Finally, a chance to write about the history of a place I’ve actually spent a fair amount of time in! The “Portrero” in Anchor Distilling’s Old Potrero 18th Century Spirit refers to the area/neighborhood on the east side of San Francisco where the Anchor Brewery and Distillery currently resides. Today, it’s referred to as Potrero Hill, no doubt referencing the large…hill that makes up most of the ‘hood, and is, like pretty much all of SF now, a mostly gentrified, yet fairly diverse area that’s not too far away from some new bio-tech and tech business. The name comes from the Spanish settlers and missionaries in the 1700’s, who after letting their cattle loose to graze, cleverly called the land, Potrero Nuevo, or “new pasture”. You can see why Anchor stuck with the Spanish, “Old Pasture” whisky doesn’t really sound like something people would line up to buy.
Once Mexico had gained its independence from Spain in the early 1800’s, the area of Potrero Nuevo was given to the twin sons of San Francisco’s first Mexican mayor, or alcalde, Francisco de Haro in 1844. Their ownership would not last long as two years later they were callously murdered by American officers in the early stages of the Mexican-American War. The officer commanding the murder, Major John C. Fremont, was later to become, somewhat ironically, the first Republican party presidential candidate who despite his earlier callous regard for human life, actually ran on the anti-slavery platform. After the Mexican-American War, with California, San Francisco, and Potrero Hill now “safely” in U.S. hands, and the Gold Rush beginning, it was hoped that Potrero would become an area filled with newly rich miners. Instead, thanks to the factories, shipyards, and warehouses that popped up closer to the waterfront, the area became more blue-collar.
In 1871, An immigrant German brewer named Gottlieb Brekle (namesake of the wonderful Brekle’s Brown for you beer lovers) founded a brewery on Russian Hill, which is just a few hills to the north and a little west of Potrero Hill. In 1896, Gottlieb sold this brewery to fellow German brewer Ernst F. Baruth and his son-in-law, Otto Schinkel, Jr (that’s one hell of a name) who named their new purchase Anchor Brewery, presumably as a nod to San Francisco’s flourishing shipping industry. Ten years later, beginning in 1906, these new owners hit the roughest of rough patches. In February, ol’ Ernst passed away, and then in April, the great San Francisco Earthquake struck and the brewery was destroyed in the ensuing (largely & foolishly mostly man-made) conflagration that leveled much of the City. Like most of San Francisco, Anchor bounced back fairly quickly, but sadly, right before the new location was opened, Otto Schinkel, Jr. was killed by a streetcar. Not a good run. Luckily, two more German brewers (I know, right? How many fricking German brewers were there in SF back then?) stepped in to keep the brewery alive. These same owners were on hand to begin brewing again after Prohibition, but not long after, the brewery was destroyed by fire once again. Once again, like the proverbial phoenix of yore, Anchor rose from the ashes, this time setting up shop in…you guessed it, Potrero Hill, not far from where the current location is.
Yes, there’s a whiskey review in here somewhere, but just hold yer horses, I’m on a roll. Heading into the second half of the 20th century, Anchor’s popularity had waned, and in 1959 the brewery closed briefly before it was sold and moved by another new owner. Unfortunately, five years (and reportedly poor quality beer) was all it took to show the new owner that he didn’t really want to be running a brewery anyway, and plans were made to close it once again. Now comes the most important moment in the brewery’s history and one of the more important moments in both craft brewing and craft distilling in general. Fritz Maytag, great-grandson of the founder of the Maytag Corporation (washing machines), and son of the Maytag Dairy Farms (Maytag Blue Cheese) founder, purchased a majority stake in Anchor Brewery and set about re-vitalizing the business and the brand. Maytag was adamant about keeping Anchor small and focusing on the craft and the quality of the product. This proved a successful approach as the brewery quickly grew out of its existing location and into today’s nearby Potrero Hill location. Anchor’s success paved the way for other like-minded brewers and is often credited as being the original “microbrewery”.
Still with me? Good, because we’ve finally arrived at the whisky part. In 1993, not being content to just brew excellent beer, Maytag opened Anchor Distillery within the confines of the brewery, thereby becoming not just the father of the craft beer movement, but the father of the craft distilling movement as well. Maytag wanted to experiment with older styles of spirits, specifically with the type of American whiskey made before corn-heavy bourbon became the norm. In the late 1700’s and throughout much of the 1800’s rye-based whiskies, made by north-eastern distillers, were the popular drink of the day in the more urban areas of the Northeast. Maytag ignored the current conventional rye-whiskey-making wisdom (at least 51% rye with some corn and some malted barley for easier fermentation) and decided on using 100% malted rye grain distilled in relatively small copper potstills. Equally as unconventional was his choice of cask used for maturation. For the Old Potrero 18th Century Spirit, he decided on the type of cask that was most likely used in the late 1700’s, which was American oak, but toasted instead of charred like today’s bourbon barrels. Toasting the wood was a necessary part of barrel-making, giving the wood the flexibility to be coopered into a barrel, but it was never thought of as a way to enhance the flavor of a spirit. Charring the barrel on the other hand adds quite a bit to the flavor profile of a spirit during maturation and was not commonly used for whiskey until the mid-1800’s. Staying as true as possible to the 18th century, when “cask maturation” was not really a consideration, The 18th Century Spirit was then aged for approximately 2.5 – 3 years and bottled at strength. So there you have it, arguably the first “craft” (whatever that means) whiskey made by one of the more influential brewers in a wonderfully sunny neighborhood of one of the greatest cities on the planet.
The Nose: There are antecedents here that are familiar, but mostly, this is one of the more unique noses you’ll find on any whisk(e)y out there. Lean but muscular notes of herbaceous rye just jump out of the glass. Well-toasted rye bread, raw rye grain, dried hay and fresh sawdust are most prominent with burnt toffee, lemon cake with tart lemon icing hovering in the background. A subtle but complex swirl of spices hang over it all, caraway, cinnamon, mint and clove. A good amount of water adds more caramel sweetness and a bit of cocoa and orange zest while smoothing out and even muddling that complex array of bread-y spice.
The Palate: Obviously, the high ABV pretty much just burns your lips off to start with, but then, like with the nose, you’re left to smile in lip-less wonder at this one. Initial notes of fruity, slightly burnt caramel are quickly joined by more of that raw, pungent toasted rye. Like the nose, the rye is bready and herbaceous all at the same time. The spices on the palate, despite their youth, are raw but not harsh. Coarse cinnamon and clove, coriander and a touch of earthy mint. The addition of water makes the palate just wonderful, adding a creamy dose of dark chocolate and calming the raw-er aspects a bit.
The Finish: This doesn’t stray too far from the Nose and Palate, Rye-filled, toasty, bready, with those earthier, hay and sawdust notes lingering a bit more.
Thoughts: An absolutely remarkable whiskey…if it actually does qualify as whiskey. You could argue that this is a little one note without much depth, but then again, it is 100% rye grain, aged for no more than 45 months. The point wasn’t to create a modern, well-matured, meticulously crafted and vatted whisky, Anchor wanted to re-create the style of whisky found in the 1800’s. Having never been to the 18th century, I can’t say how accurate the result is, but with the single-grain rawness, minor wood influence, and brash youth of this one, you can imagine this lining the top shelves of the saloons of that era. Water does take away some of the uniqueness of the spirit, but it also opens it up and makes it more approachable. Straightforward yet complex, raw yet drinkable, impressively unique, this is a grand adventure of a whiskey made by one the industry’s true pioneers. It’s certainly hard to find, but do not miss the opportunity to try this or any of Anchor Distillery’s other spirits. Highly recommended.
*Interestingly, I just noticed that the label of my bottle (purchased in 2011 but bottled who knows when) does say “Spirit” whereas the current version is called 18th Century Whiskey. Not sure when they made this change or why, I’ll have to look into it.