When alchemists invented distilling, they were trying to boil out the essential spirits that lived within all matter. Booze was just a happy accident. Today, Lance Winters, the distiller at St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, is still experimenting with the essences of life, but now booze is the whole point.
Winters does make familiar tipples—vodka, rum, brandy, gin, and bourbon, which he ages on racks in his distillery, a former aircraft hangar. But this alchemical adventurist really shines in his work with OPENrestaurant, a San Francisco art/activist/foodie group that hosts pop-up dinners. For those, he fires up two lab-sized stills—mini versions of the giant copper ones he normally uses—to make eaux-de-vie, or unaged spirits, out of the most unlikely ingredients. Mint and cacao were the least unusual; from there he moved to mushroom, crab, seaweed, and even foie gras. “If I can get enough sandalwood, I’ll do that,” he says. “I want to move in a savory direction, something that smells and tastes like leather.” Generally, you can’t really distill a vegetable or a goose liver—there’s not enough sugar to ferment. So Winters first macerates the stuff in high-alcohol spirits, like brandy.
What’s astonishing is that Winters’ creations taste fantastic—weird, but fantastic. The crab is like visiting a fishing dock; the seaweed is like getting hit by a wave. It’s a process that requires some pretty arcane knowledge. “I’ve learned more about distilling from old perfume books than from distilling books,” he says. Like, how did he know how to make crab eau-de-vie? He’d already worked with mushroom and knew crab was similar: Fungal cell walls are made of chitin, the same sugar polymer that makes crustacean shells hard. Well, duh.