The typical whiskey we know and love in America can trace its roots back to European distillers, with the process being improved and adapted to fit the North American environment. The whiskey we’re looking at today can trace its roots back there, as well – albeit, from the “wrong way” around the world: from Scotland, to Japan, and then across the Pacific to a local Californian craft distillery called St George Spirits.
Jörg Rupf came to the United States around the 1980’s on assignment from the German Ministry of Culture and he immediately fell in love with the culture and climate of the California Bay Area. He decided to make the area his home, and started doing what his family had done for generations in the German Black Forest: distilling spirits.
He founded the St. George distillery in 1982 to follow that family tradition. Inspired by the local fresh fruit, he started with an “eau de vie” (a colorless French developed brandy) which that earned him acclaim from other foodies in the area — as well as from one Julia Child.
In 1996, a former nuclear scientist named Lance Winters arrived at the distillery with a single bottle of homemade whiskey as his resume. He joined the growing crew and one year later, after experimenting with different grain bills and production methods, the distillery produced their first barrel of single malt whiskey for aging. Three years later it would come out of the barrel for sale, followed shortly in 2002 by a line of vodka.
The distillery grew so large that in 2004 it would move into its current location in an old airplane hangar on the Alameda Naval Air Station grounds. In 2007, they expanded into the first legal American absinthe and then an agave-based spirit (essentially tequila, but not made in the requisite region of Mexico to be labeled ‘tequila’) in 2008.
Jörg retired from the distillery in 2010, leaving head distiller Winters in charge of the operation. Since then, Winters has continued to expand the product lines with gin, rum, and the object of today’s review: their Baller single malt whiskey.
As alluded to in the intro, this whiskey is heavily influenced by the Japanese take on traditional Scottish whiskey. The Japanese style tends to be designed specifically for use in cocktails such as the highball — in which the spirit is fairly diluted and requires bolder and brighter flavors as a result. Hence the name for the whiskey: “Baller” for the traditional Japanese whiskey highball.
The whiskey starts with a grain bill of 100% malted barley, predominantly two-row pale malted barley. Those grains are then cooked and fermented before being distilled in their eau de vie style pot stills.
Once the raw spirit is produced, it is aged for about three years in a selection of barrels. Specifically, they are aged in previously used bourbon barrels and French oak wine casks. Once properly matured, the whiskey is filtered through a charcoal filtration process and then finally finished in casks that previously held their house-made umeshu (a Japanese plum liqueur made from California grown ume fruit, a Japanese strain of plums).
I love this bottle. I really do. It hits all of my pet peeves, but it somehow does it in a way that makes me love it even more. Go figure.
The bottle design itself is pretty standard for a spirit bottle, with a rounded cylindrical body and generally a wine bottle shape. There’s a little extra detail near the mouth to catch drips, but otherwise it could just as easily be a pinot noir bottle. What makes it a bit different is that the bottle is almost completely opaque, with an extremely dark green tint. That’s consistent with the Japanese style of bottles, as light damages the whiskey inside and a darker bottle can preserve the contents longer. But it doesn’t allow you see the whiskey within, which is my big pet peeve.
The label, it must be said, is absolutely amazing. I’ll just re-post their blurb from their website here which gives credit to all those involved:
Distiller Lance Winters did the art direction for the label, which re-imagines the legend of St. George as a samurai. The original watercolor on the front label was by Oakland artist Sylvia Solochek Walters, done to emulate woodcut. The calligraphy was done by Eri Takase of Takase Studios.
I love the Japanese art style version of the namesake of their distillery. I love the way they pulled it off with the woodcut texturing. And I love the big red meatball flag on the bottom with the distillery and brand information, mimicking the Japanese flag.
It’s about as perfect as bottle packaging gets.
The aroma coming off this thing is unlike anything I’ve ever had in a whiskey — in a good way.
This smells amazing, with an emphasis on sweet fruit and specifically the plum that was used in their umeshu coming through loud and clear. That’s mixed in with a bit of caramel and vanilla from the bourbon barrels to make a nicely balanced aroma.
There’s a bit of a difference in the actual flavors that come through. The majority of what I get are the typical single malt whiskey notes; specifically, a bit of honey sweetness, some vanilla, and that malty quality like a slice of bread. But that plum flavor does develop quickly, adding another layer of complexity to the experience and a rather unique flavor, and it lingers long into the aftertaste. Also involved is a bit of cinnamon spice to make things interesting.
What’s nice about these flavors — and something you don’t always see — is that none of them ever are excessively shouty. They all play nicely together, balancing well for a smooth and delicious experience. I know that this is a whiskey that was designed specifically to be used in cocktails, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a great tasting whiskey all on its own.
Typically, with a bit of ice, the more delicate flavors tend to drop out of the running. Bolder flavors do better, but the lighter and sweeter ones can get lost. As you’d expect from a whiskey designed to be watered down and mixed, though, that doesn’t happen here.
The only thing that has changed is that the intensity of the flavors seem a bit muted compared to their levels when taken neat. All of the flavors (and even the aromas!) are still there, just not quite as well saturated as before.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
This is a whiskey that was designed to be mixed, but this clearly isn’t the intended cocktail. An old fashioned works best with rich and dark flavors, and in this case we’ve got a much lighter flavor profile that we’re working with.
That said, this isn’t terrible. There’s nothing that clashes here between the flavors in the whiskey and the angostura bitters. It just comes off as a light and fruity take on the classic cocktail. I suggest a bit of orange zest in there if you want to lean into that lighter take on things, but personally I think there are better cocktails in which to enjoy this whiskey.
They designed this whiskey specifically to work well in a highball. All I can say after one sip is: mission accomplished.
The biggest issue I usually have with a Japanese whiskey highball (which is whiskey and ginger ale) is that there isn’t quite enough flavor in the whiskey to really balance out or compliment the ginger in the ginger ale. Or, even with a club soda take, to really be noticeable. You’re watering down the spirit quite a bit, so you need something that really stands out.
That’s what this does perfectly. That flavor is just loud and clear enough to be recognizable without overpowering the experience. And that plum flavor is the perfect slightly darker and richer accompanying note to the bright and cheerful ginger.
This is a whiskey designed for one single use case… but in making the perfect spirit for a highball, they accidentally made a whiskey that is interesting and delicious all on its own. There are some amazing and interesting flavors that they are pulling off here — and when further combined with the great care and attention that went into the packaging, I feel like this is a winner.
|St. George Baller Single Malt Whiskey|
Produced By: St. GeorgeProduction Location: California, United States
Classification: Single Malt Whiskey
Aging: 3 Years
Proof: 47% ABV
Price: $69.99 / 750 ml
Overall Rating: 4/5
This doesn’t happen very often these days, but this bottle earned a permanent spot on my whiskey shelf.