Anchor Distilling: Making Whiskey Inside a Temple of Beer
All images by Keith Allison.
Tucked into a small corner in one of the more industrial interiors in San Francisco’s ever-expanding Anchor Brewing Company facility are a couple small mash tuns, two small stills, and an assortment of beakers, tubes, hoses, and other paraphernalia that would be the envy of a silent film era mad scientist. Filling the role of resident madscientist is Bruce Joseph, an Anchor employee since 1980. With a wild shock of white hair and clad in a lab coat, you can almost imagine him clutching at the sky and telling the fools they’ll pay for doubting him. There were fools who doubted him, actually, but he’s far too polite a guy to clutch the air at them. This is Anchor Distilling, the brewery’s whiskey and gin operation and birthplace of Old Potrero Whiskey, Junipero Gin, and a Genever style gin called Genevieve.
Despite the size of Anchor Brewing, Anchor Distilling is barely even a micro distillery. They’re tiny, but don’t let the size fool you. Bruce has been in the distilling game since 1993, when Anchor’s owner Fritz Maytag walked up to the long-time employee one day and asked him if he wanted to make some whiskey. It was the early days still of the craft beer revolution in which Anchor played a major role, and there was basically no craft distilling scene. Whiskey as a whole was only just beginning to recover from the lean decades of the seventies and eighties, when everyone decided to switch to vodka and Harvey Wallbangers. Always craving the next creative outlet, Maytag took a look at the alcohol landscape and thought it might be fun to make a whiskey.
He settled on a pot-distilled rye, as at the time there were very few rye whiskies on the market and none that had been made in a traditional pot still. He put together a team, including Bruce Joseph, designated a little corner in his brewery as the distillery, and together they set about figuring out how to make whiskey. In 1994, the first batch -- 100% malted rye -- went into a toasted barrel. Since then, the distillery has grown -- in a manner of speaking. Bruce has two distillers, Kevin Aslan and Kendra Scott, to help him. The two expressions of Old Potrero -- Straight Rye and 18th Century Whiskey (there is a third expression, Hotaling’s Single Malt, but it is exceedingly rare) -- remain their signature spirits. Through it all, and even after Fritz Maytag sold the company and retired in 2010, Bruce Joseph has been the man at the still. His experience as a brewer made him a natural for trying his hand at distilling. Still, despite the growth, Anchor Distillery occupies the same little corner in the brewery. Which makes touring the facility easy.
Anchor is slated to move to a new, much larger home later this year, and Bruce hopes to have a little more breathing room then. He is still excited about experimentation, but the small set-up means he doesn’t have the flexibility to do one-offs and indulge weird ideas, though they certainly toy around with ideas. Since whiskey made from finished beer is becoming more popular, being situated in a brewery with a distiller who used to be a brewer seems ideal. “We spend all our time just meeting the demand for what we already make. But we’ve distilled probably everything we’ve brewed, at least once,” Bruce says. And though they’ve yet to bring a whiskey made from one of their finished beers to market, Bruce says it’s an idea that intrigues him and could happen in the future.
Because of its location in a busy part of the brewery (cases and cases of beer form a fort around the stills, and forklifts are always zipping back and forth), the distillery is not usually open to the public the way the brewery is -- although ironically, I was able to tour the distillery but not the brewery, which was closed to tours for the day because they were working triple time to meet the demand from upcoming festivals and football games (Anchor is to San Francisco what Brooklyn Brewery is to New York).
After indulging my increasingly nerdy questions about beer and distilling for an hour, it was back to the mash tuns and mad science for Bruce while I was lucky enough to visit the brewery’s rooftop bar (once Fritz Maytag’s sanctum sanctorum) with Preiss Import’s Ken Young. Since merging with Preiss, Anchor has amassed an incredible portfolio of spirits it distributes in addition to its own whiskey and gin, including in-demand cult favorites like Japan’s Nikka Distillery and Taiwan’s Kavalan (editor's note: Gold medal winner in the 2013 NY International Spirits Competition) as well as Amorik single malt from France; Benriach, Glendronach, and Glenrothes Scotch; Glen Breton Canadian single malt; and the Hirsch line of American whiskey.
It was a grand indulgence, and hoping not to sound too mushy, a great example of the high degree of interactivity beer and spirits companies have with their customers. There seemed no better way to end the tour than on the roof, taking in a commanding view of the city skyline as we raised drams of Old Potrero in a toast to Fritz Maytag, Bruce Joseph, and the town of San Francisco.