Do beer and whiskey go hand in hand? Well, that depends who you ask. San Francisco’s Seven Stills dares you to say, “Yes.”
Craft whiskey distilled with craft beer just might persuade you. It seems like an obvious approach for a place that doubles as a brewery and distillery – but it’s actually quite unique.
Traditionally, whiskey is distilled using grains like corn, rye or barley. Take a universally-known whiskey, like Jameson, for example. Subtle notes of oak and vanilla are present but overshadowed by a strong alcohol aroma and flavor. Some say it goes down smooth. Others say it singes the tongue. The point is that it’s not for everyone. But don’t fret. Seven Stills CEO and co-founder Tim Obert is here to redefine what a whiskey can and should be.
Rewriting the Rules
“On the same premises, we’re the only brewery and distillery in the country,” Tim affirms. He’s sitting at a table by the whiskey bar inside the 4,400 square-foot Bayview spot. It’s one of three current locations.
Alcohol wasn’t always produced on-site. Seven Stills acted as a rectifier from 2013 until 2016, which meant off-site brewing and distilling. Legal hurdles prevented on-site production at the time. “A rectifier legally allows you to blend spirits and allows you to self-distribute, but you can’t produce,” says Tim.
Production was met by renting out a space at E.J. Phair Brewing in the East Bay. The beer produced by Seven Stills would be transported to Stillwater Spirits in Petaluma. From there, the beer would be distilled. The distillate would be stored in totes and brought to San Francisco in a U-Haul where Seven Stills could rectify the whisky. Filling barrels with the unaged whiskey in-house and aging them would lead to bottling the final product. In 2016, the Seven Stills Bayview location was granted access to become the first brewery and distillery in the country. The whiskey is still made the same way today, minus the tedious off-site steps.
“I feel like there’s a lot of education around how beer is made, and there’s almost no education around how spirits are made.”
“It’s been really cool because we can basically take a style of beer and we can brew it, and then we can take the same style of beer and distill it. And the concept is that people can come here, and they can come to places that sell our beer and our spirts and try the two side-by-side. I feel like there’s a lot of education around how beer is made, and there’s almost no education around how spirits are made,” explains Tim.
Craft whiskey made from craft beer sounds appealing. It is evocative of something easy on the palate. The distinction provokes curiosity. Craft beer invites characteristics that are largely unfamiliar to the traditional whiskey experience.
It’s All About Craft Beer
The idea of distilling beer into whiskey isn’t an entirely new idea. It was once thought that the quality of the beer didn’t affect the quality of the whiskey. It wasn’t until Seven Stills began experimenting that they realized the opposite held true. Quality craft beer ultimately translates into a complex craft whiskey. Double IPAs and stouts are among the best suited beers for distillation. They add character and hoppiness that’s unfamiliar to virgin taste buds. It tastes like beer. And it tastes like whiskey. A smoother finish is another characteristic that separates it from traditional whiskeys.
“We find that the really big flavors from beer carry through into the spirits, so you gotta think about distillation. It’s essentially concentrating the flavors, so if you have something that’s really subtle it’s not going to carry through distillation as well as something that’s really bold,” says Tim.
A lager could technically be distilled but wouldn’t impart much flavor right out the gate. It would have to rely on barrel-aging – the traditional way of producing flavor profiles. Seven Stills’ Chocasmoke is made with a chocolate oatmeal stout. This translates to a smooth and sweet mouthfeel, as well as a peat finish. Whipnose is made with a Double IPA. Hints of citrus and a hop-forward nature make this very reminiscent of beer. A much stronger beer. Both contain 47 percent alcohol and are drastically different. There’s a certain sense of freedom and creativity involved in distilling with craft beer.
Whipnose is part of a collaboration series. Pacific Brewing Laboratory’s Whipnose Imperial IPA is extra hoppy with rye, spiciness, as well as sweetness from Vermont maple sugar. Distilling it leads to the Whipnose whiskey. Chocasmoke is distilled with an exclusive chocolate oatmeal stout brewed at Seven Stills. It is custom-made to compliment the distillation process.
Tim mastered the art of distilling craft beer while studying at UC Davis.
“It’s just a lot of research and trial and error. I mean, we used to just distill a couple batches on weekends. When I was at Davis, people were just homebrewing stuff, and if they didn’t like a batch they would give it to me. And I would distill it and make a whiskey… and see how it turned out. So, we did a bunch of quads, a bunch of stouts, a bunch of porters.”
“So, we bought a gin basket just so we could pack it with hops.”
Tim’s personal favorite Seven Stills whiskey is Czar. It’s the first whiskey to use their gin basket. A gin basket is traditionally used to make, you guessed it…. gin. “You will distill something, and the vapors will pass through a column that’s packed with botanicals and juniper berries. So, we bought a gin basket just so we could pack it with hops. It imparts like a fresh dry-hop flavor. We’re the only people to have ever done this. It adds just like really, really crazy aromatic and flavor profiles to the whiskey that you wouldn’t get anywhere else,” says Tim. A Seven Stills Russian imperial stout is used to create Czar.
The main objective is to produce a flavorful whiskey. When brewing a beer for distillation, Tim is more concerned about how the whiskey will taste.
For example, if Chocasmoke was reproduced as a beer, Tim would scale back the peat smoke malted barley from 20 to about 5 percent. Chocolate, oats and specialty malts are also heavy and must be scaled back. A deep understanding of what must be added and subtracted is important in the brewing and distilling process.
“I think it allows a lot more people to experience whiskeys than they usually would. I think most people just associate whiskey with, like, Jameson or Jack Daniels. They just have a bad connotation. So, we can kinda say, hey, we’re doing this really fun stuff. We have different flavors. And we have different cool artwork on the bottles. It allows people to try things they wouldn’t usually.”
On the Horizon
A new 18,000 square-foot Mission Bay flagship location at 100 Hooper will be ready in 2019. It’s about four blocks from Chase Center (the future Warriors arena), and the top three floors will be dedicated to Adobe. This means a built-in clientele of about 5,000 Adobe employees. One-third of the site will be retail, while two-thirds will be dedicated to production. It is being funded through Seven Stills’ ICO (Initial Can Offering) program and grants equity in the company. $213,654 of the targeted $1.07 million has been raised, as of time of writing.
“Our focus is totally on the Bay. My original plan was to try and expand this to be nationwide, and I feel like I just stopped giving it the attention that it deserves. We launched in Chicago, and I can’t be in Chicago every week. We’re focusing on San Francisco exclusively. This is our hometown; this is the town that supports us, so we wanna make sure we’re paying attention to it.”