The northern California producer uses its brewing history as well as modern trends to create distinctive craft spirits.
San Francisco’s Potrero Hill is regarded as one of the sunniest neighborhoods in the city; its steep topography also makes it one of the most unwalkable. But if you do manage to hike up to the top (or get to it by car, as our group did), you are rewarded with stunning views of the city’s skyline and the Bay – and a new space to experience some of the best craft spirits coming out of the city.
I arrived at the top of Potrero Hill on a cloudless day to bottle my own gin, tour, and taste at a facility that dates back to 1896. That year, Anchor Steam Brewery was founded – so named because of the trademarked style of beer the company invented and made popular. Steam beer (called “California common beer” when made in a similar method by other breweries) is thought to have originated because it was brewed out of necessity since refrigeration wasn’t available. Instead, brewers pumped the hot wort up to bins on the rooftop, where it was rapidly cooled by the winds blowing in from the Pacific.
In 1956, Frederick “Fritz” Louis Maytag III purchased Anchor Steam, saving it from closure. He moved it to its current location in 1977 and took up residence on the Potrero Hill property at a rooftop apartment. In 1993, Maytag launched Anchor Distilling Company at the same location – sparking the craft spirits industry that’s booming today (more on that later). Last year, the company converted Maytag’s apartment to a tasting room, bar and rooftop garden, where craft spirits fans can do a one-hour seated tasting for $35. The experience begins with a stroll through that garden (where botanicals are grown, including hops for the Hophead Vodka and juniper berries for Junipero Gin), followed by a chance to learn about the distillery’s production processes and taste through the current portfolio. (Private tastings for up to 20 guests last an hour and a half and cost $40 per person.)
With us at the distillery that day were several Anchor reps, including certified sommelier and director of education Alan Kropf, who also serves as the host of the spirits and cocktail culture podcast Educational Drinking. During our tasting and cocktail class, Kropf walked us through the inspiration, history, flavor profile and best uses for each of Anchor’s releases.
Created to be the opposite of subtly-flavored Bombay Sapphire, this gin released in 1996 actually stirred the craft gin movement. In the early 1990s, Maytag noticed that while there were no high-end gins on the market, plenty of designer vodkas commanding $30 or more per bottle lined store shelves and back bars. A lightbulb went off – he knew bartenders would know what to do with a product like this one. Its very name hints at the unapologetic juniper notes you’ll find, which are joined by citrus and floral tones and a crispy, peppery bite on the finish. Unfiltered (which gives it its mouthfeel) and bottled at 98.6 proof (“Coast Guard strength,” Kropf joked), the gin is produced with 12 botanicals. It shines in classic cocktails like the Negroni, Martini and Gin & Tonic, and modern creations too.
The recipe for Old Tom Gin goes back to 18th century England, and its flavor profile sits somewhere in between genever and London Dry. Anchor’s version was released in 2014 and is unique for several reasons. First of all, it uses licorice peel and star anise for a sweet baking spice flavor. It was also the first spirit to use stevia leaf as a sweetener, which provides a subtler flavor than sugar and a silky texture on the palate. Pot-stilled and bottled unfiltered, it’s great in any iteration of the Martinez, which is the precursor to the Martini. (Fun fact: The tomcat on the label pays homage to Thomas Chamberlain, who may be credited with first creating Old Tom Gin and who also created a vending machine in 18th century London to dispense gin during the era when the spirit was vilified as the impetus for all kinds of social ills.)
A vodka for beer fans? That’s the idea behind this offering. A true homage to the distillery's brewing history, this pot-distilled vodka released in 2012 is basically a gin where hops stand in for juniper. It’s produced with wheat and corn, and uses two types of hops from Washington’s Yakima Valley that are introduced during the second distillation. The end result? A vodka that smells like a floral IPA and has way more taste and texture than other so-called “neutral spirits” on the market. It was designed as a sipping spirit, but also works in a full-flavored Bloody Mary or Moscow Mule.
Genever is the precursor to London dry gin, and since it smells and tastes a lot like an unaged whiskey, that’s exactly how it should be treated, Kropf told us. Anchor’s version (released in 2007) uses a mash bill of wheat, barley and rye malts, is distilled in a copper pot with botanicals including juniper, and can be sipped chilled over ice, or shaken with ice.
Made from 100% malted rye (a pretty uncommon practice), this whiskey is aged two and a half years in both new and used toasted (not charred) barrels. The spirit picks up woody notes for sure, which combine herbal tones and the peppery bite of rye.
When it was launched in 1993 as Anchor’s first spirit, rye whiskey wasn’t particularly popular, so there weren’t a lot of resources out on the market. But Maytag’s experience brewing beer worked in his favor, since making the mash bill for a whiskey involves a similar process. He also leaned on his wine background to find a cooperage from which to source barrels. This whiskey – named for the iconic neighborhood in which the facility is located – is made in copper pots from 100% malted rye and aged in charred new oak barrels, was the only pot-stilled rye whiskey on the market at the time, and boasts spicy caramel notes that work in any rye-based cocktail including the Manhattan and the Sazerac.
Though not part of the official tasting, we also had the chance to sample Old Potrero Single Malt Hotaling’s Whiskey. Made to commemorate the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, it’s named for the city’s Hotaling Building, a whiskey warehouse that miraculously survived. Extremely rare and highly allocated, the spirit (like other Old Potrero Whiskeys) is pot-distilled from a mash of 100% malted rye. However, Hotaling’s has been matured for 16 years in once-used, charred oak barrels and is bottled at 100 proof.
Afterwards, it was off to explore San Francisco’s bar scene (and sample some of the area’s best cocktails made with Anchor Distilling spirits). Here are some spots to hit next time you find yourself in the City by the Bay:
- Whitechapel: With more than 400 types of gin behind the bar (and a 120-plus cocktail menu of only gin libations), this steampunk-influenced bar in the Tenderloin has the largest selection of the botanical beverage in North America. The Buccaneer cocktail shakes Junipero Gin with crushed pineapple, Campari, Velvet Falernum and lime
- P.C.H. (Pacific Coast Haven): Kevin Dietrich’s hotspot near Union Square touts itself as a neighborhood bar – translate that to a welcoming vibe and killer cocktails. Try the herbaceous Oh Snap!, with Junipero Gin, sugar snap peas, Manzanilla Sherry, absinthe, citrus and tonic.
- Devil’s Acre: Restorative, apothecary-style cocktails rule here, and you can get a pretty great version of Pisco Punch, the iconic drink invented at San Francisco’s Bank Exchange Saloon at the end of the 19th century. Devil’s Acre’s version mixes BarSol Pisco (another product in the Anchor portfolio) with lemon, pineapple syrup, Dubonnet and Gold Rush Bitters.
Recipe courtesy of Anchor Distilling Company
- 2 oz. BarSol Selecto Italia Pisco
- 2 oz. Pineapple juice
- 1 oz. Fresh lime juice
- 1 oz. Simple syrup
- Luxardo Cherry and pineapple chunks, for garnish
Add all ingredients except garnish to a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake until well chilled. Strain into an ice-filled white wine glass, and garnish with the cherry and pineapple.
Recipe courtesy of Anchor Distilling Company
- 2 oz. Old Potrero Straight Rye Whiskey
- 1 oz. Tempus Fugit Alessio Vermouth di Torino
- 2 dashes Tempus Fugit Abbott’s Bitters
- Luxardo Cherry, for garnish
Add the first three ingredients to a cocktail glass, add ice, and stir until chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe or Nick & Nora glass, and garnish with the cherry.
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.