Seven Stills. City beer and small cask aging makes for a new kind of San Fran whiskey.
We were only in San Francisco for about 36 hours to visit Anchor and St. George Spirits. Within this time frame we had multiple people mention Seven Stills. After being told this three times in one day it began to feel like it may be worth the trip. We didn’t have an appointment and had to wander in quite early in the morning before our flight to Salt Lake City. With over 100+ distillery visits under my belt and not all of these visits with prearranged appointments I unfortunately, or fortunately, have become very suave (at least I feel) at “wandering in”. I truly am harmless and although I am always scribbling away on my notebook it is because I’m vigorously drawing shapes of stills and fermenters. I mean no harm and although they are usually nervous for liability reasons, beyond this I don’t intend to steal any trade secrets. Regardless, this theory of extreme secrecy always perplexed me. Brewing beer and distilling whiskey are basic technical feats. Anyone with a bit of money can buy equipment and put together a basic recipe. It’s the small details that actually create the unique flavors and aromas we are all searching for. It’s the local area, the people, distillation cuts, cask choice, aging/blending, bottling proof, branding etc. The list goes on!
Anyways, we wandered in and Rylan, the brewer/distiller, was definitely a bit unsure of us because we had already been there for about 30 minutes when a local neighbor told him about our presence. Seven Stills Brewery and Distillery is located in the South San Francisco area called Bayview. It’s quite an industrial area with garage doors lining the streets. Each garage housing trendy manufacturing operations, breweries, local garden shares, you name it. Seven Stills executes the idea of distilling whiskey from beer in a very distinct way- they make beer that they want to drink. The barley, yeasts and hops are all geared towards making a quality beer and these beers can be found on tap at the distillery. Once they make a quality beer they then decide to take a percentage of that and run it through a double distillation. This is not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination but there are two things that stood out to me about Seven Stills. Yes, we have to mention it, they are hip! San Francisco is a trendy area whether we stubborn New Englanders want to admit it or not. There is a style and community around this brand that exudes out through the actual brewery and distillery space all the way through packaging and labels. Just while we were there a woman with a community garden called “Urban Farm Girls” stopped in to bring a few bottles to their block party. It’s an infectious vibe around here with tire swings and picnic tables at the front of the garage so you actually feel like you are sharing a few drinks with your friends on your back porch right in the
city. Keep in mind that they are not far from the Facebook and Google headquarters where these tech employees have started to frequent the brewery/distillery duo. The second factor I noticed is the persistent attitude of first making a great tasting beer and then the whiskey can follow. They are brewers first and want the beer qualities to come through in the whiskey. We commonly talk about fermentation and the brewing process as an important step towards flavor but Seven Stills wants the beer to remain the star of the show even when they do produce it into whiskey.
A few technical details about this small production. Due to the beer theory they are using mostly brewer’s malt and sometimes roasted malt as well. The false bottom stainless steel mash tun sits in the back corner in-between the fermenters and pot still. Lining the walls across from the beer tap and whiskey bar are the three fermenters. All vessels are closed fermentation. The copper pot and column still duo sit across from that. All of their whiskey is double distilled and the hops are added as normal to the beer before distillation. This is where we may lose a few of our die hard whiskey fans but I’m telling you that the distinct flavors they are able to achieve are worth the stretch for your nose and palate. The 330 gallon pot still was manufactured by Artisan Still Design which is a name that you don’t see that often.
Once their new make spirit is ready they begin filling primarily small oak casks. The casks are produced by Gibbs Bros. Cooperage in Arkansas and are effectively used to get an intense interaction of oak surface area to new make spirit volume. The new American oak is charred and the spirit is put into the cask at 59.5% ABV. Most of the expressions are bottled at around 47% ABV. One obvious way to keep the beer qualities of the spirit is to age it for a quick burst of time. Most of the expressions that Seven Stills makes are only aged for a few months at a time. This length of resting time and small cask size could again be a concern for an experienced whiskey drinker but I was left writing “crazy!” next to my tasting notes as we tried a few whiskeys at the tasting bar.
I have reviewed a few of my favorite releases below. One thing to keep in mind is that these are very bold and polarizing flavors. They are not meant to taste like Knob Creek or Basil Hayden. They have been designed to push the boundaries. All of the bottles are 375 mL and come with a decent price tag but any opportunity to push the limits of flavor is worth a nose and a sip.
Czar – The Russian Imperial beer
@ 47% ABV
Ripe fruits and raspberries. Peaches and spice. Some cinnamon and a “beer” smell. A bit of spice from the char and burnt sugar. Nice creamy, dessert like with baking spices.
I called this one: Fruit Spice
Whipnose – Whipnose IPA
@ 47% ABV
Bright and fresh vanilla and fruit, candies such as Laffy Taffy specifically banana Laffy Taffy. Some herbal quality as well and more vanilla on the finish.
I called this one: Laffy Taffy
Saison Dolores @ 47% ABV *this beer was bought in and not produced on site.
Citrus and caramel, bright honey and almost a bit funky. Extra ripe peaches and pink lemonade.
I called this one: Pink Lemonade
Choke N Smoke – The Chocolate Oatmeal Stout @ 47% ABV
S’mores and some cappuccino, chocolate ice cream and some nuts. Not too rich but a lot of chocolate notes. Like the Friendly’s Swiss chocolate almond sauce.
I called this one: Iced Cappuccino
Next time you are in San Francisco you should check this space out. You and your beer friends can finally come together in one location. Enjoy and thanks again for the tour Rylan!