In Rye Spirits
By: Laura Beck, Photos by Jessica Saia, Designed by Mary Dauterman
This story is brought to you by the great people over at the Bold Italic. The Bold Italic is an online magazine, shop, and events hub in San Francisco. We celebrate the free-wheeling spirit of the city.
My love for the spirit started one night, closing at my very first waitressing job. I sidled up to the bar and ordered a Midori Sour from Sophia, the imposing Swedish bartender who was known for literally kicking the asses of drunken frat boys, and for chasing down people who didn’t tip properly and laying into them in her mother tongue. Sophia quickly set me straight – she said it was impossible to drink something neon-green and still be taken seriously. Then, she laid out a variety of hardcore beverages and made me pick a new favorite. Having been used to drinks that tasted like artificial melon mixed with 10 pounds of sugar, it was hard for me to get my taste buds behind something that tasted like alcohol. Yuck. I finally settled on a Crown and water, probably because it was the weakest of the choices given, and it became my signature beverage.
Over the years, my palate developed and I became aware that Crown tasted slightly of earwax; I eventually upgraded to fancier hooch. Since then, I’ve been spending entire paychecks on the good stuff. So when I heard that Anchor Brewing, famous for its California-style steam beer, also had a distillery that produces truly stellar whiskeys, I had to find out more.
When I first told friends I was writing a story about Anchor Distilling Company, I was greeted with, “Anchor has a distillery? What the what?” Longtime San Francisco residents who spend many of their waking hours blitzed off Manhattans had no clue that Anchor made spirits. Its gin – Junípero – is a little easier to find because, frankly, it can be bottled and shipped much more quickly. Its whiskey, however, bottled under the name Old Potrero, must go through a many-stepped process, and is aged to sweet liquor perfection for several years in oak barrels. I decide that the best way to find out more is to see where all this happens by visiting Anchor Distilling, and, more importantly, taste Old Potrero for myself.
Anchor Brewing and Distilling is housed in an imposing red brick building on the corner of Mariposa and De Haro. You know you’re getting close to Anchor when you notice a strong smell of SpaghettiOs. For years I wondered why Potrero Hill reeked like canned pasta. It turns out the smell comes from the yeasts used in brewing beer. You can follow your nose straight to the source. That’s pretty much exactly how I found the building.
Tucked away in a tight corner of the brewery, the tiny distillery is sandwiched between boxes and boxes of beer. This is where I meet Bruce Joseph, Anchor’s master distiller. Bruce is a big guy and so cool, I don’t know whether to wish he was my boyfriend or my dad. Anchor was his first real job, and he knows whiskey like the rest of us know, well, stuff we’re really familiar with. Bruce tells me about the beginnings of Anchor’s distilling division: It was 1996, and it was crammed into the same corner it is now.
When Bruce and co. first started distilling whiskey they had no clue what they were doing. They were just a bunch of beer brewers who thought it might be fun to make whiskey. Bruce tells me about going through batch after batch of shitty product until finally they came upon something drinkable. Of course, there was a celebration – with plenty of whiskey.
Most simply put, whiskey is a distilled spirit from a mash of grain that is aged in barrels. George Washington made rye whiskey, and original Anchor owner Fritz Maytag names him as an inspiration. Anchor uses the same process that Washington made famous 200 years ago, which involves boiling in stills and aging in barrels. The stills have parts that are custom-made and the specifications for the barrels are unique to each batch. This shit is taken very seriously.
In accordance with how Washington did it, Anchor actually makes three kinds of whiskey, although all of them rye. To be considered rye whiskey, United States federal regulations say that the liquor must be made with more than 50% rye, but Anchor thinks that’s a cop-out. All of its whiskeys are pot-distilled from a mash of 100% malted rye; the only differences between them are the types of barrels in which they're aged. The 18th Century Style Whiskey is aged in lightly toasted oak barrels, which gives it an amber color and a smooth caramel flavor. The 19th Century Style Whiskey is aged in charred handmade oak barrels, which imparts a maple color and a rich, almost smoky taste.
After sampling the 18th Century Style and 19th Century Style, I notice the third whiskey, which we weren’t offered to taste. I ask Bruce about it and he says, “Oh yes, Hotaling’s.” Turns out, Hotaling’s whiskey is quite rare and named after another famous whiskey. At the turn of the century, A.P. Hotaling & Co. had a whiskey warehouse at 451 Jackson Street. During San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and resulting fire, while much of the city burned, the very alcoholic whiskey ironically remained untouched. In fact, there is a famous poem that Charles K. Field wrote about the incident:
Anchor’s Hotaling’s whiskey is a shout-out to the brave, possibly liquored up employees who risked their lives to save the hooch. According to the distillery's website, it was made as “[a] commemoration of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, and in celebration of our remarkable city’s rebirth.”
It’s aged 15-plus years in once-used (by Anchor), charred oak whiskey barrels. Because of the incredibly long aging process, it’s extremely rare and commands upwards of a Benjamin a bottle, but word on the street is that its smooth, aged whiskey perfection makes it worth it. Although, when I ask Bruce about the common belief that the longer a whiskey has aged, the tastier it’ll be, he sets me straight. Apparently the aging process is important but more or less overvalued. Bruce speaks of tasting 20-, 30-, and 35-year-old whiskeys and finding more depth and flavor in the younger varieties. I learn that probably the two most important factors in making a good whiskey are the materials that make the barrel and the quality of the grains.
Even more important to getting the best-tasting whiskey is drinking it in the proper manner, and that’s where most Americans fall short. One issue the folks at Anchor encountered was consumers drinking the whiskeys incorrectly. Well, maybe not incorrectly, but not to its ultimate deliciousness. You see, until very recently, Anchor bottled the whiskey at whatever proof it came out of the barrel, usually about 130-proof. Bruce said they cautioned people to drink it watered down – he believes that it tastes best at about 90-proof – but most don’t listen. The result? Lots of folks sucking down a subpar product and getting super wasted because of it. Now, Anchor slightly waters down the whiskey to about 90-proof to ensure that everyone can enjoy it responsibly, and deliciously.
Bruce serves me the whiskey with a side of cold water and encouraged mixing until I found the right proof for me. Turns out, I like it fairly watery, so maybe I’m not the whiskey drinking hard-ass I thought I was.
Bruce says Anchor plans to expand the distilling operation across the street, former home of Anchor’s ill-fated winery. In the new space, they’ll finally have room to grow, and invest more seriously in the whiskey business. This is good news because as it stands now, getting your hands on Old Potrero is not for the faint of heart. With such limited quantities, sometimes only a few bottles can ship to retailers. When asked, Bruce didn’t even know where one could buy Old Potrero, but after much sleuthing, I tracked down a few sources (see Do It Yourself).
Leaving the distillery, I wanted a bottle so badly that another impulse from my teens almost took over, and I had to fight the strong urge to five-finger-discount it. I put on my adult pants and tried to buy a bottle, but unfortunately Anchor isn’t permitted to sell – even the employees who make the stuff have to go all Veronica Mars on it. I leave with a new appreciation for all the hard work that goes into creating such a complex beverage, and the strong urge to head to Bourbon & Branch to get busy on a Manhattan.
Anchor Distilling offers a new series of distillery tours once a week. Admission is free but it’s by appointment only. If you’re looking to get your hands on some Old Potrero (and you are), you can get on the waiting list at places like K&L Wine Merchants, and Ledgers Liquors in Berkeley who get small shipments occasionally. And by small, I mean two bottles at a time. Rumor has it that Anchor has a special agreement with Tower Market, and that it’s the easiest place to procure a bottle. You didn’t hear that from me, and please don’t pass it on. I need a secret stash!
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