San Franciscans are fanatical about buying local, and imbibing is no exception. Luckily, Northern California’s boozy offerings extend well beyond wine and beer. The Bay Area is a hotbed of craft distilleries, from whiskey and gin to absinthe and liqueurs. (There’s even a local limoncello maker, for civilized sippers.) Get a behind-the-scenes look into the spirit-making process at these Bay Area distilleries—and sample the high-proof product, fresh from the still.
Visit the Bay Area's best distilleries
St. George Spirits' 65,000-square-foot naval hangar was formerly a facility for film props, as evidenced by the giant fiberglass shark lurking among the stills. The brand was founded in 1982 by Jörg Rupf, who created his own eau de vie from berries and pears in a single Holstein pot still. Today, the company stays true to its roots, distilling a variety of fruit brandies and liqueurs, as well as citrus- and green chile-flavored vodka. But St. George is best known for its gins, particularly the floral Botanivoire and the woodsy Terroir varieties. (The latter tastes like an evergreen in a glass.) The 90-minute tour ($20) includes a glimpse into the distillery’s laboratory, production area and tasting room, where you’ll get to choose six spirits to sample .
Seven Stills owners Tim Obert and Clint Potter offer the best of both worlds for whiskey lovers and hop-heads: whiskeys made from their own craft beers. The spirits are produced in a towering copper pot still at the brand’s 4,400-square-foot Bayview facility. The space was designed by Obert himself, who brought in local street artists to adorn the walls. The 30-minute tour ($23) includes a tasting flight of the brand’s four whiskeys, distilled from a chocolate oatmeal stout, a double IPA, a coffee porter and a sour beer. (Check back regularly—limited-edition collaborations and SF-exclusives are common.) In early 2017, Seven Stills launched the Lawton Taproom (3645 Lawton St), an Outer Sunset bar where fans can sample the brewery’s craft beers and shandies.
Anchor Brewing Company has been a San Francisco standby since the Gold Rush. But if you only know Anchor by its beer, you’re missing out. In 1993, distilling legend Fritz Maytag spearheaded a pet-project to make pot-distilled whiskey. In Anchor Distillery's new landscaped, indoor-outdoor tasting room, visitors can sample the fruits of his labor. Today, the company produces two whiskeys (including the popular Old Potrero rye whiskey), three gins and a vodka—all available for sampling. Tours ($35) are an hour long and begin with a meander through the scenic, light-strung roof garden, which is planted with a fragrant variety of herbs and botanicals used in spirit-making, and end with a guided tasting flight. In 2013, the company announced the forthcoming addition of a second, 212,000-square-foot facility on Pier 48. The upcoming complex will include a museum, restaurant, and production and distribution center.
Husband-wife team Timo and Ashby Marshall founded their Sonoma County distillery in 2012 with a grain-to-glass philosophy: Each spirit is milled, mashed, fermented and distilled entirely on-site at their Sebastopol facility. Under the care of head distiller Lauren Patz, the company produces four gins, a vodka and two whiskeys. The gin is produced from California red winter wheat and flavored with local botanicals; the whiskey is aged for at least two years in charred, 53-gallon American white oak barrels. The hour-long distillery tour ($20) includes a peek into the small-batch production process, from sniffing jars of grains and botanicals to sampling the spoils.
This Alameda distillery was refurbished in fall 2016 by Groundswell Design Group. The new metal-swathed, two-story space is inspired by its history as a WWII-era Naval air station—there’s even a light fixture fashioned from recycled bomb shells. Head distiller Caley Shoemaker views vodka as a flavorful art, crafting batches infused with citron, mandarin, honeycomb and lime. (She made waves in 2016 by producing a limited-edition batch of vodka distilled using Bay Area fog.) Tours include a sampling of six vodkas, including picks from the Distillers Exclusive series that are only available on-site ($20; 60 minutes). Don’t miss the botanical garden out back, where you’ll find sweeping views of the San Francisco skyline.
It’s all about whiskey at this inviting, wood-paneled distillery. The company produces six spirits: A Sonoma rye whiskey, a cherrywood rye whiskey, the 2nd Chance wheat whiskey and three West Kentucky-style bourbon whiskeys. The hour-long tour gives a glimpse into the entire production process, from mashing and fermenting to distilling and barrel aging ($20). The company sources non-GMO grains from California, Canada and the UK, and smokes its malted barley locally using California Cherrywood. The distillery uses distinctive direct-fire, copper pot stills, which give the whiskey subtle caramelized notes. Cap off the tour with a tasting of all six spirits in the barrel-lined tasting room.
HelloCello claims to have been Sonoma’s first operating distillery after Prohibition. The family-run company produces brandy, grappa and eau di vie, but it’s best known for its Limoncello di Sonoma: a slightly sweet, slightly tart liqueur traditionally produced in southern Italy. In wine country, the aperitif is distilled in a custom still using organic lemons, biodynamic grappa, agave sugar and water from a small network of local farms and suppliers. HelloCello shares a tasting room with Prohibition Spirits, a micro-distillery making whiskey, rum and vodka. Sample spirits from both at Cornerstone Sonoma, where you can also wander among fragrant citrus and herbs in the cocktail garden.
Distillery No. 209 has a long and boozy history in the Bay Area. It was originally founded by William Scheffler on the grounds of a St. Helena winery in 1882. (209 was the license number given to him by the federal government.) In 2003, the distillery relocated to Pier 50 in San Francisco, which is rumored to be the birthplace of the gin martini. Under the watch of master distiller Arne Hillesland, the gin is distilled five times in a 1,000-gallon copper pot still and flavored with dozens of herbs, roots, berries and spices. The brand is known for its unusual infusions, like gin aged in sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon barrels from Sonoma and Napa Valley wineries.