The worlds of craft beer and craft spirits often seem somewhat incompatible. There’s an almost tribalistic sense of identity that comes with each (not to mention the intra-scene bickering between drinkers of IPAs and sours, or whiskeys and gins), and, at least from the outside, an impression that neither group particularly likes the other. At best, they’re usually portrayed exchanging attitudes of condescending tolerance.
Fortunately, experience has shown us that this sort of strict, self-imposed apartheid is mostly fiction. Beer geeks, whiskey enthusiasts, and even wine aficionados are almost always too busy telling you about their new favorite bottle to bother with the formality of being snobby—and the ones who do put on airs usually don’t have any idea what they’re talking about anyway. Being a booze nerd transcends all that other crap.
It’s rare, though, to encounter a brand that tries to bridge that gap on the production side. The standard narrative is that breweries make beer, distilleries make spirits, and never the twain shall meet. But the simple truth is that all distilled liquor begins its life, in one way or another, as beer or wine. For the last four years, San Francisco distillery Seven Stills has been bringing that connection to the forefront with a line of truly unique whiskey made from a base of craft beer.
Brewers at Heart
It helps that founders Tim Obert and Clint Potter have a history of being beer geeks. Originally from Encinitas and Novato, respectively, the duo met at UC Santa Cruz during their undergrad, eventually discovering that they both had a passion for homebrewing. When they reconnected a few years later, the idea of turning those beers into whiskey seemed like a natural evolution of their creative take on booze.
“I ended up moving up to San Francisco to get ready for the UC Davis Master Brewers program, and also because I was dating a girl up here,” Tim laughed, sitting in the tasting room of their new distillery in the Bayview. “Clint was living in the city, and we kinda just stumbled upon the idea of distilling different homebrews that I was making. We were sitting around a bar, talking about beer, and we came up with the idea.
“We bought that little pot still over there, the little ten-gallon thing, and we were essentially moonshining for about a year out of Clint’s parents’ backyard. I was brewing a batch of beer every week, he would distill it, and we had this little collection going. All these different flavors and different crazy styles of whiskey that I’d never tasted before, and we decided to start a business around it because they were so unique and interesting.”
“There were a lot of different experiments, and we did just about every type of beer you can imagine,” Clint told us. “That’s been the basis for a lot of stuff we’ve done since, because we learned what works and what doesn’t work and built on that.”
After doing a bit of market research, they were surprised to find that hardly anyone else was making a product like theirs. “I was going around to liquor stores and asking people for other whiskeys distilled from craft beer, and I exhausted what was available really quickly,” Tim said. “I realized that it wasn’t a thing that people were doing, so it was a totally untapped market.”
The Early Days
Despite the relative lack of competition, getting their fledgling distillery off the ground was no small challenge. Before moving into their current facility at the end of 2015, Seven Stills was a bit of a decentralized operation.
“We were working out of a storage unit over in the Dogpatch,” Clint explained. “We were in a 400-square-foot space, which is kind of like a large garage. It’s not a huge space. It worked really well for a while—and I should clarify, we were operating as a rectifier out of there, so we didn’t have any of these stills or brewhouse equipment. Just barrels, totes, filling and filtering equipment. But after about a year and a half, as we grew it just got crazy packed. It turned into this game of Tetris every time we had to do a bottling or pull a sample or start a bitters batch.”
But space wasn’t their only problem. As a rectifier, they couldn’t legally distill their whiskey on-site, and had to contract it out to a third party. The resulting arrangement was, frankly, a logistical nightmare.
“The way it operated up until very recently,” Clint continued, “was that we would brew our beer over at E.J. Phair, which is over in Pittsburg in the East Bay, transport it by tanker truck—like, 1,800 gallons of beer, which is a lot of beer—over to Stillwater Spirits in Petaluma where it would be distilled, and then we’d truck it back down here in those big plastic totes. Out of those 1,800 gallons of beer we’d usually get about 120-150 gallons of whiskey, bring them to our storage unit, swell the barrels, and then put the whiskey in there. It was a huge process, especially when it came to scheduling with everybody.”
“It took a lot of coordination,” Tim said, “and it did not always line up.”
“The thing that sucked about it,” Clint lamented, “was that I’d be texting the brewer, and he’d say, ‘I can do this day.’ Then I’d text the distiller and ask him if he could do that day, and he’d say yes. Then I’d text the trucking company and ask them if they could do it, and they’d just say, ‘No.’ Flat-out.” He laughed. “I’d go in circles like that for three or four iterations before it all worked out, every time.”
A Love Letter to San Francisco
As Seven Stills grew and their whiskey gained cult popularity in the Bay Area, that ad-hoc process became less and less sustainable. After nearly a year of searching for a more permanent home, they settled on their current space in the Bayview. It’s a spacious warehouse, adorned with some fairly striking murals by local artists (the same ones responsible for their memorable label designs), and most importantly, it offers plenty of room to grow. Based on the number of new spirits and beers they’ve been experimenting with, they’re going to need it.
The core of Seven Stills’ range is an homage to San Francisco, and their name, a play on the city’s famed seven hills, says it all. They intend to release a whiskey to commemorate each hill, two of which are already on the market.
First is Chocasmoke, a malty whiskey distilled from a chocolate oatmeal stout and peated barley. The bottle was designed by artist Zio Ziegler in honor of Twin Peaks, which were originally known as Los Pechos de la Chola—literally, “the breasts of the Indian maiden.”
Fluxuate, their other bottle in the series, starts out as a coffee porter and Flux Cold Brew Coffee, and represents Rincon Hill in the South of Market area. Artist David Polka designed the label, which depicts “a tumultuous and rapidly changing post-Gold Rush Rincon Hill.” Currently, they’re working on a Russian Imperial Stout-based whiskey as a nod to Russian Hill.
More recently, though, Seven Stills has been working on a number of whiskeys for their Collaboration Series, distilled from beer made by local craft breweries. Their first, Whipnose, is made from Pacific Brewing Laboratory’s Whipnose Double IPA, and their Dogpatch whiskey is based on Almanac Brewing Company’s Dogpatch Sour. Both are, like their flagship bottles, amazingly complex and unique. Their California Courage Vodka—the first spirit they produced—rounds out their spirits portfolio, and to top it all off, they offer an impressive line of bitters.
“I think the Whipnose is the most unique of the whiskeys we make, just because it’s hopped,” Tim said. “We eventually decided to do an 1,800-gallon batch of it, and it turned out really well. From there we started running with the collaboration series. Now that we’ve started to build a bit of a name for ourselves, other people have been reaching out to us to do projects. Libertine got in touch with us about a new whiskey, and Belching Beaver asked us to do another one, so we’ve got a lot in the pipeline.”
It’s a clever approach to the ever-more-saturated world of craft distilling, and one that stays true to the founders’ roots. “I wanted to make beer, long before we started the company,” Tim explained.“But I didn’t like how saturated the market was, it seemed like there was a new craft brewery opening up in San Francisco every day. I didn’t want to be just another brewery.”
That inclination to forge their own path has treated Tim, Clint, and the rest of the team well, and it’s an attitude that fits with the artistic iconoclasm that San Francisco is known for. Seven Stills celebrates free-form experimentation in every aspect of their products, from what goes in the bottle to the decorations on the label—hearing them wax lyrical about all the new projects they’re juggling, we’d be surprised if they ever ran out of ideas.
Along with their new distillery came a taproom, and thanks to a recent piece of craft distilling legislation, they’re now able to sell their whiskey, vodka, and bitters on-site. Their products are available throughout California, Arizona, and Nevada, and they’re quickly branching out into other states. For those who don’t live quite so close, most major online retailers now carry their stuff, and their Founders Club provides the true die-hard fans with some of their most limited releases.
As Seven Stills grows (sometimes a little too fast for their own good, to hear them tell it), it seems there will be plenty of new whiskeys to keep things fresh. They’re working on getting their beer ready for taproom tastings, which they hope will provide a whole new way to appreciate their spirits.“The idea is that you’ll be able to drink the beer that we started with, and then the whiskey that we ended up with,” Clint told us. “It’ll really let you connect some dots.”
It’s perhaps the most obvious way they’re working to bridge the gap between those two worlds, and beer geeks and whiskey lovers alike have certainly seemed amenable so far. As standard-bearers of unapologetically San Franciscan spirits, we couldn’t think of anyone better for the job.
All Photos: Will Shenton, unless otherwise attributed