Uncovering master distiller Lance Winters’ unusual journey into the world of whiskey
Written by Maggie Kimberl
Lance Winters, master distiller of California’s St. George Spirits, was inducted this year into the Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame. We caught up with him to learn about his unusual journey, from working as a nuclear engineer in the United States Navy to becoming one of the nation’s top distillers at one of its oldest craft distilleries.
Maggie Kimberl (MK): Let’s kick off by discovering how you got into distilling. What was your route into it?
Lance Winters (LW): For my 13th birthday, I asked my mom for a wok and I started doing stir fry at home, and as I progressed I was thinking that I wanted to
be a chef. I went to work at a restaurant when I was in high school, and I realized that the stress in a commercial kitchen is ridiculous, so I joined the Navy and spent eight years in the Navy. Towards the end of that I started brewing beer at home, and that became one of those creative outlets where I could make really good beer and put that in front of friends.
When I got out of the Navy, I got a job at a brew-pub in the Bay area, which is no longer here, but I went to work brewing and during my tenure, a buddy of mine brought me a Lagavulin. I had never tried a whisky before that had that sort of storytelling capability. It completely changed my worldview about whiskey. When I found out that a single malt whiskey is distilled from beer, I thought, I already have half of this down, how hard could it be to learn the other half? I set up a still in my garage and I started bringing kegs of beer home. It was a 25-gallon still. I could bring two kegs, fill [them] up, and still have five gallons left over to be able to sip on while I was running it.
MK: And then you took a bottle of that whiskey and presented it to Jörg [Rupf, founder of St. George Spirits]. What was your intention there?
LW: While I was running my still in my garage, one of my neighbors came over and pounded on the door of the garage… I almost had a heart attack because I thought it was the feds and that somebody knew I was running an illicit still in my garage. I’m like, this is it, I’m going from having a great time to going to federal prison. Turns out it was just one of my neighbors standing there with a beer mug thinking that I was brewing beer.
At that point, I realized that I did not want to continue doing this illicitly, and I wanted to find someplace where I could ply this as a real trade. I knew of Jörg just through press clippings and trying his eau-de-vie over the years. I drove over to see him and to talk about a job; I brought in my beer, set it down on the table as a resume, and he smelled it and tasted it, and looked at me and said, “That’s inoffensive.” At that moment, my heart cracked into a million pieces because inoffensive is barely acceptable, that’s C-minus level work. But he said, we’ll try you out for a month and see how that works out. That was 27 years ago, so I think I passed.
MK: What was the biggest adjustment you faced going from brewing and distilling for fun and turning it into a career?
LW: Maybe the hardest thing was adjusting to being able to trust my boss. When I first started, it was a rainy February, 27 years ago, and about two weeks after I started I got a phone call from Jörg on the weekend. I’m like, what’s this guy doing? He wants me to come in to work or something. And he says to me, “Hey, it’s been raining like crazy, it’s supposed to be really nice next week, why don’t you take Monday off and just enjoy some sunshine?” Immediately I started thinking, oh no, what did I do, how did I f*** this up? Is he looking for somebody else? Of course, he was just being kind. I was adjusting to somebody who’s ethical and has standards of human kindness and patience. That was surprisingly difficult.
MK: You’ve been making American single malt whiskey since the 90s, since before there was such a category, so what was it like trying to create this product that effectively didn’t exist?
LW: I love creating products that don’t exist. It’s a lot easier for me than trying to create something that says something about me or us…There’s more room for creative freedom inside a category that doesn’t exist. Creating it was the easy part. Working with the federal government on what to call it was difficult because there was no American single malt and aging a whiskey in a used barrel; it’s not something that they had regulations set up for in the United States at that time. We did a whole lot of back and forth with what was the ATF at the time, now the TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau], just trying to get a name on it. Our label has always read as a distilled spirits specialty. When you do a distilled spirits specialty, you list the commodity or commodities on the label and say that it’s distilled from that, so ours is distilled from barley malt mash.
Our whisky was three years old and I brought it to Whisky Fest in San Francisco in around 2000… people would walk up to the table and say, “So what is this?” It’s California single malt. And they’d say, “Oh wow, Scotch?” No, it’s made here in California, right across the bay. “Is it a Bourbon?” There’s no corn in this. “Well, how old is it?” Three years… and they would walk away. They wouldn’t even taste it; I was depressed by their reaction to the whole thing.
I think once I get a product onto somebody’s palate I can get the win on that, but if they’re just going to walk by and not experience it at all, then there’s no chance. It took a while to overcome that, but I’d say probably eight years later, I was at Whisky Fest as a tourist, and the tables that were busiest were the small producers with the interesting new things that they were making. It had changed quite a bit. In the meantime, we hadn’t laid down enough whiskey to make it worth our while to go in for an event like that. I think we released 600 cases of our regular single malt and 6,000 of our Baller [Single Malt] last year, and it’s only because we haven’t laid down enough to grow them bigger than that after 26 and a half years. But here’s the problem. We boxed ourselves into a corner because as those first few years progressed, we’re sitting on more and more single malt whiskey, which is aging, and so suddenly our whiskey is predominantly eight- and nine-year-old whiskey. The cycle to be able to grow it becomes longer and longer. We need to leapfrog and get caught up on that. Just about two months ago, we leased another 20,000 square feet here in Alameda to store barrels because we are out of room. Now we can start making more barrels and putting away some more inventory, which is exciting.
MK: To what do you attribute the success and continued growth of St. George Spirits over the last 45 years?
LW: I would say that it is an unwavering dedication [to] quality… we won’t put out a product unless we love it. If we don’t say to ourselves and one another, I’d drink the s*** out of that, it’s not going to get bottled. We are the gatekeepers of quality. The first job is for us to impress ourselves with these things, and we’ve stayed true to the ideals of using distillation as an art form.
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