Old Potrero

Think of single malt whisk(e)y and you think exclusively of barley, right? Wrong. Think of American whiskey, and if your mind travels only as far as Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, and Kentucky, then think again. Because if your mind had come to rest in Louisville, a not unnatural thing for it to have done, let it travel on further west. Another 2,330 miles, to be exact.

Over the course of this century, San Francisco may have become renowned for its earthquakes. But now shock-waves of a different sort are emanating from there, reaching as far east as New York and joyously rumbling through those four distilling states en route. The city famous for its Golden Gate is today in a liquid Golden State: California now makes whiskey.

It is no ordinary whiskey, either. This is rye. Not the type of rye which law demands must be a minimum 51% of that grain, the remainder made up of what other cereals the distiller fancies to yield the desired flavor and alcohol. No, this is made from 100% rye that has been malted first before being crushed, mashed, and fermented on its journey to the copper pot. It is called Old Potrero and, as a bottled whiskey, is a world one-off in every way, sufficiently removed in character and much bolder and flavor-explosive than the sweeter, more comparatively bourbony Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Old Overholt ryes.

Seeing that this is such a remarkable whiskey and one that genuinely deserves that most overused tag of unique, it does not take much figuring to work out the guy behind it all. Step forward Fritz Maytag, President of the ground-breaking and now legendary Anchor Brewery. Yet, in fact, Fritz – who has never been shy in making his point of view known – is for once disinclined to make much of a public song and dance about his newest creation. Not because he is in any way ashamed of this whiskey. On the contrary: “This really is the best whiskey in the world,” he announces with the pride, delight, and unbridled affection one normally associates with first-time fathers. It’s just that the man who pioneered so much in the way of American brewing, only to see his thunder stolen slightly over the last decade by the mushrooming of microbreweries all over the USA, wants to keep the secrets of his latest masterpiece to himself just a little longer.

Masterpiece is not a word to be trifled with here. It has long been my contention that rye whiskey is the world’s one seriously overlooked spirit and probably the finest and most flavorsome of all generic whisk(e)y types. This first battalion of 1448 bottles to leave Anchor Distillery to fight their corner in totally new markets contains some really top rate stuff.

Whiskey drinkers may be pretty amazed, shocked even, to learn that this whiskey exists. So are many in the bourbon industry. Had a Klingon cloaking device been available, there is little doubt Fritz would have invested in one, such was the stealth with which his distilling activities were conducted. In April of 1995 I was the first outsider to be shown the tiny, almost cramped, copper pot still which acted as womb to the embryonic spirit, and be conducted around the maturing stocks. I managed to get a nose and taste of some precociously luscious six-month-old. But all this on the strict understanding I said nothing until the whiskey was on the market. It was a difficult but fair exchange. It is unlikely that any other LEGAL distillation has been carried out amid such secrecy.

In truth, though, Fritz, by accident or design, has successfully added a perfect piquancy to the mystique of whiskey. Dive into a glass of Old Potrero and your tastebuds and not your reading glasses will have to get things in focus and do some working out for you.

This tantalizing glimpse of some world whiskey-making history coupled with Fritz’s single-minded refusal to fill in the details was both exhilarating and frustrating, yet understandably so. Perhaps with the exception of just what spices do go into his differing “Christmas Ales,” he has been open-handed about all his brewing practices, something that may have eventually worked against him. Consequently, brewing has lost a little of its sheen: “It’s not such a challenge,” he says with a definite hint of sadness in his voice. “The waters have become muddied: it’s grown into a stampede.”

From Kentucky to Canada, from Ireland to the Isle of Skye; distillers will fall over backwards to tell you not only all about the grain they use, but how it is malted, even what field the grain came from. In Fritz’s case, there are no details forthcoming on the rye or where it is malted; fermentation and distillation times remain a blank. He wants to keep any potential stampede over his stillhouse as far into the future as possible.

But Fritz still regards himself a brewer above all else. His interests and knowledge beyond beer, however, are diverse. It was his great grand-father who founded the giant Maytag Appliance Company. He can tell you all you need to know about cheese as his father was responsible for creating one of the country’s most appreciated delicacies, Maytag Blue. He and his family still own and run the farm in Newton, Iowa, where it is made, although he lives in a 125 acre vineyard which sits astride the Napa and Sonoma counties, north of San Francisco. Naturally enough, his York Creek red wines have become much prized and Fritz enjoys the thought of being the only man in the USA to commercially make wine, beer, and whiskey. He even grows his own olive trees on the land and although the oil he produces from them is rarely seen in a store, you will find it liberally sprinkled on his salads.

Now he is a distiller, too.

“I’ve been drinking rye whiskies for 25 years,” he says. “I always wanted to do it better.” And with that wish came a train of thought that led to the distilling of Old Potrero. Just like his beers, he wanted to get back to basics and origins: he wished to recreate a whiskey which the pioneers and frontiersmen of the American continent might instantly recognize: a celebration of America’s great whiskey-making tradition. “I carried out a lot of research and found that the first whiskey in America was almost certainly made from rye. Also, that rye would have been malted. The distillers would have worked from a single copper pot and it would have been quite small. Well, that is what I have done here.”

Fritz has let the 20th century in with the use of stainless steel mashing and fermentation vessels (curiously, his is the nearest whiskey distillery to the pine forests of Oregon, so valued by traditional Scotch malt distillers as the material for their washbacks, where fermentation occurs) and in 1994 his first, experimental distillations took place. “We single-distilled, double-distilled, triple-distilled and more – though not on purpose. Our first efforts were not exactly covered in glory, half the time we didn’t know what we were doing.”

But by December 1994 they evidently did. Because it is the small batch of double-distilled spirit from those runs which today appear in the bottle – as a 13-month old Single Malt Rye Whiskey. Fritz had no hesitation at bottling at that age, at full strength of 124 proof (62% Alc/vol.), and without chill filtration: it was fun, different, similar in age to how some of the finest whiskeys would have been drunk a couple of centuries back. But above all, it was ready. Despite its youth, having been matured in charred virgin oak barrels, it had already picked up color enough to turn it honey-gold.

The making of 100% pure malt rye whiskey was not an entirely lost art in America, although even an 81-year-old distiller I know who once made rye in Maryland cannot remember an all malt version coming onto the market in his lifetime. Some Canadian distillers still do it from time to time. Seagram makes it over at Lawrenceburg, Indiana, to blend into their Seven Crown brand. However, unlike Old Potrero, this is distilled through column stills. As an eight-year-old, the Lawrenceburg flavoring whiskey outscores it in aroma: in fact, with its labyrinthine depths it is probably among the finest three whiskey noses in the world, while the San Francisco whiskey cannot quite totally disguise its immaturity. But on the palate the Old Potrero wins, especially when warmed to hand temperature. Then it hits the palate running, and while the Indiana rye feeds splendidly off the oak Old Potrero spreads itself oilily across the palate with very juicy, ripe fruit and soft spices, all neatly underpinned by a subtly brittle hardness, with licorice and very dark, bitter chocolate to finish. It is stunning and, for its age, truly remarkable.

Now the big problem for connoisseurs is in finding it. Because Fritz knew he could never meet demand if he got it on general sale in America’s liquor stores, yet wanted as many people as possible to get the opportunity to try it, he restricted himself to personally selling it to well-regarded restaurants. The sad news for most of us is that it is only those found in the San Francisco Bay area, New York, Washington DC, and Baltimore, where it will be greatly welcomed.

Another batch distilled in December 1995 will be finding their way into more restaurants by spring 1997. It doesn’t come cheap. Being supplied wholesale at $66.50 a bottle, diners are asked to pay anything between $8.50 and $17 a shot: it is probably worth skipping the meal and savoring a double. In a few years time there may be older versions available and more widespread.

And for the whiskey’s name? Well, Potrero was taken from the hill-top part of San Francisco where the distillery is located, in a walled-off section behind the brewery within an attractive, late Prohibition-era building. The “Old” prefix is an example of Fritz’s notoriously dry humor. “I once learned that by law you can’t give any product a name indicating great age unless you can prove its corresponding antiquity. Except for one word anyone can use: Old. . . .”

All this from a man who desired once to do something so very different: “When I was young I wanted to be a chemist. I later wanted to become an alchemist.”

His wish has been granted.

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