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Podcast

Tapping Into The Terroir Of Gin With St George Spirits

Gin has the power to evoke a sense of place and for Lance Winters from St George Spirits that place exists within Terroir

By: Tiff Christie|March 10,2022

The US craft distillation movement has come a long way in recent years, especially for gin. No longer seen as the lesser of the white spirits, US gin is contributing not only to the conversation but also to the glass.

Unlike many other spirits… I’ll start that again. Unlike many other spirits, gin is in the unique position to be able to capture the true sense of place through the use of local botanicals. It is a liquid that can express the essential character and spirit of a particular locale.

One such gin that is embracing the flavours that be found on its doorstep is St. George distilleries Terroir Gin expression. To find out more, we talked to Lance Winters, president and master distiller for St. George Spirits about their botanical gin, its distillation, and how it can be used.

For more information on the Terrior Gin, go to stgeorgespirits.com

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Interviewer:
The US craft distillation movement has come a long way in recent years, especially for gin. No longer seen as the lesser of the white spirits, US gin is contributing not only to the conversation but also to the glass. Unlike many other spirits... I'll start that again. Unlike many other spirits, gin is in the unique position to be able to capture the true sense of place through the use of local botanicals. It is a liquid that can express the essential character and spirit of a particular locale.
One such gin that is embracing the flavours that be found on its doorstep is St. George distilleries Terroir Gin expression. To find out more, we talked to Lance Winters, president and master distiller for St. George Spirits about their botanical gin, its distillation, and how it can be used. Thanks for joining us, Lance.

Lance Winters:
Thanks for having me on, Tiff. It's a real honour.

Interviewer:
Now, you define your Terroir Gin as being an ode to the wild beauty of the Golden State. What exactly does that mean?

Lance Winters:
Gin is often a commodity. And when you look at the bulk of the gins that are out there, they're all inspired by, to a great degree, London Dry style. And if everyone is being inspired by the exact same thing, there's not a lot of variation. There's not a lot of room for creative expression. When we approached making a gin at St. George, it wasn't really with the idea of making a gin.
I had picked my son up from a summer camp. At the time, I think he was about five years old, picked him up from a summer camp in the Hills and was really taken by the smells in the woods and thought to myself, God, I would really love to be able to capture this. And I got to work the next day, and I thought, I'm a distiller. This is what I do. I capture smells.
And so, I put the idea in my head and kept it rolling through there until my wife, Ellie, had said, "Hey, you make a lot of different spirits though. The one thing you don't make is the one thing that I really like, that's gin. What's going on here? And so, I started thinking about making a gin, and that flavour profile was one that was really resonant for a gin.
And so, because of the fact that it's inspired by the California wilderness and the smells that are there, that's where that whole idea that it's an ode to the wild beauty of Golden State.

Interviewer:
Now you talked about gins being based on London Drys. The main profile feature of a London Dry is the fact that it's Juniper Forward, but your gin is also Juniper Forward.

Lance Winters:
It does, but there are lots of places to be able to diverge from that path. There's a quote from Pablo Picasso that I love, and it is "Learn the rules like a pro, so that you can break them like an artist." And the rule that we have to adhere to when making gin is it's got to have Juniper. And that's great because Juniper is at its base of very, very forestry botanical. It's got notes of pine. It's got some peppery qualities. And if you crush a handful of Juniper and take a deep inhalation with your eyes, you can imagine a forest.
All I'm doing with the Terroir Gin is filling in the other parts of that landscape and building it to be a little bit more complex in that landscape direction.

Interviewer:
How difficult is it to bottle that sense of place?

Lance Winters:
Because of the fact that we have very, very high standards, and because of the fact that in my head, there was a very, very clear image of what that aroma and flavour profile should be, it took a lot of trial and error. And just picture sitting in a still or standing in front of a still, and you've loaded it with botanicals and you start to heat it. And that still is going to take a few hours for it to really start to come over. And then, you have to go through and evaluate whether you've been close or not.
It's not like doing a painting where, as you're painting, you can change this or that on the canvas. You have to put everything in motion, and then sit back and see if it comes outright. So, it took about six months. It was a difficult process, but at the end of the day, we had to get it right. We had ourselves as critics to be able to appease on that.
And so, we kept going until we got it right until what we smelled and tasted was the image of those hills that we love roaming around and hiking.

Interviewer:
How many versions were there?

Lance Winters:
There were probably 30 separate iterations on the lab still, which is a 30-litre still. And then, once we moved it up to our 1500-litre production stills, I think we did about six or seven iterations to be able to get it dialed in at that size.

Interviewer:
I've read a review of the gin that talks about the Douglas Fir being one of the best botanicals to really bring forth the flavour of the Juniper. Do you agree with that?

Lance Winters:
I think it's a lovely one. I'm not necessarily certain that it brings forward the flavour of the Juniper so much, but I do believe that it works in a great harmony with the Juniper. I think that all of it works together to be able to create this imagery of a landscape.

Interviewer:
Now, other than the Douglas Fir that I've mentioned, what other botanicals did you actually use in the gin?

Lance Winters:
We group them into a couple of different groups. One is what I call a true terroir. The Douglas Fir falls into that true terroir category because it's something that we find in that landscape. Other things that we actually find in that landscape would be things like wild fennel and California Bay Laurel, which is similar to, but not the same as the classic Laurel leaves, the bay leaves that you use in cooking. It's got a lot of really, really lovely wintergreen qualities to it.
And then, coastal sage, which has this really, really great intense coastal forest land character to it. After that, there are things that we use to emulate parts of the landscape. Cinnamon fills in the roll for dusty sun-baked trails. Cinnamon's not just spicy, it’s dusty and sweet, and it's reminiscent of dusty trails. Orris root and angelica root provide this great forest floor mulch, earthy equality, and really dial that in.
And then, of course, we use lemon peel and orange peel to provide brightness. We wok roast the coriander that goes into this gin to be able to reshape the flavour and aroma of the coriander to knock down some of the floral elements.

Interviewer:
That's unusual.

Lance Winters:
Yeah, it is unusual. It's dry roasted and it gives it a Chaparral landscape quality real pretty that way. And then, yeah, of course, Juniper.

Interviewer:
Can you take us through the process of using those botanicals? Do you vapour infuse or how have you gotten the flavours into the liquid?

Lance Winters:
It's an excellent question. The vapour infusion is what we use for the Juniper, as well as for the California Bay Laurel. The ingredients like cinnamon and orris root and angelica root and the peels of the orange and the lemon, those go into the pot. And then, we do a separate distillation of both the Douglas Fir and the coastal sage because we find seasonal variations in those when we harvest them.
And to be able to mitigate those seasonal variations, they are distilled separate from everything else, and then blend it right before bottling back into the gin.

Interviewer:
To someone who hasn't tasted the gin before, how would you describe it?

Lance Winters:
I definitely describe it as a forest. It's a walk in the woods. If you're out in the woods, far away from civilisation, you take a deep breath, you can almost feel the cool in it. You can smell the trees. And the nice thing about this is that while I see it as a California forest, I put it in front of a bartender at the distillery before we'd even released it. And this bartender was somebody who was working in Las Vegas at the time, but she grew up in North Dakota, and she closed her eyes and smiled and said, "I feel like I'm home in a forest in North Dakota."
And I had put it in front of somebody at a bar, not far from the distillery. The bartender said that he felt like he was at his parents' cabin, which wasn't far from the distillery. He put it in front of a gentleman who was sitting at the bar who happened to be from Poland. And he said, "I feel like I'm in the old country with my grandmother foraging for mushrooms.
So, there's an opportunity for interpretation for everyone. It's not just about California forest. It can take you to anywhere that you have a scent memory for that is a forested place.

Interviewer:
That's interesting. So, it's almost like a universal taste and scent.

Lance Winters:
It is. I like to think of distillation as an art form in as much as it's a way that we as distillers can reach out and touch other human beings and provoke an emotional response in them. And in that, just like with any other art form, there is always room for personal interpretation. You can make whatever that piece of art is your own in whatever way you want to. And this gin works in that way very beautifully.

Interviewer:
A lot of people are saying that the US is now finally going through a gin renaissance. Do you agree with that idea?

Lance Winters:
I do. Hopefully, they're not a whole lot of people from the US listening, but we're slow. We tend to be very, very slow on the uptake of things. And again, we tend to favour things that are relatively sweet and we are finally coming around to enjoying gins. And that's a wonderful thing because it means that there are more people who have the opportunity to experience what we're doing. That said, even if that wasn't happening, we'd be happy doing what we're doing because we do it for the sheer joy of distilling the things that we love.

Interviewer:
Would you say that where US gins will make their impact is by finding place with the botanicals in gin?

Lance Winters:
I'd like to say that's the case, but I know that our industry tends to be driven quite a bit by marketing and marketing trends. And so, it remains to be seen what actually drives it. I've seen some really, really tremendous gins that have come out that buck the trend. And I would love to see those be the ones that take the lead everywhere, whether it's our Terroir or it's something from Four Pillars down in Australia that are making some really phenomenal delicious things, even out to Hendrick's or Tanqueray Ten. People who are shifting the dialogue.
The beauty of something like a gin is that with all the different botanicals, you can change up what botanicals you're using. You can change up the ratios that you're using them at and find something that's a real form of self-expression. It doesn't even have to be about expressing a sense of a place. It can be about expressing who you are through just these different ratios of ingredients.

Interviewer:
So, does that mean that you believe that the future of gin is very much in the inverted commerce modern style of gin?

Lance Winters:
I definitely hope so because the last thing that we need is to just keep going back with a sense of nostalgia and recreating history. And if I could make a gin that is a great London Dry style, but what have I added to the global conversation by making something that's already been made again and again, and again? I want to make something that's new, and you can like it or you can hate it. Both are valid, but if I'm saying something that's been said dozens of times, what am I doing? I'm not adding anything to the world.

Interviewer:
Now, what you were saying earlier about the US being a little bit slow with the trend, you do have two other very fine white spirit categories in vodka and tequila. Do you think gin will be able to really get a wedge into their dominance?

Lance Winters:
I keep my fingers crossed. My hope is that as we grow as consumers, we continue to explore categories and find something we love in all of them, and the gin doesn't get left behind in that. Every spirit category has baggage for people. Right? We've all had bad experiences with something like gin, with something like spirit. My hope is that we can all move past that and try to enjoy them and experience them for what they are.

Interviewer:
As you were coming to the trend later than the UK for example, is there a lot more place for innovation or has the innovation already been done?

Lance Winters:
I think there's tons of room. Again, there's an infinite amount of variation that you can put into botanicals. There are botanicals that people haven't even dared to use yet in a gin and someone's going to do it. I think there's lots of upside to the whole thing still.

Interviewer:
Are you a gin drinker yourself?

Lance Winters:
God, yes. I wasn't 11 years ago. I had some very bad experiences with gin and Roses lime juice. And I intended to stay away, but I've found a new fondness for it in the last 11 years.

Interviewer:
So, we really have your wife to thank for that.

Lance Winters:
You really do. Her name's Ellie, and she's a real prize. She's absolutely wonderful. And yeah, she steered me in the right direction.

Interviewer:
Now, you mentioned that the gin had flavours that remind you of a forest. Does that make it a savoury gin in taste?

Lance Winters:
It does. One of my favourite ways to enjoy it is in a martini and it's at its most savoury in a martini. It tends to be very sage forward in a martini. And there's nothing I love more than to have a couple of dozen oysters and a couple of dozen martinis with the Terroir Gin. It's a great pairing because, here, one of the places that I love to go and get oysters, that same forest comes right down to the ocean, and you can smell that forest while you're eating oysters there. And this provides a real connection that way.
That said, it works beautifully in a Bramble. If you're familiar with it, I apologise for going over it, but Crème d'Amour gin, lime juice, shake and strained over pellet ice. And it's one of the greatest, and that Crème d'Amour, the sweetness from it really works providing that Brambly inclusion into a landscape for the gin.

Interviewer:
So, it is quite a versatile gin in terms of the cocktails that you can make with it.

Lance Winters:
Yeah, it works great with the Bramble, but a Daisy was actually the first cocktail or variation on a Daisy, was the first cocktail that I actually had it with. I tend to be pompous sometimes about the way that I enjoy this gin and I'm trying to get better about that. But when I first walked into a bar where a friend of mine was a bartender and I had a sample bottle not even labeled yet. And I poured it for him. He said, "What cocktail do you make with this?" And I said, "You don't, you just pour it in a glass and drink it."
And he grabbed a Collin glass and a mixing tin and mixed some of the gin with fresh lemon juice and Slivovitz and Crème d'Amour and shook that and strained it, put a splash of soda water on top of it. And it was fantastic. And it brought it to life. I see that as a variation on it, Daisy, and it was great.

Interviewer:
Now, the gin's been out for quite a while. I imagine you've seen a lot of bartenders playing around and experimenting with it. What's the most unusual drink that you've seen a bartender create?

Lance Winters:
Ooh. You put me on the spot there, Tiff. I'm hard-pressed to think of a really unusual one. I think my friend, Ryan, who was mixing it with Slivovitz was the one who I thought was taking it in a really strange direction. And I didn't think it would work at all. It's still one of my favourite cocktails that's ever been made with it.

Interviewer:
If somebody is buying it for the first time, how would you recommend they first approach it and use it?

Lance Winters:
I think just chilling it down and sipping it neat from a glass to be able to see where it goes. It's a great way to get to know it before you change it into a cocktail. And I don't recommend that just with ours. I recommend that with any spirit that you're buying, get to know a little bit before you start messing about with it. So, sipping it neat would be a great way. And then, I would say, try it with a Bramble. You can't go wrong that way.

Interviewer:
Now, what is the reaction of the public being to the gin?

Lance Winters:
It's been great. When I initially put it together, the head of my sales team said, "This is just going to be an ego project for you. Nobody's going to like this." And it very quickly became our number one selling item. We would take it to tastings. And we have a lot of products that we make. We have a little bit of an attention deficit disorder problem. We love distilling things. And so, when we go somewhere, we'll have a dozen products that we're tasting and people look at them and say, "Oh, I want to try that. I want to try that. I want to try that. Oh, gins. No, I don't like gins."
And as soon as they say that, I know what I want to pour for them. I want to pour the Terroir Gin. And I say, "Look, you try this." And if you don't like it, I'll drink it for you. And they pick it up and they smell it and they say, "Ooh, that's really different." And then, they taste it and they end up loving it nine times out of 10. That's the non-gin drinker.
The gin drinker comes up and 10 times out of 10, they like it. It's totally different from any gin I've ever had. So, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. I think that the non-drinkers are looking for something that's different from the gins that put them off gin years back. The gin drinkers are looking for something that's a little different. I think it's one of the reasons that something like the Tanqueray Malacca gin or the Tanqueray Ten or Hendrick's took off as well as they did, just because that they provided a different point of view.

Interviewer:
Now, since you created the botanical, you've created another, a further three more gins. Do you want to tell us a little bit about those?

Lance Winters:
Sure. So, Terroir was our first and it was the one that really got me going. As we were looking for other botanical ingredients to go in into that, to be able to flesh out that landscape, there were a lot of things that we tried out individually that were delicious, but really had no place in the landscape that was Terroir. So, we decided to create a home for those. And that became our Botanivore. Botanivore is one more of a meadow in bloom forest with 19 different botanicals that go into that one, which provides a lot of great balance on the palette.

Lance Winters:
We learned about balancing a lot of big, loud botanicals when we were making our Absinthe 15 years ago now. And if I'm having a gin and tonic, that is my go-to gin for a gin and tonic. The other of our main line of gins is our Dry Rye. And it is a much slimmer botanicals build.
It's Juniper, coriander, caraway, black pepper, lime peel, and grapefruit peel. And that one is really just all about, and the base is 100% unmalted rye, which gives this big multi-peppery character. It reads more like a Genever. And so, it's a lovely one for whiskey cocktails, as well as gin cocktails because of all that malting.

Interviewer:
Yeah. I could see that working. Yes.

Lance Winters:
Yeah. And one of the things that it's always done really well for me is Negroni because it feels like it puts a completely different texture on the Negroni. A typical Negroni is something that's painted on white canvas. A Dry Rye and Negroni is black velvet.

Interviewer:
Right. Now, you also have that in Reposado.

Lance Winters:
It's barely aged to a, I think the current expression of that is a 36-month barrel age. It's a combination of different wine casks, three different red wines. And so, it picks up a little bit of a pink tinge after the first week or so in the barrel. And then, slowly malts to a brown after that. It is one that because of the unaged rye as a base for the gin, it really, really works with barrel ageing. It makes sense to barrel age it.

Interviewer:
What do you want people to take away their experience with the gin, with the Terroir Gin?

Lance Winters:
My big takeaway, and one of the reasons that when we do a tasting, if somebody says, if I'm only going to taste one thing, which will I taste, it's the reason that we put the Terroir in front of them is we want them to see who we are as distillers. We want them to see that, the takeaway that we want them to have is that we take a different approach to this. We're not looking to create something that a focus group said 99% of the people are going to love.
We're trying to create things that are transportive. We're trying to create things that you won't find anywhere else. And we're trying to express something about the things that we love. And that's the takeaway that this is an act of passion. It's an act of caring about ingredients.

Interviewer:
Will you be creating other gins in the future that are based on place as well?

Lance Winters:
If I find other places that inspire me anywhere near as much as these Hills and have great aromatic qualities, absolutely. I learned a while back to never say never. I used to say, I'm never going to do this or that. And typically a week later, I would do it. So, I'm not going to do that anymore.

Interviewer:
Now, I imagine the gin is available …

Lance Winters:
We're 43 states I think across the US. We're in Canada, most of the Caribbean, Panama, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland. We're in Singapore and Australia and New Zealand, Hong Kong, China. So, we're getting out there, we're getting out there.

Interviewer:
Are there markets that you would like to go to that you, maybe through COVID or just time haven't got to yet?

Lance Winters:
Oh God. Yeah. Yeah. All of them. I don't know about you, but COVID has made me feel like I've been locked down away from all the things and people that I care about. I love going to all the different bars and restaurants that the world has to offer, so I'm ready to get back out to all of them, every single one.

Interviewer:
All right. Well, if people want more information on these St. George Terroir Gin, they can of course go to your website, which is stgeorgespirits.com, or connect with the brand on your socials.

Lance Winters:
That's correct. We're on both Instagram and Twitter, so very, very easy to find us.

Interviewer:
Well, Lance, look, thank you so much

Lance Winters:
Tiff, it's really great to connect with you. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I appreciate it.

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