Meet American Whiskey Pioneer Lance Winters
The master distiller of California’s acclaimed craft distillery St. George talks about the 20th vintage of his single malt American whiskey.
Things were not going well for Lance Winters.
It was in the early 2000s, and the distiller at St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, was traveling the country offering up free samples of his single malt whiskey at festivals and trade shows—or at least he was trying to.
“People would walk up to the table and ask what it was and how old it was,” he recalls. “And I’d tell them. Then they’d walk away from the table without even tasting it. At an event like that you can taste absolutely everything—it costs you nothing extra. And nobody wanted it. I got really depressed about that.”
Winters’s faith in his project wavered. Which led him to make a key mistake: he slowed whiskey production, rejecting his instinct to fill more barrels for aging.
It was a decision he rued five or six years later, when the tables turned. Consumers at festivals were suddenly less interested in mass-market spirits, and gathered several deep at tables offering up American craft whiskies, St. George’s among them. They were captivated by new American bourbons and the return of rye and the emerging category of American single malts—whiskies made entirely from barley, making them essentially the American cousins of Scotch, although with more swagger and less accent.
Winters didn’t have enough whiskey to meet demand. So he stopped attending whiskey festivals because, first of all, why tout a whiskey when you have little stock to sell? And, second, with nothing to offer, he lost out on one of the key pleasures of being a distiller. “I got into this to make whiskey and share it with people,” he says. “What feeds my soul is watching someone put the liquid to their lips, and watching their reaction.”
Winters is being denied that pleasure again in 2020, but for other reasons. Covid-19 shut down the tasting room at his distillery, located at the former Alameda Naval Station. And festivals have rapidly become a figment of our collective memory.
Yet, let us whiskey lovers pause to celebrate at least one lasting pleasure. This fall, St. George Spirits released the 20th edition of its single malt—marking 20 years since Winters first tried to convince the whiskey drinking public that he was making something worth sipping.
True to the craft ethos, the flavor profile of each of the 20 releases has been subtly different from those that preceded. Winters and his team each year sample their way through their growing stock of aging barrels, selecting the right combination that offers both the familiar and the unexpected. “What we’re doing is figuring out how to take one and one and make three instead of two,” Winters says.
Lot 20, this year’s selection, has whiskey as young as four years, and old as 21—some of the original whiskey lives on in a solera system, which is regularly replenished with younger whiskey. What made this year’s release distinct is the ethereal and fruity sweetness from a selection of sauternes casks. St. George just released 660 cases, with Lot 20 bottled at 43 percent ABV and sold in select markets for about $100.
Winters’s first career was in the navy, where he trained as a nuclear engineer. A later interest in home brewing led to a job in commercial craft brewing, where in the early 1990s a friend poured him a dram of Lagavulin, a peaty whisky from Scotland.
“It was the first spirit of any kind that I felt wasn’t just about getting drunk faster,” he says. “This is something that’s got a story to tell—it’s layered, it’s got personality, it’s beautiful. With every sip it would tell me a little more about it. I really loved that.”
He tracked down books covering whiskey basics. And upon cracking the pages, he had a “stunning turning point” when he realized that the first step in making whiskey was actually to make beer. “I thought, well, shit, I’ve got that part down. I should try to figure out the rest of this.”
“The best way to learn is to do,” Winters says. So he bought a used 25-gallon still, put it in his garage, and got to work. What followed was an advanced lesson in how different beers yield different styles of whiskey. He was especially struck at “how the more heavily roasted grains made a massive contribution.”
Winters had read about a man named Jörg Rupf, who’d launched St. George Spirits, one of the first American craft distilleries, in 1982, making European-style eau de vie from California fruit. Winters introduced himself, and brought along a bottle of his homemade whiskey as a resume. Rupf found it “inoffensive,” and hired him. Winters honed his distilling techniques making eau de vie, then set about experimenting with distilling and aging whiskey. Lot 01 was released in 2000.
St. George has both led and followed the market in its production of a wide array of spirits, including liqueurs, amari, specialty whiskies (such as Baller, a malt whiskey finished in barrels that previously held Japanese-style plum brandy) and a series of gins inspired by the fragrant botanicals of northern California.
It also launched Hangar One Vodka in 2002, drawing widespread attention with the quality of the distillate and flavors that were more supple, subtle and nuanced than the usual one-note flavored vodkas then on the market. (“You’d get this massive nose of ethanol, then a whiff of chemically derived aroma,” Winters recalls.) The vodka’s success permitted them to move to a remarkable new distillery in 2004, located in a former navy hangar on the Alameda waterfront, complete with soaring industrial windows offering views of the San Francisco skyline. The production facility, apparently built by channeling Gustave Eiffel, is the envy of craft distilleries nationwide, both for its size and style. In 2010, Hangar One Vodka was sold to Proximo Spirits and Rupf retired.
The sale of the vodka allowed Winters to return to focus on his first love—making whiskey with distiller Dave Smith, who joined in 2005. The pair continued to draw from an expanding storehouse of barrels to produce each year’s release. Around Lot 10, Winters let Smith start the selecting. When he tasted it, he thought, “I’ve got nothing to add.” And Smith has been largely doing the cask selections since, with a fondness for unique barrels. He’s included casks that previously held apple brandy or wine before finishing their single malt, adding body, richness and unexpected notes to the whiskey.
When Winters began, “America single malt” wasn’t a thing—it was just “whiskey.”
Now, with more than a 100 distillers producing single malt whiskey, the category is coming out of the shadows, and so far remains largely the niche domain of craft distillers.
Winters has seen a welcome evolution of the spirits industry in America. “Until about 20 years ago, liquor was sold basically on lifestyle and fluff, and very little on transparency,” he says. But drinkers increasingly seek to understand what they pour in a glass. “Look how educated people are about a category like mezcal,” he says. “People are learning.”
Yet, not every consumer has fully embraced America single malt as an expression of local craft. “My mom still calls it Scotch,” Winters says. “And she insists on drinking it with either 7-Up or Pepsi. But she put up with my shit for a whole lot of years, and I will not begrudge her ruining my whiskey.”