“Winters is recognized for his love of throwing aside the traditional conventions and expectations of the spirits world, instead using his imagination...”
After decades of endeavoring to bring innovation to an industry that prides itself on tradition, St. George master distiller Lance Winters was inducted into the Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame on February 9th in a ceremony at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, KY. This great honor was 26 years in the making, and marks a real milestone both for Lance and for St. George.
Lance joined St. George expressly because he wanted to make single malt whiskey. This was in 1996, when there was no such category as “American Single Malt” in the whiskey world. On a cold, gray Valentine’s day, a trench-coated Winters approached St. George founder Jörg Rupf with a bottle of home-distilled whiskey, which the latter deemed “inoffensive,” (a real compliment coming from him!) and what began as a one-month trial employment has endured to this day.
In his remarks at Lance’s induction, Whisky Magazine’s Jamie Brodie commended Lance’s “love of throwing aside the traditional conventions and expectations of the spirits world, instead using his imagination and artistic flare.” St. George’s Lot Series single malt was groundbreaking when it debuted in 2000 and remains so today because our approach married Lance’s iconoclastic instincts with Jörg’s abiding love for superlative raw materials. When Lance began at St. George, Jörg didn’t have him make whiskey at first; he had him make eau de vie (unaged fruit brandy), training Lance in the art of capturing as much flavor as possible from peerless fruit. This apprenticeship between a master technician and his creative disciple resulted in a point of view on whiskey making that is unique in the industry to this day.
In the 90s (and for untold decades before) malt whiskey was largely distilled from pale grain and got the majority of its flavor from barrel aging. Lance and Jörg turned those traditions on their head. They treated whiskey as ‘barley eau de vie,’ seeking to get as much flavor as possible from the grain itself. That approach led to our now-iconic mashbill: not one but five roast levels (two row pale, crystal malt, chocolate malt, black patent malt and alder/beechwood-smoked Bamberg malt) which brought Lance’s background as a brewer to the fore. It would be years before other distillers followed suit, and while those years were challenging, they served to cement Lance’s resolve.
In speaking about St. George Single Malt, Lance will often tell stories of offering people a free taste at whiskey festivals.
“How old is your scotch?” they would ask.
“It’s actually not a scotch, it’s an American single malt.”
“Well how old is it?”
“It’s been aged for three years.”
“Ah, no thanks.” And with that, they’d head to the next table, looking for a whiskey that fit the era’s more established parameters.
It takes a fair amount of fortitude to continue making something that people turn down even when it is free, but Lance was in good company here. Jörg faced similar reactions when he began introducing Americans to eau de vie in the 80s. Back then, Jörg sold most of his eau de vie to Europe. Today, we sell almost all of it in the U.S. Lance experienced a similar phenomenon, going from not being able to give single malt away to not being able to produce enough. (While it is gratifying that our Lot Series is now an allocated whiskey, we do wish everyone who wants to pick up a bottle could find one, but ramping up whiskey production is a years-long process.) Being pioneering can mean doing something you believe in for years before others catch on and begin to believe alongside you. That quality is in St. George’s DNA, but it is rewarding to see it celebrated by an institution the likes of Whisky Magazine.
The other characteristic that sets St. George’s single malt apart is our approach to barrel aging. To paraphrase Lance, “the work of the distiller should be the painting, the wood is just the frame.” Using wood with a light hand so that it elevates (rather than overpowers) the ‘barley eau de vie’ gives whiskey drinkers a singular experience. The song (malt whiskey) remains the same, but the instruments (flavor components) are new, imparting timbre and nuance that bring vitality and a sense of discovery to the drinking.
That said, as St. George has grown, we have amassed an eclectic array of barrels we can use for finishing our single malts. That is where head distiller Dave Smith has taken Lance’s innovative approach to whiskey and pushed it forward with his finely-tuned compositional prowess. Just as Lance was once Jörg’s apprentice, Dave studied the art and science of distillation under Lance’s tutelage, learning the rules like a pro so he could break them like an artist. While the majority of whiskey brands aim for consistency in their bottlings year-after-year, St. George Single Malt Whiskey is meant to evolve with each release. In Dave’s words “each Lot should be akin to visiting an old friend who has a few new stories to share with you.”
As it turned out, the Lot Series was just the beginning of whiskey making for St. George. In 2011, Lance and Dave went “barrel-thieving” in some of Kentucky’s most lauded rickhouses. While sourcing whiskey was common at the time, admitting you hadn’t made the whiskey yourself was a practice not always adhered to. Lance and Dave, in their fashion, had a little fun with this by calling the limited release “Breaking and Entering Bourbon Whiskey.” That sold quickly, so the pair reprised their pilfering ways with 2018’s Breaking and Entering American Whiskey, a four grain blend incorporating bourbon and rye whiskies from Kentucky and Tennessee (some of which are wheated) with malt whiskies from St. George for another boundary-breaking release.
2016 saw the release of Baller American Single Malt whiskey, a true exemplar of Lance and Dave’s desire to push American whiskey to new places. Inspired by meals shared with the owners of Oakland’s Ramen Shop, the whiskey is made with a nod to Japanese malts. We filter it through maple charcoal, age it in both American and French oak, then finish it in barrels that held house-made umeshu (a tart, aromatic liqueur made from California-grown Japanese stonefruit). This admittedly esoteric process begins anew the St. George tradition of making something that others might find confusing at first, with the hope that it will one day reach a wide audience thirsty for spirits that add a new voice to the conversation.
Back in Kentucky this past Friday, and there to receive rather than rob, Winters, in a blue cashmere suit sans tie, thanked the room for continuing to inspire. He cited those who “pull products out of their own hearts” to “express themselves” making the whiskey industry “more vibrant and more interesting.” The glowingly-lit banquet room was a far cry from the fog-ensconced warehouse where Lance first approached Jörg with his vision for making a great American single malt, but Lance’s passion for breaking boundaries, so clear in his remarks, remained undimmed.
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