Liquid History

America’s Craft Distilling Industry was Started by Immigrants

Tracing the origins of America’s modern distilling movement back to Europe.

Four decades ago, a young judge named Jörg Rupf from Germany’s Black Forest ventured to northern California. He had worked in the German administrative courts for several years by then, but in 1976 opted to take a leave to study at U.C. Berkeley. His subject was the relationship between government and the arts. But he learned something else: American beer and wine sucked.

If Rupf had come from a long line of cuckoo clock makers, the end of this story might have been very different. But he didn’t. His mother’s family were brewers, and he grew up drinking good beer and simple but satisfying table wine. He also drank delicious eau de vie—a distilled spirit commonly available in southwest Germany made from mashed and fermented fruit, including apples, pears and berries. It was rare in America, and Rupf wondered why no one was producing it here, especially since California offered a boundless cornucopia of amazing fruits.

Rupf liked Northern California. A lot. And so he gave up his law career and put down roots. In 1982, he bought a German still, started making eaux de vie and named his company St. George Spirits.

In what amounts to evidence that trends rarely happen in isolation, within a year several other small distilleries cropped up on the West Coast. All with links to Europe. These pioneers helped usher in America’s craft distilling golden age—and we’ve gone from zero to about 1,600 micro-distilleries within four decades. Their success also exposes a long held a secret: This movement is actually not American at all.

It was born almost wholly of European stock. Viewed through a long lens, the distilling revival was essentially a replay of the first European settlement of North America, when colonists from England, Holland, Scotland, and Germany arrived from the old country ready to employ old techniques on a range of new fruits and grains.

One difference is obvious, though: During the second invasion, distillation first colonized the West Coast before spreading eastward.

Hubert Germain-Robin’s story certainly bears that out. He was born into a family of Cognac-makers in France and during a 1981 hitch-hiking trip down the West Coast with his girlfriend, he got picked up by Ansley Coale, a retired university professor who lived on a 2,000-acre sheep ranch. Over a long dinner loosened with wine, they started talking about distilling. A seed germinated. Two years later, Germain-Robin and Coale were producing elegant American brandies from grapes unfamiliar in French brandy, but which could hold their own against the Europeans in competitions.

In the 1960s, a student of viniculture and enology from Yugoslavia named Miles Karakasevic made his way to Canada and then California, where he worked in a commercial wine industry on the cusp of explosion. A descendent of a long line of distillers, he and his wife acquired an alembic Cognac still in 1983 from France and began a side project of distilling wine into brandy and barrel-aging it. This would become Charbay Distillery, a respected producer of brandies, vodka, and whiskey.

And up in Oregon, a young man named Steve McCarthy was looking for a way to help make his family’s pear and apple orchards more profitable. Two decades earlier, he had spent six months in southeastern France as an exchange student. He fondly recalled the eau de vie he’d had there, and returned to France in 1983 to research the possibilities. Along the way, he learned of Rupf in California; he convinced him to teach him the trade. In 1985, McCarthy imported a German pot still, and started producing pear eau de vie at his new Clear Creek Distillery in Portland.

And so, the craft distillery movement took root, largely built around a product that few Americans could pronounce and even fewer had tasted. Eau de vie was the Uriah Heep of distilled spirits—‘umble, but with aspirations. The profits were not substantial, but the artistry was unparalleled.

“It was such a different time,” says Lance Winters, the current master distiller at St. George Spirits. “Very few people knew what it was we were making. There wasn’t much money in it, but a whole lot of fun and a whole lot of love.”

Winters was a former nuclear scientist and brewer at a brew pub, and had been tinkering with 25-gallon pot still at home. He’d read articles about the incipient West Coast distilling scene (“I think it was in Sunset magazine”) and contact Rupf. His timing was good. The company’s head distiller, Bill Mannshardt, was preparing to retire, and Rupf took a chance on Winters, who came on board in 1996.

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“We didn’t call it craft distillation,” Winters says. “We were just a small distiller.” (When Winters started, St. George distilled only six months a year followed by six months of downtime. “My Frisbee game was very strong,” Winters recalls.) With his background in beer, Winters was eager to try a single malt whiskey, and Rupf agreed—in 1997 they put their first attempt in barrels. Attuned to a market that favored lighter spirits, they also launched a vodka, Hangar One, in 2002. And after sampling some wretched, artificial-tasting flavored vodkas then catching on, St. George got into that game, using Rupf’s experience in eau de vie to impart richer, more natural flavors to its flavored Hangar One extensions.

Hanger One proved a sturdy Clydesdale, pulling the small company forward and soon bringing it national attention—along with a glorious new distillery at the former Alameda Naval Station. After selling the vodka brand to Proximo in 2010 (owner of Jose Cuervo, Bushmills, and Three Olives, among many others), Rupf retired to a secluded farm in northern California, leaving Winters to run operations.

St. George celebrated its anniversary this month with a bash at the distillery and—more quietly—by releasing a 35th anniversary bottling of a rare single malt. It’s a blend of eight barrels that have aged from six to 18 years, including an early cask that Rupf and Winters laid down when they first ventured into whiskey. Only 771 bottles will make it to market.

The company has essentially come full circle since it launched 35 years ago. What started as a tenuous, experimental distillery has become as a well-established experimental distillery (thank you Hangar One!), with Winters now afforded the liberty to pursue tangents that the market may not yet be ready for. Releases in recent years have included an agricole rum (made from fresh California sugar cane), several gins featuring California botanicals, an absinthe, an amaro and a malt whiskey finished in plum liqueur casks.

And, naturally, St. George still makes fruit eau de vie but it’s now marketed as the easier-to-pronounce “brandy.” That includes a delicate pear brandy, which started the whole thing three and a half decades ago.

With one difference: Like so many ideas, people, and precepts that arrived here, craft distilling can no longer be considered European. It’s fully assimilated, and is now very American.