Distillery No. 209 sits on edge of San Francisco, just a baseball throw away from AT&T Park, home of the SF Giants. Pier 50 is on the industrial side of things, so you won’t find crab vendors or sea gulls swooping on pedestrians. I entered the distillery and was welcomed by Wendi, their Marketing and Brand Manager, along with Abby the distillery poodle. Wendi and Abby were kind enough to walk me around their magic factory and explain the history of No. 209 Distillery.
No. 209 is actually the distillery number it was given when it was founded back in 1882, by master distiller William Scheffler. It was and still is part of the Edge Hill Estate located in St. Helena, which also produces amazing wine. The distillery building was shut down shortly after it was erected due to Prohibition, but not before winning several awards for their handcrafted spirits. In 1999 Leslie Rudd took over the project and during the building’s restoration discovered lettering on the building that read “Registered Distillery No. 209.” Hence the name.
After learning that the distillery was founded in Napa, I was somewhat shocked because now Napa County turns a blind eye to DSPs (Distilled Spirits Permit) for fear of competition with the wine industry. C’mon folks, there’s plenty of room on the shelf for everybody.
So a little bit about me…I have visited numerous gin distilleries for MicroShiner and as a mixologist tasted hundreds of gins. Not to mention running a restaurant spirits program. So I like to think that I have seen and tasted it all when it comes to gin. But when Wendi brought me into the herb, spice, and botanical room at Distiller 209, I was blown away. Seeing the herbs is one thing, but being able to smell and taste them and explore each flavor and texture was truly inspirational. Wendi took me to school. From learning about what size of cardamom pods are more flavorful (it’s the smaller ones you want) to which spice brings out bitterness, I was pumped to get such a hands-on, put-this-herb-in-your-mouth tour. I walked in feeling I had a good grasp on gin botanicals and left feeling like I just received my master’s degree.
After learning about the various base spirits and their process for crafting gin, it finally came down to my favorite part... the magical dance between spirit and palette. Now I know every distillery has to do something to stand out from the next guy, whether that’s the bottling used, or the base spirit being grain or brandy, or perhaps the spirit is cut with that special water that was sourced from that one place that nobody has been. We get it. You’re different. But honestly... No. 209 might be changing the game.
At this point, we have all heard of barrel aged gin, usually just the standard Charred-White-American-Oak. Now consider French Oak barrels. And to take it farther… imagine French Oak barrels that once held wine! Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and even Cabernet Sauvignon! Since No. 209 is affiliated with a wine label (remember, Edge Hill), they do have easy access to these barrels. Yes some may say it’s cheating, but if you have to cheat to get to this degree of singularity … well, I welcome whatever they might have up their sleeves. Their lineup consists of several different spirits and a variety of gins. First is their standard flagship 209 Gin and of course Vodka. Followed by their Barrel Reserve line. Starting with their Sauvignon Blanc Barrel Aged Gin which has notes similar to a Lillet or Dry Vermouth. Then the Chardonnay Barrel Aged Gin. Tons of notes similar to big oaky, creamy chardonnay. I could almost taste the malolactic fermentation. Finally I was able to taste the Cabernet Barrel Aged Gin. This was most impressive. The first thing that I noticed was the tannic notes, followed by big fruit. Forget your bourbon whiskey (just for a night at least) and drink the Cabernet Sauvignon Barrel Reserve Gin with a few cubes. Perfect for sipping!
I was sad to leave, especially without a bottle, but happy to finally see the place I have heard so much about. I’m looking forward to visiting their Estate in Napa soon.