One whiff, and I knew the guys at St. George had done it again — their new line of vodkas hit all the right notes, albeit some unusual ones. The bottle I was sniffing was the Green Chile Vodka, made with jalapeño, serrano and habanero chile peppers, and red and yellow bell peppers as well as lime zest and cilantro. The sweet heat and spice of the peppers was palpable, and a quick sip followed through with pure chile pepper flavors backed with a surprisingly subtle heat, a nice mix that got the juices flowing.
St. George Spirits has been a pioneer in the craft-distilling movement for more than 30 years. Back in the company’s infancy, it created eau-de-vie in a copper-pot still using a recipe from founder Jorg Rupf’s German childhood. Master distiller Lance Winters joined Rupf years later, and the two came up with the idea of making flavor-infused vodka using the eau-de-vie method. The process involves fermenting ripe fruit and roasted grains, building the flavor on the front end before distillation. “We learn more from chefs and perfume makers than from other distillers,” Winters said in a recent interview.
Hangar 1 Vodka is born
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Next up they made a kaffir lime flavor, which reflected their love of food from Southeast Asia; it had an appealing soft, woody quality that was very popular. Finally, the pair got a case of Buddha’s hand, the unusual, intensely floral citrus fruit, and fermented and distilled that; this became Winters’ favorite flavor, and the legend of Hangar 1 vodka was born.
Hangar 1 was so popular it was hard for Rupf and Winters to keep up with production, which prompted them to move into the spacious airplane hangar from their first distillery. The brand’s wild success exceeded both of their expectations.
In 2010, they sold off Hangar 1 to Proximo Spirits and, not long after, Rupf retired. The management at St. George signed a non-compete agreement in effect until the beginning of this year, when it released a trio of new vodkas. Besides the green chile flavor, the distiller crafted California Citrus Vodka out of Valencia and Seville oranges and bergamot and All Purpose Vodka made with a non-GMO base spirit and a touch of distilled pears. By all accounts, each variety is stellar, garnering a lot of praise from the press and liquor industry pundits.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the green chile variety is a “real stunner,”and K&L Wine Merchants published this compliment on its website: “All hail the new kings of American vodka. The boys from the East Bay are back to claim the crown and the throne.”
A little heat for your cocktails
The Green Chile Vodka is by far the most unusual and was inspired by a stint in the early 1990s when Winters worked at a brewpub and would drink the leftover liquid from the house-made salsa fresca. Given that pedigree, the spirit is perfect in bloody Mary cocktails, including an offbeat one made with garden-fresh summer tomatoes, lemon juice and zest and a touch of Sriracha sauce (see recipe below).
The flavor also lends itself to any cocktail with fresh fruit juices. Hopscotch restaurant in Oakland, California, makes one called Your Cheatin’ Heart with pineapple and lime juices and a rim dip of smoked salt. The Spicy Paloma (from St. George) pairs the vodka with grapefruit and lime juices and club soda. Spiking a traditional agua fresca with the chile-laced spirit is a natural, especially when made with any type of melon juice (see recipe below).
Winters and his sidekick, distiller Dave Smith, are original thinkers, artists who use unusual ingredients as their paintbrush and the still as their canvas. The addition of these vodkas to their existing portfolio of 18 liquors — running from fruit brandy to single malt to agricole rum — continues the spirit of originality that has guided the distillery since its inception.
Chile-spiked Agua Fresca
Yield: 1 drink
1 cup watermelon pulp, whirred in a blender to juice
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 1/2 ounces St. George Green Chile Vodka
Lime wedge for garnish
1. Shake the first three ingredients with ice and strain into a coupe glass.
2. Garnish with a lime wedge
Zippy Bloody Mary
Yield: 1 drink
1 medium juicy, ripe tomato, whirred in a blender to thin to a purée
1/2 teaspoon Sriracha sauce
Juice and zest of 1 small lemon
1 1/2 ounces of St. George Green Chile Vodka
Yellow pear or Sungold cherry tomatoes and celery stick for garnish
1. Shake the first four ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
2. Garnish with skewered cherry tomatoes and a celery stick.
Main photo: St. George Spirits owner and master distiller Lance Winters, left, and distiller and blender Dave Smith. Credit: Copyright 2015 Ben Krantz