Lance Winters serves as the master distiller and president of St. George Spirits, a craft distillery in Alameda, Calif., that prides itself on rethinking traditional flavors and ingredients. In his free time, Winters is one of the few distillers in the country roasting and working with California agave.
St. George Spirits began as an eau-de-vie distillery, which informed Winters’ process of sourcing and building spirits from the ingredients up. Today, he’s motivated by experiences, not labels, and is equally inspired by sudden smells as he is by lasting memories.
The distillery offers spirits and liqueurs that range from a green chile vodka to a California shochu. The company made waves in 2007 when it released the first legal absinthe, and with Winters at its helm, it prides itself on crafting careful, nuanced spirits that recreate a category’s landscape rather than copy its leaders.
Nearly a decade ago, Winters released a rum made from 100 percent California sugarcane that he describes as the “natural wine” in an otherwise “Bordeaux-like” rum world. To create it, a complicated experimental process led him to trace his ingredients straight to the source and learn a distilling process that prepared him to eventually take on the agave plant. Currently, he’s been tapped to work on agave passion projects with Mark Crotalo of Crotalo Tequila and the soil scientist Joe Muller, who asked Winters to help harvest and roast nearly 7,000 pounds of California-grown agave.
Still, Winters shares his struggles with harvesting, roasting, and distilling agave spirits here in the United States through a refreshingly honest, informed worldview. He recognizes the labor that Mexican distillers undergo to produce agave spirits, and is hesitant to release any of his agave spirits to the public for retail. He also insists that working through agave’s unique challenges makes his team stronger, and details a rare insider’s look into the production of his agave spirits below.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
1. Can you talk about your early background in brewing, and with the U.S. Navy — and how that led to your work with St. George?
Yeah, so my time in the Navy was time spent operating nuclear power plants. I trained as a nuclear engineer and was stationed on board the USS Enterprise. With eight reactors, there’s a lot of chemistry, a lot of understanding of physics, and not a lot of great parties.
While I was in the Navy, I started brewing beer at home. When I got out, I got a job brewing beer. A friend gave me a bottle of Lagavulin Single Malt Whisky, and it was the first spirit I tasted that I thought was so remarkable — something that transcended just an ethanol experience. It was a story in a glass, and I was completely enthralled by it. I started learning more about whiskey, and I realized that in making whiskey you start by making beer. So that’s what led me to St. George.
The way that nuclear engineering influences [my distilling is] when you’re working on a still, you have to understand the nexus of the physics and the chemistry that takes place inside that still, so as you’re changing operating parameters for the still, you know how it’s going to influence the product that comes out. It’s sort of like learning to play a musical instrument and understanding how you’re going to affect the music that’s coming out in the end.
2. How do you approach the idea of distilling creatively? Are you generally looking for a white space or navigating these previous memories that you have, and trying to recreate those experiences in spirits?
At the risk of utilizing an overused phrase, it’s a pretty organic process at the distillery. It’s the sort of thing that can be as simple as, I’m out at dinner and I see a flavor combination that gets me going; or, I smell something out in the woods and I’m like, “Oh, my God, I want to capture this.” I think it’s really all about external inspiration.
And, there are times where it’s like, “OK, what would this category be like if it was reimagined from the very beginning? How would somebody approach making this product if there weren’t already hundreds of years of tradition behind it? How would we start a brand-new tradition?” We try to stay away from the influences of the past. The only reason we look at what’s been done already is to avoid doing it.
3. Can you talk a little about the St. George California Agricole Rum? Where did you source the sugarcane from, and what was the inspiration and research for that spirit?
Initially, I wanted to make rum because I didn’t really enjoy most of the rums that I had had. So I stepped back and thought as an eau-de-vie producer, how would you go about making a rum?
When you’re making an eau-de-vie from pears or raspberries, you don’t make it from an extract [or] from a concentrate. You have to get the fresh fruit. In the case of the rum, the “fresh fruit” is sugarcane, it’s grass — we started looking for sugarcane growers in California. The first place that we found was down near Fresno. There was a group of Hmong farmers who were growing it to celebrate the New Year — it was an “eating sugarcane.” We purchased that and started running it through a cane mill. Then, we ended up tracking down a gentleman who was growing cane [near the Salton Sea] with a smaller diameter which [produces] a lot more chlorophyll. So you end up with a really bright, intensely green cane juice and that really bright, intensely green cane juice contributes this incredible funk to the whole thing.
Our Agricole rum is to regular rums what natural wines are to Bordeaux. It’s grassy, it’s got a lot of [notes of] black truffle, a lot of dirt, a lot of olives. It’s really, really interesting and I think that funk helps to balance out and anchor tropical cocktails that are made with it.
4. Tell me about working on your first agave project, Agua Azul, with [St. George Spirits distiller and founder] Jörg Rupf. What was it like sourcing and working with the agave?
I [worked] with Jörg Rupf 14 years ago. We didn’t know of any sources of agave in the United States so we looked around and we found a distillery that was willing to sell us agave [from Mexico].
We had it cooked, then put into a refrigerated truck to make the trip up to the Bay Area; then proceeded to go absolutely crazy trying to figure out how we would process it. They call [agave hearts] “piñas” but it’s not quite a pineapple. It’s much bigger, and they look more like tortoise shells. They’re heavy, sticky, and full of incredibly long, tough fibers. We broke a lot of equipment trying to process these and ended up getting to the point where we were able to bludgeon them just enough to get some fermentation going. And then we distilled, and it was good, but it wasn’t great. It was probably a little too clean.
It was sort of like what we were experiencing on the first goes with the rum: It was bland, kind of boring. It was nothing to be ashamed of, but it was nothing to scream about, either. And it was nothing about the source of the agave. What it turned out to be was about steam cooking versus pit roasting. Think about when you sear something on a grill or when you smoke it; you end up with so much more depth and flavor than if you boil it or steam it.
5. Since then, you’ve worked on a few American agave projects. Can you walk me through the harvesting and roasting of the blue agave used in your project with Mark Crotalo?
Jörg reached out and got in contact with Mark Crotalo [of Crotalo Tequila]. On his property down in Temecula, [Mark had] amended the soil and planted a bunch of agave. We had that harvested, then brought up to a farm up in Winters, Calif., where [his team] had dug a pit for us, lined it with stones, and then filled it with a mix of oak and eucalyptus.
It was about a three-day pit roast, and then all that agave was delivered to the [St. George] distillery. We were still trying to figure out exactly how we were going to process it, but my thought was that we should use our sugarcane mill. It’s a roller mill. We could press off all the juices from the agave, and then ferment it. And that’s what we did. We ended up with a relatively small amount of really, really beautiful, lovely, smoky agave spirit. And it had so much more depth and so much more complexity than the stuff that had been steam cooked.
6. Do you have any plans for Agave American spirits that might hit the market soon?
I’m really torn. It’s a very difficult spirit to distill, so working on that helps us at St. George hone our skills as distillers. We’re always looking for opportunities for personal and professional growth, and agave provides that in spades. As far as actually releasing it, I know that we’re going to release some for a benefit for the group YIIN, Yolo Interfaith Immigration Network. What’s kind of problematic for me, while I love making this stuff, is I feel like selling it becomes a form of cultural appropriation. And the United States is a tremendous act of cultural appropriation –– a cultural melting pot is another word for that, a much nicer way of saying it. And we would be nothing if it weren’t for the assimilation of all these different cultural things. But the people in Mexico who make agave spirits bust their asses to do so, and the last thing that needs to happen is for a bunch of gringos north of the border to come in and start trying to take that business. So, we’ll continue to make it, we’ll continue to have fun with it. But I think if anything, we’ll serve it by the glass at the distillery.
7. What are your favorite Mexican agave [spirit] brands, whether that be for tequila or mezcal? Are there any brands you think our readers should look out for?
One that rises to the top of the pack for me is this small distillery in Oaxaca called Gracias a Dios. And they’re not only great people, they make great products, and they’re also doing things differently. They’re replanting a lot of agave as they harvest, [because] they’re concerned with sustainability. They are also artistic about things: They have a beautiful gin that they’ve produced with agave as a base and it’s got 33 different botanicals representing the different states of Mexico. It’s a really layered, beautiful mezcal-based gin.
I love it when somebody is honoring tradition, but they’re also striking out on their own. To me, that’s what being a new distiller is all about. Being somebody who’s popping onto the scene now, you’re not duty bound to follow traditions.