My first interaction with the company “Anchor” was actually with their imported whiskey and not any beer or spirit that they produced. I worked with them on products such as Nikka and New Zealand Whisky Co.. They were importers and in the back of my mind I knew they made product but I never really connected the dots to Old Potrero. I feel ashamed to say this because now Old Potrero is one of my favorite American whiskies this year and in my personal opinion, also extremely underrated. There are essentially three extensions of Anchor – beer, spirits (whiskey) and the import of other global brands to the States.
Let us look at a brief timeline starting with beer. Anchor Brewing can be traced back to the mid 1800’s. Throughout the past 150 years it has been through a handful of trying times including prohibition and multiple changes in ownership. It wasn’t until the 1960’s when Anchor Brewing was about to close it's doors again and Fritz Maytag, from the home appliance family, saw an opportunity for investment. He would quickly become a majority shareholder. As he continued to grow and expand the business whiskey was always brewing, no pun intended, in the back of his mind. Fritz loved the history of rye whiskey and felt that rye was truly at the heart of what American Whiskey began as. In 1993 he acquired a distilling license and in 1996 we saw the release of not only their Junipero Gin but also their Old Potrero Rye. This 1990 time frame is an incredible time to reflect on. Similar to St. George Spirits, this is truly the start of the craft spirits movement and all of this happening on the west coast! The last major change for the distilling side of the business was in 2010 when Fritz developed a partnership with Berry Bros. & Rudd which would kick start the importing business and allow him to retire.
We drove around the famously steep, grey, concrete roads of San Francisco and did our best to breathe in any fresh air we could find. It was an unfortunate time to be in the Bay Area due to the fires happening up North. We were in an industrial but beautiful part of the city. We parked the car and trekked up the hill as I casually walked right into the brewery. In my confusion they pointed across the street where if you strained your neck backwards just enough you could see the words “Anchor Brewing Company” scaling the top of the building. This building is straight out of a Mad Men television scene. Pastel mint green and tan colors all over the walls, decor and entrance hall furniture. No stylistic update had been made since the 60’s and you could tell these were the exact halls that the first distillery employees walked. We were escorted again outside of the building to a small side door and this is where we met Bruce. Bruce siat stoically at the helm of all the controls and has been with Anchor for decades. He started his career as a brewer before he moved over to the distillery.
Bruce did not hesitate and starting pointing out certain variations of pot stills since there is a lot happening in a very small space. Although I typically like to start at the beginning of the distillation process, the stills had to be first. Different levels, side rooms and floors of the building have become home to the equipment that is essential for production. This main floor held three pot stills and two Lomond stills. The Lomond stills are used for the gin and vodka production while the pot stills are used for the Old Potrero Rye Whiskey. Their grains are sitting just a few rooms over next to all of the employee’s offices. You can see the bagged, malted rye patiently waiting to be moved to the mash tun. All of the mash tun equipment and washbacks are downstairs. As you climb down the spiral staircase you can see what look like stainless steel milk vats. These fermentation tanks are 400 gallons each. Their wash or beer usually gets to about 8% ABV.
It is probably clear to see that they need more room. There will definitely be changes in the near future for Anchor Distilling and Importing. In August 2017 Anchor Brewing was acquired by Sapporo. The distilling and brewing extensions of the business are now completely separate from each other leaving Anchor Distilling room for expansion and a possible change of location. Although it would be sad to see this historical building not house Anchor, so I recommend visiting now before they move! Due to their compact size, casks aren’t aging in the city. Once they fill their casks with delicious rye whiskey they head up to Sonoma County for aging.
We did try through the gin and vodka which were pleasant enough but I was excited to revisit their ryes up on the rooftop bar. They have a lovely tasting room overlooking the city. It was difficult to see much with the smoke but we did enjoy a few glasses of their rye.
Old Potrero Straight Rye
4-5 years old
100% malted rye
Caramel and nougat on the nose. On the palate an earthy, dirt quality appears and you can taste the oak just a bit. Finishes with nuts and a creamy, unsweetened peanut butter. Not the sugary peanut butter, the natural kind.
Old Potrero 18th Century Rye
2.5 years old
100% malted rye
Sweet, yet incredibly herbaceous on the nose. Some nuts and cinnamon along with that Bay Leaf that my mom puts in her meat sauce for our lasagna.
I have watched many consumers push this out of their “everyday rye” category. Where do these malted ryes belong? Do they belong in the new American Single Malt category or can they compete with the spicier ryes? That sometimes leaves Old Potrero in a unique position on retail shelves. Another potential problem is that people don’t truly understand the difference between 18th Century and the Straight Rye. Due to how they produce this the 100% malted rye mashbill allows you to find flavors that not many other American whiskeys can offer. One of these ryes could be the perfect bottle to bring to your next whiskey gathering and see how surprised people are with the flavors they can find.