.
Prickly pear cactus, candy cap mushrooms, and Douglas fir are just a few of the ingredients Winters has felt were “screaming to be made” into liqueurs, even if they lacked an obvious audience outside his own adventurous taste buds. Most of these concoctions get no further than the hand-labeled bottles that clutter almost every horizontal surface. The best of these elixirs will be served in the distillery’s tasting room as a unique reward to intrepid fans who cross the Bay from San Francisco. The most popular flavors make it to market, such as a brandy fortified with Lapsang souchong tea and vanilla, a vodka flavored with chipotle peppers, and another flavored with wasabi.
The cash cow that pays for all this experimentation is Hangar One Vodka. It comes “straight” as well as in four flavors: mandarin blossom, kaffir lime, raspberry, and Buddha’s-hand citron. While other distilleries’ flavored vodkas taste like they’ve been dosed with snow-cone syrup, Winters’ flavors are complex and heady, to be savored like wine.
Winters goes to great lengths to preserve the smells and tastes of fresh rare fruit in alcoholic form. The stainless steel and copper Holstein pot still holds 500 liters at a time and gives off the air of a modernized German-engineered steam engine. Pressure gauges, levers, knobs, and small windows allow the distiller to control and observe the distillation process, as he tastes and smells the alcoholic steam condensing into liquor.
Behind the bubbling pipes of the biggest still sit the damp brown remains of 550 pounds of orange blossoms that have given their all to a batch of mandarin blossom vodka. Days before, the blossoms (only open ones) were handpicked and shipped in a vat of inert argon gas to prevent oxygen from sapping their essence. Now they look like a heap of yard trimmings. A few feet away, Winters opens the tank of vodka that’s been steeping in the blossoms. It smells like acres of flowering citrus.
Lance Winters has a long history with potent potables. As a kid he was stymied in an attempt to mix crayon dust and water, and decided to move things along with the heat of a bare 100-watt light bulb. While most kids would have been spooked by the ensuing explosion, Lance was drawn further toward science. He spent eight years traveling the world in the Navy as a mechanic on nuclear aircraft carriers. But when he left the service he found that the skills he’d learned stoking the USS Enterprise’s eight atomic reactors were out of date with modern civilian power plants. He began brewing beer as a hobby.
When he edited a brewpub startup manual, in lieu of cash payment he asked for a job in the brewing industry. It wasn’t glamorous, but the entry-level job at Brewpub on the Green (situated on a golf course in Fremont, Calif.) led him from waiting tables and cleaning spent hops and barley out of beer tanks to brewing and managing another brewpub in nearby Hayward.
Brewpubs stay in business by turning over a product as quickly as possible. Often it’s more about squeezing a profit out of customers than the best taste out of barley. Winters wanted to make “something with more longevity, more shelf life than beer, something that could potentially outlive you.” So he bought a 25-gallon pot still and began dabbling in “moonshining.”
His DIY whiskey wasn’t for sale, it was just another outlet for his creativity and something to share with friends. But it was still illegal. While homebrewing and winemaking in small amounts are legal, home distilling is heavily regulated. There is a lot of tax revenue at stake: the Feds make $13.50 per 100-proof gallon of spirits. States take a hefty cut as well, and they have no desire to lose that kind of revenue.
Seeking advice, in 1996 Winters brought his homemade ’shine to Jorg Rupf, an old-world distiller who had come to California 25 years earlier in search of the best produce to make eau de vie, a clear spirit that preserves the flavors of fresh fruit. Rupf was impressed by the self-taught American and his whiskey. So when Winters asked for a job, Rupf offered him a month tryout. Winters quit the brewpub for good the next day.
Of course Winters wanted to develop his homemade whiskey into an item they could sell. But before he could try, he had to learn the far more difficult process of making eau de vie. “Jorg was sort of like Mr. Miyagi to my Karate Kid. He smacked me around until I didn’t know anything anymore and taught me how to make eau de vie, which became a better foundation to make whiskey.”
Eau de vie is French for “water of life” (uisge beathe, the Scottish Gaelic root of whiskey, shares that meaning). Rupf insists it be made of pure fruit, so a single bottle requires 30 pounds of raspberries, pears, or cherries. The produce must be perfectly ripe to provide flavor and sugar, but a single bruised fruit can allow nasty wild yeast strains to ruin a whole batch. Since eau de vie does not rely on aging or wood for smoothness, it has to be fermented and distilled carefully so it doesn’t taste harsh coming from the still.
Distilling basically involves heating up an alcoholic brew and separating the ethanol alcohol (which evaporates first) from the water. But the trick is to control where the other elements in the mix, called congeners, go. Ideally, the good congeners — which give a liquor flavor, mouth feel, and body — rise with the alcohol, while leaving behind the bad congeners that cause nasty tastes and hangovers. Turn the wrong handle on the still at the wrong time and smooth, flavorful nirvana turns into harsh, headache-inducing swill.
Whiskey distillers leave more congeners in and rely on decades of aging in oak barrels to smooth out the rough edges. Vodka, however, is so highly distilled that what comes out of the still is 95% alcohol, leaving almost all congeners behind — throwing out the good with the bad. Then water is added to reach 80 proof. Making eau de vie is especially tricky as it must retain enough good congeners to keep the delicate fruit flavors, but remove the bad to stay smooth enough to drink without the benefit of aging.
Rupf taught Winters to make whiskey coming out of the still smooth, with overtones and complexity, skipping a decade of aging in the process. After two years of experimentation and three years of aging, they started selling a whiskey called St. George. In a few years they were selling as much whiskey as eau de vie.
Intrigued by the success of premium vodkas like Grey Goose, which sells for $30 a bottle, Rupf and Ansley Coale (co-founder of Mendocino County’s Germain-Robin brandy distillery) pooled resources to start Hangar One. They started with a straight vodka that mixes in a distillate of Viognier grapes to smooth out the base, which is distilled from wheat. With their fruit experience, Winters and Rupf knew they could do great things with flavored vodka, and their shared passion for Asian food inspired the kaffir lime and Buddha’s-hand flavors. Without aging to worry about, it took months instead of years to perfect. Hangar One went on sale in 2002. Immediately, three magazines named it “vodka of the year” and now Hangar One outsells everything else they make by a margin of 40 to 1.
Winters is always searching for a new taste, and each new liquor is a complicated project, entailing far more than throwing some new ingredients into the fermenting tank. He goes on expeditions to find the best ingredients and devises new techniques to extract the flavor. He tests different recipes to discover the best way to keep the flavor intact through distillation.
Lately he’s been experimenting with rum. This involved tracking down a small mill to squeeze the sweet juice out of the fibrous sugar cane. After trolling eBay for a used mill, he found a manufacturer of new mills in India. Once his new mill arrived, a power supply had to be fabricated from motorcycle parts, and a stainless steel holding tank made. He fed 40,000 pounds of “elephant” sugar cane, grown by Laotian immigrants in Fresno, Calif. into the mill. He fermented the extracted sweet juice using Sauvignon Blanc yeast, which has grassy notes that suit rum well.
The resulting 600 gallons of rum didn’t have the taste he was looking for, so he ran through another 20 tons of cane from Brawley, a hotter area near San Diego that made a sweeter, more complex flavor. The mountain of spent cane fibers (called bagasse) sits smoldering in a neighboring nursery’s compost heap. But if the rum catches on like the vodka, he plans to send future loads of the bagasse to a neighboring business that will use it to make disposable cutlery.
Winters appreciates the irony that after he quit running reactors on aircraft carriers, he’s ended up working on the water’s edge in a Navy hangar.
“During my time stationed on the USS Enterprise I’d sit literally trapped on the ship and marvel at the views of San Francisco, thinking that I’d really love to have a cocktail to sip while I enjoyed the view.” He laughs. “Mission accomplished.”