A “Mad Scientist of American Whiskey” Shares His Favorite SF Watering Holes

Plus, St George’s Master Distiller Dave Smith tells us his favorite local cocktail

January 31, 2023 7:00 am
Master Distiller Dave Smith with barrels
Master Distiller Dave Smith with barrels
Alex Zyuzikov

GQ dubbed him one of the “mad scientists of American whiskey.” But for years, Dave Smith had devoted his creative energy not to booze, but to books. It took a chance encounter with Lance Winters, St. George’s Master Distiller, for Smith to put down the short stories and screenplays for a different outlet.

“I discovered that I could tell stories through spirits,” he says.

Smith cites Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, as a major influence in his creative philosophy.

“In it, he describes writing as telepathy,” says Smith, “and at some level all art has this as its core. Writing, painting, dancing, playing music…all of these acts are based in an idea, an image, an emotion and work to transplant it from one human being to another through that creative medium. I thought that I was supposed to be a writer to communicate, but discovered that I was meant to be a distiller.”

His work at St. George inscribes Smith into a decades-long tradition first imagined by Jörg Rupf, a German immigrant to California, in 1982. Quickly enamored by the Bay Area’s then-emerging food culture, Rupf found the perfect hearth in which to stoke the fire of his family’s generations-rich distilling knowledge, bolstered by high-quality local fruit. The resulting approach marries Old World distilling methods and a New World setting, earning St. George multiple accolades, including a nod from Thrillist as the best craft distiller in America.

For Smith, the acknowledgement is a recognition of the authenticity behind each spirit crafted by his team.

“Distillation is our form of communication to capture an evocative moment in time in a glass and invite you to share our experience,” he says.

And that experience takes many forms, from a brandy made with cold-fermented Bartlett pears that tells a story of the marriage between New and Old World influences to the far more personal tale at the heart of the brand’s coffee liqueur — crafted, Smith says,  “to commemorate falling in love with my wife in New Orleans.”

The liqueur is made with three roast levels of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee beans to complement French roasted chicory root.

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“Julia helped roast the first batch of NOLA when we were newlyweds,” he says. “It’s an effort to capture a bit of magic from my life.”

But for Smith, if a newcomer were only to try one of the brand’s creations, it would be hard to pass up the Terroir Gin. To make it, fir and sage are distilled and vapor-infused with bay laurel leaves and juniper berries. Wok-roasted coriander seeds, angelica root, cinnamon, cardamom and more join the party, added directly to the 1,500-liter still.

“St. George Terroir Gin is a beautiful example of our desire to elevate spirit categories and transport you to a moment and place that we found inspiring,” says Smith. “In this case we composed Terroir to be evocative of a walk in the Bay Area woods, and I can’t tell you the number of people that have said that it reminds them of the woods in their hometown.”

When Smith isn’t hard at work at St. George, he’s lucky enough to spend quite a bit of time exploring what his bartender colleagues are up to in San Francisco. And despite having to say a sad farewell to some special places that didn’t survive the last few years, he says he’s grateful for the bar community that remains. Here are some of his favorites.

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Absinthe Bar and Comstock Saloon are always fantastic people and spirits. Zam Zam in the Upper Haight is a perfect bar to stop into for a Terroir martini both before and after some time in Amoeba Music.”

Inspiring Contemporary Spots

“There are dozens of brilliant bartenders inspiring me these days. True Laurel always executes beautifully. Another spot close to my heart and liver has been and always will be Bar Agricole.”

The Spots Where Everybody Knows His Name

“At this point I think that my Cheers would be ABV. The team, the drinks, the food all adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. I love it. Same love goes to Monsieur Benjamin. It’s a completely different vibe, but they also have that magic of team, drinks and food that create something unique. It’s both the familiarity of a warm fuzzy blanket and the sense of potential that you might discover your new favorite thing all at the same time.”

And When Pressed, His Top Local Cocktail Right Now

“I recently had an amazing absinthe and pear cocktail made by Anissa over at Monsieur Benjamin. Some of the most surprising and engaging drinks I’ve had recently were at Rosemary & Pine. They have a cocktail utilizing Compass Box Scotch along with apple brandy, Earl Grey tea and an apple and tarragon gastrique. My first thought when I sipped it was that I’ll likely be ordering second one.”

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