Visiting Broad Branch Distillery, Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Although I love visiting distilleries when I travel, it’s nice sometimes to have a “home game.” I had toured Broad Branch Distillery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina once before, but when my family was visiting from California recently I visited again.

We didn’t get a full tour the second time, but distiller Joe did take us into the working part of the facility where they were distilling at the time. There’s nothing quite like the taste of fresh distillate off the still.

Although they are now making rye whiskey and rum and other spirits, the first product I had from Broad Branch was the Nightlab 1.0. According to Joe, this is made in the style of North Carolina distiller Frank Williams who passed the recipe on to Broad Branch. The mashbill includes corn, rye, malted barley, hops, and sugar.

Whether you get a tour or not (cost is $10 and includes a tasting — check the distillery website for the current schedule), a tasting is in order on any visit. Our group tried everything on offer, which included Night Lab unaged whiskey, Smashing Violet (Night Lab infused with blueberries), Rye Fidelity (Rye-Fi), Sungrazer rum, and Nobilium whiskey (their base spirit aged for 2 years in European oak barrels).

Since I already own the Night Lab and Smashing Violet (and too much rye and rum), I took the opportunity to take home the last available bottle of “Supercollider,” a.k.a., “The Big Blend Theory.” (Thanks to my brother-in-law Wayne for buying this for me!)

With distiller Joe Tappe and my bottle of Supercollider.

According to Broad Branch, this is a “collision between 100% WA State Rye Whiskey and fresh Honey Crisp and Fuji apples, mashed and fermented together, then distilled. Rested in new oak and finished in brandy barrels, the result is a delicious, refined spirit with gentle flavors of cooked fruit, maple, and spice.”

Having now tasted the Supercollider, I have to agree with their description. Delicious straight up, on the rocks, or as part of any fruity, whiskey-based cocktail.

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.

My Love of Whisk(e)y and the Alcohol Epidemic in the United States

I love whisk(e)y. My love knows almost no boundaries. American, Canadian, Indian, Irish, Japanese, Scotch, Texas. Barley, corn, rye, wheat. Neat, rocks, mixed.

To fuel my love I have been reading Reid Mitenbuler’s recent book, Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey.

cover-image-bourbon-empireEarly on, Mitenbuler introduces the first alcohol distiller among the British colonists, George Thorpe. Around 1620, Thorpe first distilled alcohol from Indian corn mash in the Berkeley settlement near Jamestown, Virginia. (See another account of this here.)

This wasn’t because without the distilled spirit the colonists would be tee-totalers. Nay. Mitenbuler makes clear that the colonists loaded their ships with beer for their trips across the Atlantic and to sustain them in the colonies.

Alcohol, then as now, was part and parcel of the everyday lives of people living on this continent.

Although I am still in the revolutionary era in the book, I expect that Mitenbuler will discuss the many personal and social ills associated with alcohol use. These, of course, led up to the historic and failed experiment with banning alcohol from 1920 (with the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) to 1933 (with the ratification of the 21st Amendment).

Since the repeal of prohibition, public health scholars continue to document the toll that alcohol takes on individual lives and our society as a whole. According to the Centers for Disease Control, among the short-term health risks of inappropriate alcohol use are:

  • Injuries, such as motor vehicle crashes, falls, drownings, and burns.
  • Violence, including homicide, suicide, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence.
  • Alcohol poisoning, a medical emergency that results from high blood alcohol levels.
  • Risky sexual behaviors, including unprotected sex or sex with multiple partners. These behaviors can result in unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
  • Miscarriage and stillbirth or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) among pregnant women.

Long-term health risks include:

  • High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems.
  • Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon.
  • Learning and memory problems, including dementia and poor school performance.
  • Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.
  • Social problems, including lost productivity, family problems, and unemployment.
  • Alcohol dependence, or alcoholism.

Despite this epidemic of alcohol-related problems in America, any person over 21 years of age can walk into most supermarkets, liquor stores, wine stores, beer stores, bars, or restaurants and buy alcohol. No “prohibited persons,” no permit required, no criminal background check, no mental health assessment, no registration, no additional fee beyond the cost of the product.

To see how easy it is to find alcohol in my quasi-homeland, I asked Google how many liquor stores there are in San Francisco.* Google returned the following map:

liquor stores in san franciscoIt is surprising that given the daily toll taken on individuals and our society as a whole that more people are not up in arms about this alcohol epidemic.

Of course, what could the people possibly do to resist the virtual ownership of the federal government by the alcohol lobby, which according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ opensecrets.org website had 292 lobbyists, $18.9 million in expenditures, and 31 clients in 2015.**

Thankfully, no one holds me — a responsible alcohol user — accountable for the mis-use of alcohol by (many, many thousands of) others. No one looks to me to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. No one requires me to have a 0.00 blood alcohol content before driving because so many others drink and drive irresponsibly. No one asks me how many more people have to die before I, for the good of my fellow citizens, give up alcohol. (Because if we could prevent even one more death by instituting common sense alcohol laws…)

The problems associated with alcohol in this country also do not prevent me, thanks be to God, from being able to purchase and consume the product.

20151209_215426.jpgI am also extremely fortunate to have very generous friends who share my love of whisk(e)y with me. To wit: Last night my friend offered a bourbon and rye tasting competition between Tennessee-based Prichard’s Distillery and the Buffalo Trace-owned Colonel E.H. Taylor brand.

The clear winner was Prichard’s Double Barreled bourbon, so named because the spirit is aged once at 120 proof in new charred oak barrels (as is required by law to be called a bourbon), then cut to 95 proof and re-aged in new charred oak barrels. The double barreled aging and the relatively moderate alcohol content (in comparison to many craft bourbons today), 90 proof in the bottle, made this an easy-drinking bourbon. And somehow, despite being aged twice in new charred barrels, it was not overly sweet.

The name and label art was also a big winner, in my opinion at least, because I also love a double barreled shotgun.

20151209_215435.jpg*San Francisco, the land of unicorns and rainbows, where the last gun store, High Bridge Arms, was just forced out of business.

**Compared to 55 lobbyists, $8.4M, and 8 clients for the gun rights lobby in 2015.