Celebrating Stephanie

On a personal and historical as well as professional note, this week one of my first mentees — starting six years ago when I was still a postdoc in Texas, continuing remotely during my tenure in New York, and wrapping up in my past two years in Sweden — successfully defended her PhD in Biochemistry from Stockholm University.

Many congratulations, Dr Stephanie Heusser; I hope our scientific and spiritual paths continue to intersect for many years to come.

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Summoning Stradivarius

Visiting the violin workshop of Maestro Stefano Conio in the birthplace of Antonio Stradivari.

Antique abundance

Touring the 18th-century home and recreated gardens of Carl Linnaeus, father of modern taxonomy, in Uppsala, Sweden. Thanks to gracious guests Veronica and Dieter Söll for inspiring a beautiful journey.

Booze beginnings

MapSize isn’t everything; and for craft distillers, small can be mighty. Having enjoyed curated tours of some of the bigger players in US artisinal alcohol, we caught tastes of a few early-stage operations in Texas, Tennessee, and New York en route from our Austin sabbatical chapter.

Silicon Hills tech workers Mike Groener and Charles Cheung founded Genius Liquids in 2011, and brought their signature product, Genius Gin, to market in summer 2013. Sales Manager Mark Toohey—in Austin fashion, also a bandmate from Groener’s pop rock outfit Love at 20Genius - 5showed us around the south-side industrial shed where they ferment their own cane sugar wine, distill it to neutral spirit (~190 proof), re-distill with a selection of botanicals, and hot-steep with an infusion including juniper and cardamom.

Thanks to Texas Senate Bill 905, passed a few months after their product launch, Genius can now market their wares on-site: a boon to the craft industry, and to us. An experimental Oaked Gin was surprisingly rich, as was the Genius Navy Strength; traditionally, the latter clocked in at 114 proof, intended to protect gunpowder from excess wetting on choppy seas. The Geniuses branched out from gin last summer with their Desert Spirit Texas Sotol, a tequila relative produced from local Dasylirion texanum; we were lucky to taste some, though it had sold out by last fall.

A thousand miles east, nestled in the Smoky Mountains, Darrell Miller opened Bootleggers Distillery in early 2015. This incarnation may be new, but Miller traces his shiner ancestry to William Mullins, a Mayflower passenger reportedly known for his elixirs. Bootleggers - 7Following careers in farming, teaching, and real estate, Miller seized the opportunity when Tennessee—like Texas—substantially loosened small-scale distilling restrictions in 2013 (for which he also claims some credit); he now ferments, distills, and markets small-batch corn moonshine from his own roadside shop. He shared some frank frustrations with his 26-gallon pot still, but the product was remarkably smooth, both in His (100 proof) and Hers (80 proof, with a bit of cane sugar) versions; various flavors are also sold online through the Moonshine International collective.

Another thousand miles north in upstate New York, Dave Bannon, Tony DeSantis, Mike Forcier, and Ken Rohne launched Springbrook Hollow Farm Distillery in fall 2014. The four span forty years in age, but connected through a love of home-brewing; New York’s 2012 Farm Distillery Bill, anticipating similar motions in Texas and Tennessee, encouraged them to expand their hooch horizons. Farm operations using >75 % New York agricultural products can now pour a full range of in-State beer, wine, cider, and spirits  in their tasting rooms, and can sell their own wares in farmer’s markets, fairs, and stores.

Springbrook - 11We leveraged some personal connections to talk Forcier, a fellow biochemist, into showing us the ropes on Springbrook’s custom Kothe still through a three-hour rye run—goopy, but gratifying. Like any good experimentalist, Forcier had a catalog of trouble-shooting tales: switching from plastic fermenting barrels to larger steel milk tanks was key, as was optimizing enzymes to break down different grains. The solitary, 265-gallon still is kept free of aromatic oils by steam-distilling pungent elements of their Sly Fox Gin separately, enabling its use for a wider range of products. True to its name, Springbrook’s wheat-based vodka is watered to proof with unprocessed spring water; their tasty Howl at the Apple Moonshine starts from a spicier grain mix including corn, rye, and barley malt, mixed in-still with New York apple cider.

For early-days distillers, the investment of resources and enthusiasm is clearly substantial; yet the dedicated problem-solvers we encountered from Texas to New York clearly reap personal rewards. If nascent operations like Genius, Bootleggers, and Springbrook are representative, craft distilling is taking off nationwide; yet every distillery we’ve visited is instructively unique. We’ll be interested to see—and hopefully sample—the industry’s continuing evolution.

Raicilla revelations

Recent growth in the craft distilling industry is hardly unique to the US, Estanciaas we’ve witnessed in France and Sweden. On break from our sabbatical work, we joined a few California friends for a week near Puerto Vallarta, and caught a glimpse of Mexico’s own renaissance in local liquor.

Tequila, made exclusively from blue agave (Agave tequilana) in a limited number of Mexican States, has been exported internationally since the late 19th century, and is currently protected through NAFTA. The more loosely regulated mezcal (of which tequila is a specific variety) is distilled from the roasted, fermented heart—called piña for its pineapple-like appearance—of a number of Raicilla - 4agave subspecies, and has surged in popularity since the early 2000s. Raicilla, a Mexican moonshine made from the Agave lechugilla plentiful in the tropical Puerto Vallarta region, was new to us, but has been gaining its own artisanal name.

Seeking a distillery tour, or at least a tasting, we followed sketchy directions from our rental home host Manuel to the outskirts of colonial San Sebastián del Oeste. Our scrappy Dodge Attitude conquered a bumpy hour along Highway 544 past Ixtapa and Las Palmas to the magical Puente Progreso, where we passed 400 feet above a mist-soaked canyon to Mamá Lucia Distillery.

Regional tequila chain Mamá Lucia acquired its San Sebastián location, one of three in and around Puerto Vallarta, within the past year from family operation Hacienda San Sebastián. Now licensed to produce tequila as well as raicilla, the distillery appears to be expanding into more mainstream markets, and taking advantage of the booze tourism trend. Steep price tags (bottles started around $40) accompanied a personal (free) tour through beautifully labeled roasting, mashing, distilling, and aging facilities from our enlightening host Gilberto. The tequila was flavorful, if unpolished; we opted for a bottle of the more compelling, sweetly floral raicilla.

Up the road in La Estancia de Landeros, several shops sold their own raicillas at a fraction of Mamá Lucia’s prices; while lunching on carnitas, we picked up a second, unlabeled bottle offering similarly distinctive flavor. Raicilla - 18Neighbor Estancia Distillery offers one of the few raicillas available in the US, currently $36 for 375 mL online at Mash & Grape.

As Fusion.net noted in 2014, a wide chasm of cultural differences continues to separate the rural producers who bottle mezcal and the young urban professionals who drink it. Still, Mexico’s local liquor trade offers alluring economic opportunities to struggling rural communities, and may have industrial applications beyond beverages. We felt lucky to sample one of the industry’s more nascent chapters.

Flagon-slayers

Before leaving the Bay Area, we worked in another distillery tour—this time to Alameda’s St George Spirits, just across from the City on the San Francisco Bay. The skyline view was stunning, as were the gleaming Arnold Holstein stills inside.

Founded by German law prodigy Jörg Rupf in 1982, St George has substantial seniority in craft distilling compared to newcomers like CH or Roslags. In a nod to his heritage—Rupf’s homeland shares the tradition of eau-de-vie (Schnapps in German) we enjoyed this summer in Alsace—he began by making fruit distillates, drawing on the abundant products of local orchards: our tour guide gushed, we [Californians] are agriculturally spoiled. To prepare St George’s All Purpose Vodka, as well as their signature brandy and spiced liqueur, the distillery still takes in regular 20-ton shipments of fragrant Bartlett pears—a distinctive sugar source, albeit with a low yield. By our guide’s account, pears yield only 5–6 % alcohol, in contrast to the 16–17 % achieved from grapes in nearby vineyards; at this rate, a single bottle might contain the equivalent of 30 pounds of pears.

StGeorge - 2
Seahawk, Alameda Point

In 2004 the distillery moved to their current, cavernous headquarters, a former airplane hangar of Naval Air Station Alameda. Behind the massive fermenting tanks and golden stills, an industrial-scale processing system dilutes distillates (over 95 % pure ethanol, per regulations, for their All Purpose Vodka) to proof with local carbon-filtered water. The remainder of the warehouse was jammed with oak barrels aging their Single Malt Whiskey, California Reserve Agricole Rum, and a range of experimental tipples, only a few of which have made it to market. The hangar has also been home to a few film scenes, including a car chase in The Matrix Reloaded; a life-sized model shark still swims between rows of barrels, commemorating alternative glory days.

We’ve been fans of St George for some years, particularly their Terroir Gin, boasting botanicals from Northern California’s Mount Tamalpais. Their Absinthe Verte is also something special, and was the first absinthe to market in the United States when the ban lifted in 2007; by the following year Esquire ranked it in the top 5 worldwide. St George also launched Hangar One Vodka, named for their formerly-naval home, though it spun off to a New Jersey distributor in 2010. An unexpected tasting room surprise was the seasonal basil eau-de-vie: we brought a bottle home, where it made a tasty Bloody Mary, as well as the experiment below (meant to evoke pineapple fried rice):

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled glass; garnish with lime. Enjoy…