Hanging Ten at
recently, Steve Smith was operating partner of Lapis Restaurant, the
award-winning Embarcadero hotspot that is in the process of morphing
into Butterfly, another top San Francisco eatery (they are merging
in response to current economic challenges). Before taking on Lapis,
Smith’s colorful career took him from the Mediterranean to the
South Pacific, where he owned and operated nightclubs and
restaurants in places like Ibizia and Bali. As current director of
the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and as a confirmed gourmet,
Smith will be a regular contributor to Bay Crossings,
offering an insider’s view of the Bay Area’s food scene, from
the ridiculously elite to the sumptuously sublime, and everything in
For my first adventure into the
world of journalism, I chose to interview the partners at St. George
Spirits, located next to the old naval air station in Alameda. I had
the pleasure of speaking with Jorg Ruph, the founder of St. George
Spirits, and his partner, Lance Winters, both distillers of fine
BC: What do you make here at St.
JR: Eau de vie and grappa, both of
which I began distilling in the 80s. We added a single malt whiskey
a few years back. Our latest addition is the vodka that we sell
under the brand name Hangar One.
LW: Hangar One refers to the
building that we are in, which was the repair shop for
the Red Line trains.
JR: Plus, the whole building looks
like a hangar and we wanted to capture the idea of this beautiful
part of Alameda Island, so we went with the name Hangar One.
BC: You started with eau de vie in
the early 80s. What brought this about?
JR: I first came to the U.S. in
1978 as a lawyer on a research program. When I returned, I decided
to leave the law behind and start something else. So I went back to
the old family roots. My family used to have a brewery and a
distillery in the Black Forest.
BC: Hangar One is the new
"in" vodka. How did it happen?
LW: Over the course of the past
years, we’ve run into a lot of fruit that is very aromatic and
very beautiful. Unfortunately, it won’t ferment in such a way that
you can distill it and capture that essence and take advantage of
the aroma and flavor. We found that if you took the fruit and looked
at it from a perfume maker’s stance, using alcohol which perfume
makers use as a volatile solvent to carry aromatic compounds, we
could draw out their elegance and the aromas. We chose kaffir lime
and kaffir leaves, Budda’s hand citron, and mandarin orange
blossoms. We felt we could make a huge difference by actually
starting with better quality new materials and distilling them off,
instead of just adding a flavor.
That gives breadth of character.
Citrus fruit is a natural for vodka because of the fact that most
mixed drinks that you make with vodka feature a citrus in one way or
another. The Budda’s hand has an amazing combination of lemon and
jasmine aromas and went in a floral direction. The mandarin blossom,
that was easy because we knew that orange blossom and orange peel
work well together. The kaffir lime was the next easiest. I love
Southeast Asian cooking and I knew the value of kaffir lime in
giving breadth to green curries and to tom yum soup. It harmonizes
and it carries the lime character and brings in this woody warmth.
BC: As I understand, you have a
very unique distillation process.
JR: We use equipment which is
specially made for eau de vie production. The stills are flexible in
their usage. You can distill any raw material in them. And the trick
is that they combine the old-fashioned pot still with modern
technology that allow us to control the distilling process. The pot
still process is simple and has one advantage. You distill at a
relatively low alcohol and get more flavor than the continuous still
process that’s used by all commercial distilleries. However, our
still setup is really very sophisticated, inasmuch as you can treat
each raw material in a different way. We feel that we are pretty
good at getting the best out of the materials that we work with.
With the wonderful fruit we use the viognier grape instead of just
grain distillate or anything else. This grape is beautiful, floral,
BC: Pardon me, this vodka is made
LW: It’s a combination of wheat
and viognier. Wheat provides some softness, a nice soft feel in the
mouth as well as a neutral palette as in color palette. The viognier
is allowed to have a little bit more of its way with the vodka
because of the neutrality from the wheat and it brings in the
beautiful, light, sweet, fruity notes.
BC: I imagine you need to
taste-test for quality control?
JR: We start early in the morning.
BC: You’re drinking vodka first
thing in the morning?
JR: Oh, not first thing, but after
10:00 a.m. I mean, it’s a totally different lifestyle. You have to
choose your place in the world.
LW: Especially after 10:00 in the
BC: Waiting for 10:00 o’clock to
roll around can be a bit of a problem.
JR: Sometimes we have to start earlier.