In 1996, Lance Winters presented a bottle of his homemade whiskey as a resume to St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, got the job and never left. Since then, he’s transformed St. George into one of the country’s foremost spirits pioneers, know for their aromatic liquors that run the gamut from gin and vodka to whisky and rhum agricole (not to mention a variety of fruit brandies, absinthe and the gentian-based Bruto Americano bitter aperitivo).
“My approach to making spirits is to think of the liquid as a form of self-expression,” says Winters. “It almost never starts as a goal of making a spirit per se, but as a scent inspiration that lodges in my mind until I can find a way to express it.”
One such expression is a favorite of Winters’, the Terroir Gin, an aromatic blend of around a dozen botanicals, including Douglas fir and California bay laurel, many of them foraged in the San Francisco Bay area. Intense and complex, following its release in 2011, it’s earned a respected place in the emerging category of West Coast-style gin. “Six years after its release,” says Winters, “the fact that it functions so well as an olfactory snapshot of the Northern California coastal landscape still moves me.”
So what does Winters do when he’s not distilling, drinking or drink-making? Here, he tackles our Lookbook Questionnaire to share his strangest work experiment, his go-to drink in a dive and the best thing he ever drank. —Amy C. Collins
I make stuff at a distillery.
What do want to be when you grow up?
A secret agent.
Best thing you ever drank:
A clarified milk punch made by Shiraz Noor at Eleven Madison Park. It may have been my first clarified milk punch, and if I remember correctly, it was made with chai spices. Balanced flavor, insanely beautiful texture. It was fantastic.
Worst thing you ever drank:
My first batch of absinthe. I accidentally used Artemisia absinthium instead of Artemisia pontica for the secondary infusion, which made the whole batch undrinkably bitter. Drank it anyway.
First time you ever got drunk:
Lunchtime, junior year of high school (1982). A friend and I raced through a six-pack of Foster’s and then went to Chemistry class. I don’t recommend this.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Dark Side of the Moon.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
Comparing answers between the NYT crossword and the WSJ crossword to look for patterns.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
That I should be laying down a lot more whiskey. (To be fair, I knew, but still didn’t do it.)
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
As a distiller, most of my weird experiments revolve around distilling things that have no business being distilled, like crabs, foie gras or porcini mushrooms.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Cook for my wife.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
I’m not a bartender, so I don’t get a lot of drink requests. My mom always asks for Pepsi added to her St. George Single Malt. Wouldn’t do it for anyone but her.
Your favorite bar and why:
Cheers. Everybody knows my name.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
Every meal I’ve had at Commis.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
A Negroni with Terroir Gin, Bruto Americano and Dolin.
In a dive bar?
Guinness. Draft or can.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime:
Chips, salsa and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
I’m not a hater. If it’s on a drink list, somebody probably wants it.
The last text message you sent:
You’ve always had such lovely hands.