Interview: distiller Lance Winters (St. George Spirits)

Distiller Bay Area

Photo courtesy of Ellie Winters

St. George Spirits has produced eaux de vie, grappas, and dessert wines since 1982, and under the direction of Lance Winters, who has been there for the past 15 years, the distillery has expanded its offerings while accentuating its sense of place. We recently spoke with Winters by phone, and he further explained his background and approach.

Where did you grow up?

Fremont, and it’s taken me years of therapy to be able to get that out.

What was so traumatizing about Fremont?

When I was a kid, I didn’t appreciate what was good about it. It was a bumpkin farm place, with cabbage patches and walnut groves, and today it’s turned into this land of strip malls.

What were you doing for a living leading up to distilling?

I spent eight years in the Navy studying nuclear engineering, so that was the bulk of what I did, nuclear power.

What was your experience like in the Navy?

While you’re in the thick of it, it’s pretty miserable, because it’s basically somebody owning your life and body, so they could do what they wanted…the nice thing about it was, I did learn what my limitations were. I was able to grow personally from it.

Where were you stationed?

Right where I am right now, on the base here in Alameda. I was onboard an aircraft carrier called the Enterprise…They closed it down 10 years ago and left this amazing architecture…We’ve got this 65,000 square foot aircraft hangar. It was built in 1941, it’s steel I-beam and redwood construction. It’s basically an acre with a roof…The last squadron that was in here was A-6 attack planes.

How did St. George Spirits end up in that location?

Nine years ago, we started the Hangar One product line. We were doing fine with the amount of space we had before, with the products we had before, but with the growth of Hangar One, we needed more space. We were at 5000 square feet…We stumbled around on the base and found this space that was 13 times what we had previously. We moved in, and all our stuff was dwarfed by the space, but in the last seven years, we’ve filled it out pretty well.

Do you have a first spirit memory?

Stealing sips of beer off the table when my grandparents were playing cards. They’d play bridge, I’d walk over, take a sip of beer, slam it down and say, “A-ha, whiskey.” I think I saw it in Westerns.

After I got out of the Navy, I was a homebrewer, got a job at a brewpub in Fremont called Brewpub on the Green. I brought beer home and started distilling it, realizing that it was halfway to making whiskey. I started trying to find places where I could ask questions about it. The one place I knew of was St. George Spirits, a 25-minute from my home. I started bugging the guy on the stills, Bill Manshardt. Great guy. I realized at that point, as I was seeing the sorts of things St. George was distilling, this is what I wanted to do. I asked for a meeting with the owner, Jorg Rupf. We sat down and had a meeting. I brought in a bottle of whiskey, which was my resume. He said, “We’ll try for a month, if that works out, put you on permanently, and Bill can retire.” I went in the next day, quit my job and have been here ever since. That was just over 15 years ago.

What distinguishes St. George Spirits from other distilleries in terms of your approach and product?

The thing that distinguishes our product is our approach. When you make eaux de vie, you try to capture an olfactory snapshot. Traditionally, eaux de vie is made from fruit, things like cherries, plums, raspberries, and you’re trying to bring all the characteristics – flavor and aroma – of fresh fruit, immortalize it in a spirit…We apply that methodology to everything we work with. The reason Hangar One succeeded when the world didn’t need another flavored vodka is our methodology. Another thing that distinguishes us is that everything comes from the product side, not the marketing side. It’s always genuine and sincere, and the reasons for making them is that we always make something we love the smell and taste of.

What was the job you quit?

I was working at another brewpub in Hayward called Buffalo Bill’s. It was one of the first brewpubs in California. Bill sold it to a guy named Geoff Harries, I went to work for him, because he was a real solid brewer.

Do you have any mentors?



Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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