Lance Winters

With a continued rise in the UK and across the US, St. George Spirits is on a roll. With an eagerly awaited trip to Europe set for June and the restless trainings and tasting they do over the US - we decided to catch up with Master Distiller, Lance Winters to reminisce about 2014 and see what the rest of 2015 has in stock.

Gin Foundry: Looking in, 2014 seemed like a breakthrough year for you. Internationally, St. George Spirits really seems like one of the “BIG” gin distilleries of the year. Obviously, it’s not an overnight success and has been decades in the making. What has clicked over the past 18 months that has resulted in you guys being on almost every back bar we see in the US, London and further afield?

Lance Winters: “2014 has been a HUGE year for us, but the previous few have been pretty phenomenal as well. In 2011, we launched all three of our gins simultaneously here in the States to some pretty serious accolades.

What’s been significant about 2014 has been the attention that we’ve received internationally. It was a bit terrifying, actually, to bring gin to the UK. Coal to Newcastle and all that. Having flavour profiles that step widely away from the traditional gin paradigm has helped us stand out, and I’m sure that having Michael Vachon and the good folks at Maverick Drinks make the introductions hasn’t hurt us.

All that said, we’re about the furthest thing from an overnight success that anyone could possibly be. Going on 33 years of operation, St. George Spirits is the oldest craft distillery in the United States. We started as an eau de vie distillery back in 1982. The love for raw materials and the desire to take the characteristics that we loved and deliver them to the glass has driven us to distil nearly everything under the sun. Our first big splash was with a vodka that we launched almost 15 years ago. While the gins are some of the newest spirits in our line-up, even they have been gestating since the summer of 2007. That was when the aromas of a wooded mountain top set the idea for the Terroir Gin in motion.”

Gin Foundry: It’s an incredible journey when you see it in the context of the distillery’s history. The category is in an interesting place and there are many things to look forward to as well as manoeuvre around - what are the challenges you are expecting for 2015?

LW: “Our biggest (general) challenge in 2015 is going to be finding spare time for video games. I don’t really see any challenges for us on gin. We’re nowhere near our maximum capacity, and I think that more and more people are getting turned on to gins as this new wave of craft gins sweeps through.”

GF: You really broke the mould and set a category wide innovation first with the Rye Gin and then particularly with the Terroir Gin. Even after 200 more gins that have come to market since its release, it is completely unique. Are there flavour areas that you are looking to tackle with any upcoming projects?

LW: “Our projects sort of arrive organically. We’ll be inspired by something we eat, something we smell, so I’m never absolutely certain what the next thing will be. I do have a riff on sloe gin that’s sort of squirming around in my brain. I’ll keep you posted!”

GF: Looking forward to it! Gin aside for a second - your bottles are really cool. The labels are individual yet have a nice relationship with one another, as Gin fans who appreciate packaging and design, we feel they are genuinely unbelievable. Do you spend a lot of time developing and researching that side of products or is it something that develops more organically?

LW: “Thanks for noticing the packaging. While it’s the spirit in the bottle that we really want to stand out and be the show stopper, the bottle has to grab your attention and hold it long enough to get you to the inside. There’s quite a bit of creative energy that goes into our packaging. The base inspiration is old paper ephemera. Bank notes, stock certificates… As the old guys in the industry here, I wanted a package that looked as though it could have been around for a while, have some gravitas. The cheeky side is usually somewhere in the illustration. The Terroir, for example, shows the California grizzly bear, but wearing a cowbell as an homage to our absinthe label. The Botanivore and Dry Rye Gin both sport a bear trap with a cocktail coupe to lure the grizzly (which was actually modelled after my wife Ellie…).”

GF: The result is stunning, and gravitas is a great way of describing it. Talking of good descriptions… when we spoke at Junipalooza, you made a beautiful analogy that’s really resonated with us ever since. You mentioned that distillers were similar to singer songwriters, that each had a individual voice and a different story to tell. With that in mind, what do you think the St. George Spirits voice is? Do you feel you have a particular interpretation on gin that you’ve tried to implement?

LW: “It’s very likely that when I mentioned the singer/songwriter/ distiller analogy, I had spent the previous few hours drinking gin. This makes it no less valid, of course. I’ve never had to describe my own voice, actual or metaphorical. I’d have to start by describing our voice as unashamed and unrestrained. We prefer our spirits not to dance around the issue but get straight on to business. The business of a gin is to deliver lovely waves of botanical flavors and aromas. There’s a pleasant anesthesia that accompanies the aroma and flavor, but the alcohol should never lead the charge.

With the Terroir, the idea was simply to translate into a spirit the experience that I had drinking in the coastal forests of California. The Dry Rye is a way of painting gin botanicals on a richer canvas than blank white, more like black velvet, to allow the base spirit to have a voice.

GF: Nice, brought the analogy to its logical Spinal Tap conclusion! A bit of a gear change next… how did you train to be a distiller? What’s the best advice you were given about distilling?

LW: “After a brief stretch in the Navy, I worked at a couple of small breweries. That experience built a good understanding of fermentation science and flavor balance.

Both of those were huge first steps. Somewhere in my brewing days, I picked up a 100-liter still and started making whiskey at home. It was delicious, but I wasn’t sure why it was delicious and wanted to understand. That was when I reached out to Jörg Rupf, the founder and original Master Distiller at St. George, and came on board at the distillery.

Jörg taught me about craft methodologies, provided me with a love of distillation in general, and drove home the importance of having high standards - not to put anything out unless you can stand behind it and be genuinely proud.

I’ve always thought of gin as a drinkable perfume, and books on perfume making taught me that aromas can do more than mask alcohol; they can be evocative. This kind of thinking allows us to transcend the typical description of a distiller (a maker of simple “anesthesia”) into someone who has the capability to make something that inspires.”

GF: Talking of inspiration - what’s your go-to post-work drink?

LW: “My go-to for a post-work drink depends on who’s making it. If I’m making it myself, it’s likely a Dry Rye Negroni. If I’m lucky enough to be at Clove Club or Shoreditch House after work (which has only happened twice), a Terroir Collins fits the bill quite nicely.”

For all those looking to meet the team behind St. George Spirits, they will be serving their gins at Junipalooza. Until then - you can follow their journey on Twitter: @StGeorgeSpirits

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