What if I gave you a 40-year head start?
I was born in 1982, as was St. George Spirits. Though I can’t say for certain (my memories of that era are a bit hazy), I doubt very much that the term “craft” – as applied to distilling, or any other endeavor – was widely used back then.
As a matter of fact, St. George’s own website provides some helpful context for what the American distilling landscape looked like at that time:
“In 1982, there were fewer than 20 distilleries in the United States.”
That’s not 20 craft distilleries, mind you; it’s 20 distilleries in total. To say that St. George was ahead of its time would be an understatement. Starting with brandy, St. George moved on to single malt whiskey in the late 1990’s, following the arrival of master distiller Lance Winters. The first batch was released in 2000. John reviewed their Baller single malt whiskey here, as well as a sugarcane rum.
The 2000s saw expansions into vodka (Hangar One, subsequently sold), absinthe (Absinthe Verte), Agua Azul (from agave), and various other potables. In 2011, the team did some “barrel thieving” in Kentucky and released Breaking & Entering Bourbon from the sourced stock. This was followed by Breaking & Entering American Whiskey in 2018, which will be the subject of today’s review.
I’ll invert my typical review format by getting into the details before providing my editorial comments: this is comprised of sourced bourbon and rye whiskey from Kentucky and Tennessee, blended with malt whiskey produced in California by St. George. “Aged no less than 2.5 years” per the label, this particular bottle is from batch number 01172005. Bottled at 43% ABV, retail price at my local is $40 for 750 ml.
Now for my thoughts, composed prior to tasting this, based only on what I know (summarized for you above):
My own experience with St. George goes back more than a decade. I recall purchasing a tasting pack of three small-sized bottles of St. George gins and enjoying them in an apartment that I lived in from 2009 to 2012, to give you a sense of the time frame. While the whiskey boom had then started, it had not yet built up the full head of steam that, until very recently, brought us what seemed like a new distillery or brand on a daily basis.
That said, plenty of smaller distilleries that started around that time (e.g. Wilderness Trail, to name but one) have since grown into respected players in the American whiskey landscape. Even looking outside the traditional bourbon heartland of Kentucky, the likes of Westland have been able to establish themselves as among the preeminent producers of malt whiskey in this country.
With all due respect: St. George has not fared so well. Even for someone like me who tries to keep his finger on the pulse of the whiskey world, there’s seldom any mention of St. George. Curiously, in an environment where any and every newcomer seems to get at least 15 minutes of attention, I hear nary a peep about St. George.
Look, I can understand anyone’s reluctance to get into the whiskey business. The economics are challenging at best, and the long cash conversion cycle accentuates all the normal small business risks, not to mention the regulatory comlexities. If St. George had decided to stick with a profitable white spirits business and eschew whiskey entirely, it would have been sensible and unremarkable.
But they didn’t! They started producing whiskey in the late 90s, which retrospectively seems to indicate Nostradamus-like prescience on their part. And yet, despite being fully up and running at a time that the competition was only dreaming about distilling, St. George has comparatively little to show for it.
Hindsight is 20/20, and it is easy for me to play Monday morning quarterback when I had no personal skin in the game. That said, it feels like St. George squandered a golden opportunity. They had stills, they had barrels, they had distribution, they had cash flow from their other spirits; St. George was effectively competing in a marathon in which they were starting 100 yards from the finish line. What do they have to show for it? A pair of lightly regarded single malts and this young blend.
Speaking of this whiskey: I’m not thrilled by the particulars, at least on paper. A blend of anonymous bourbon and rye and craft malt with a 2.5 year age floor is not the type of offering which typically has me tearing my wallet out of my trouser pocket. Regarding pecuniary concerns: while this might be relatively inexpensive compared to the lesser craft whiskeys priced with extreme chutzpah, it still has a lot of price competition from America’s many other whiskey options, likely including whiskeys straight from the sources that St. George leans on.
Misgivings aside, I’m still going to attempt to evaluate this as objectively as possible, though the deck now seems as stacked against St. George as it seemed stacked in their favor 20 years ago. Before I dive in, I’d like to thank my friend Cat, who generously gifted me this bottle with the warning “You’ll probably hate it,” but also the encouragement “I can’t wait to read your review.” This one’s for you!
St. George Spirits Breaking & Entering American Whiskey– Review
Color: Pale gold.
On the nose: A delightfully vernal nose, chock full of fresh flowers, dewy grass, and zesty citrus fruit. There’s the acidic crispness of green apples here, but also the richness of a very ripe pear. At moments, this takes on an accent of cinnamon, creating an aromatic impression more like a spiced autumn cider. With time in the glass, a malty nuance becomes more apparent. Smelled blind, I would have suspected this to be younger (roughly 10 year old) single malt Scotch whisky, likely Speyside, and matured in a bourbon barrel; there’s nothing in the nose to indicate the presence of either type of American whiskey in the blend.
In the mouth: Starts sedately at the front of the mouth, with a somewhat watery texture. That underwhelming initial impression is short lived, however, as those orchard fruit notes from the nose come back to play as this ascends the tongue, with some additional nutty flavors and a yeasty taste of freshly baked bread. There’s a creamy mouthfeel to this, though it turns more tannic as this evolves a woody, spicy nuance in the middle of the mouth. Wood and fruit finally marry into the finish, which lingers with more piquant spice and a round, rich aftertaste of apple cider.
I’m surprised and delighted to say that this smells and tastes like decent young Scotch whisky. I don’t pick up much influence from the bourbon or rye, but it hardly matters to the end result. If the malt component of this really is toward the younger end, it has evolved with astounding precociousness. If it’s the American whiskey pieces that are on the younger side, then the blenders responsible should be commended for integrating them seamlessly, without distracting at all from the very characterful malt base.
Viewed through the framework of Caledonian single malt (rather than American bourbon or rye): this is priced comparably to a 750 ml of Glenlivet 12, and at a slight discount to Glenfiddich 12, which are probably most comparable in terms of flavor profile. I believe this is even a hair better than those, perhaps due to the marginally higher bottling strength. Regardless, this has risen from an inauspicious formula to acquit itself very honorably indeed. Not a blockbuster whiskey by any means, but far better than it has any right to be; as a consequence, I am scoring this in the middle of the range.
On the strength of this example, I was too hasty in writing off St. George’s whiskey. At the very least, they can blend the hell out of whatever they get their hands on to produce a completely respectable expression at a competitive price. Though the ship has likely sailed in terms of the distillery becoming one of the little giants of American whiskey, this expression has at least made me intrigued to try more malt from the stills of St. George. Grateful to have my low expectations significantly exceeded, I’ll look more kindly on the prospect of future whiskey bottlings from this distillery.
Photo courtesy of Binny’s.