Visiting Half Moon Bay Distillery, Half Moon Bay, California

Craft distilling is where it’s at, so it was exciting to be able to tour the Half Moon Bay Distillery in my childhood home town. I especially appreciate owner Ulli’s giving us a tour on a Monday afternoon (their regularly schedule tours are Friday-Sunday).

The distillery currently is tucked away in the working part of Princeton, near Pillar Point Harbor. There are two “rooms” downstairs, one has the beautiful German column still and one has the “tasting room.” It’s not fancy, but who cares? We got to sit and have our tour while the still was producing spirits right next to us. Cool.

They currently make and sell a vodka and gin, though they have also distilled some rye whiskey and grappa. Which reminds me: when you drive onto Harvard Ave. if you are coming from the harbor you will see a big building with the HMB Distilling logo on it. That is their FUTURE home. We waited there for a few minutes before we realized that it was not the current location.

Sandy and me in front of the NEW home of HMB Distillery, opening soon.

I have to say that the information that Ulli provided during the tour was some of the most informative I have heard during a distillery tour. What follows are some of what I learned for those interested in such things.

VODKA: Vodka is distilled to 95% alcohol content (190 proof), and is then “proofed” down to 40%. Because it is distilled to such a high level of purity, the actual source of starch doesn’t matter as much for vodka as for other distilled spirits. So, you can use grains, potatoes, or grapes. HMB Distillery uses wheat and malted barley. This doesn’t affect the “flavor” of the vodka because it is ideally a neutral spirit. But Ulli suggested that it may affect the mouth feel – the viscosity of the spirit when you drink it.

Ulli also said the key is not what you put in the spirit but what you take out. The purer and cleaner the better, and you take out some of the impurities by removing the “heads” of the distillation run — the first part of the distillate that contains nasty stuff you don’t want to drink or even smell. They typically run off 3-4 quarts of heads which they can then use as a cleaner or perhaps nail polish remover. After the “heads” comes the “hearts,” which is what you want to bottle, followed by the “tails” which are also sub par.

To me vodka is a boring spirit to drink, but the Purissima vodka they make is very good vodka, and made some excellent Moscow Mules when we got home.

GIN: Is basically a neutral spirit (vodka) infused with botanicals — notably juniper berries — for flavor. What makes HMB Distillery’s Harvard Avenue gin unique is the particular blend of botanicals they use, which Ulli said accent citrus flavors to make it a sort of “California Style” gin. In addition to juniper berries they include orange and lemon peel, as well as grain of paradise, rose hips, coriander, licorice root, cinnamon and clove.

The method by which they infuse the neutral spirit with these botanicals is “vapor extraction”, which means they put all the botanicals in a bag which the alcohol vapor passes through and picks up the flavor. This is a more subtle way of infusing the spirit than “maceration,” in which the botanicals are soaked in the liquid.

The taste of this gin is as advertised. I will enjoy drinking it straight and trying it in one of my favorite cocktails — the Negroni.

Visiting St. George Spirits, Alameda, California

San Francisco is a lot of things, but a hotbed of craft distilling it is not. So we made our way over to the East Bay to visit St. George Spirits. The distillery is on the north end of Alameda Island, in a hangar on the site of the former Alameda Naval Air Station, where you get a great view of the Bay Bridge and San Francisco skyline from the parking lot.

The Story: Founder Jorg Rupf grew up in the Black Forest in Germany and learned to distill at a young age. He later became the youngest judge in Germany and was sent to Berkeley to further his legal studies. While in the Bay Area, he began making “eau de vie” — a clear spirit distilled from fruit — in a 65 gallon Holstein pot still in Emeryville (coincidentally where I lived in 1988-1990).

The company takes its name from the Patron Saint of Germany, and may also be a not so subtle reference to the founder Jorg. Which may not be a stretch as Rupf is considered a founder of the modern artisanal/craft distilling movement in the United States.

Although I associate St. George Spirits with their gin because that is what I have had, it is actually their Pear Brandy which is their foundational spirit.

The Liquor: For $15, you can taste 6 of St. George’s 15 available spirits. Since I was there with my wife, our tasting guide suggested we split our tastings giving us 12 total. Which meant it was easier to say what we DIDN’T want to taste that what we did want to taste. We passed on two vodkas and one of the flavored liqueurs.

For a craft distiller, St. George has a diversified portfolio of spirits. Anyone who loves liquor can find something to embrace here.

Brown spirits aficionados who can’t find the rare St. George single malt (or “Baller” Japanese-style whiskey) can try the Breaking & Entering American Whiskey which combines the single malt with both bourbon and rye whiskey. It makes for an approachable drink.

The gins are notable for their distinct flavors. The terroir in the “Terroir” gin is Mt. Tamalpais, north of San Francisco, whose ridge line is visible on a clear day from the tasting room or on the bottle’s label any day. The predominance of Douglas fir in the aromatics is highly suggestive of Mt. Tam.

I took home two bottles from the distillery. First, the Bruto Americano, a “California Amaro,” because I love Campari. To my admittedly limited palate, it was as delicious as the benchmark.

I also took home a half bottle of the “brandy with herbs,” a.k.a., Absinthe Verte. I found the monkey on the label playing a skull like a drum with two bones to be appropriate since I sort of felt like that the last time I drank absinthe. According to our spirit guide, St. George made the first legal American absinthe after the U.S. ban was lifted in 2007.

I didn’t have much interest in the liqueurs, though people who like liqueurs would enjoy these. If I wasn’t traveling, I would definitely have taken home a bottle of the pear eau de vie — the brandy that made the brand.

The Visit: No tours are offered during the week, so we settled for the guided tasting. Our guide was at times knowledgeable and excited to share and at times distracted and sleepy. Even at his best, however, I always have an incomplete feeling when I visit a distillery and don’t get at least some tour.

Being able to see the working distillery through the large windows from the tasting area sort of added insult to injury.

To be sure, there were people working in the distillery during our visit, but it was not so active that a brief run through the facility couldn’t have been done. There were a couple of other people working in the tasting area who didn’t seem to be too busy to do this.

Still, the tasting was amazing and a visit to St. George Spirits is highly recommended. Next time I hope we get that tour.

Visiting Alley 6 Craft Distillery, Healdsburg, California

Toward the end of a visit to Napa Valley, my mind turned from wine to whiskey, so on our way home we passed by Silver Oak and Jordan in the Alexander Valley and stopped at Alley 6 Craft Distillery in the Sonoma County city of Healdsburg.

The Story: A distillery amid hundreds of wineries is a unique niche. Krystle and Jason Jorgensen founded Alley 6 in 2012 after Jason worked a dozen plus years as a bartender. As he tells it, he wanted to find a way to drink cheaper.

They are committed to being a true craft distiller, selling only “grain to glass” liquor made entirely on-site (milling, mashing, fermenting, distilling, barreling, and bottling). They now have two 123 gallon Alembic Copper pot stills that they bought from the larger Sonoma Distilling Company down the road.

The Liquor: Five liquors are offered for the $10 tasting (1 of our 2 tasting fees was waived because we bought a bottle).

The Single Malt Whiskey was aged just over a year. The “heavy charred” American oak 10-15 gallon barrels help accelerate the aging process, but the spirit still had a young taste.

The Rye Whiskey was my favorite. Although aged less than 2 years, the 22% malted barley and sub-90 proof take some of the rough edges off this spirit.

If I had more space and money, I would have gotten a bottle of the Apple Brandy. Being in California, it reminds me of John Steinbeck’s drinking “California calvados.”

The Spiced Peach liqueur, we were told, was supposed to be a peach brandy but it got over-oaked and so was salvaged with sugar and spice. The result was pleasing as it is sweeter than a peach brandy but less sweet than many peach liqueurs.

Finally, the Harvest Gin is grape-based (an easy choice in wine country) and adds distinctive local laurel and wild fennel. If I wasn’t limited to one bottle, I would have gotten one of these, too.

The Visit: The distillery is located in a metal building in an unassuming industrial office park off the main road. You enter the cozy tasting room through the main door.

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The Poet’s Corner stained glass piece behind the tasting bar was salvaged from a bar in Colorado. Nice touch.

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We asked if we could have a “tour” of the facility but were told initially that it was a mess because they were setting up for an event later. I said all working distilleries are messy, to no avail.

During our tasting, owner/distiller Jason Jorgensen came in and we asked if we could get a photo with him, and when he opened the door to the distilling area hit him up for a tour. He gladly welcomed us to see where the magic happens. I’ve seen a lot messier distilleries, so hopefully the host won’t be as reluctant to let future guests poke around. That’s half the fun, after all.