Distilling at Anchor
A Pioneer in American Craft Distilling
Tucked away in the warehouse of Anchor Brewing Company’s Potrero Hill brewery, Anchor Distilling makes three whiskeys and two gins in beautiful custom-made traditional copper pot stills. Fritz Maytag, our original founder, is often portrayed as The Pioneer in American Craft Distilling. We often get asked about the start of distilling here at Anchor, and therefore thought we’d share a little bit of history.
The original Anchor Distilling Co. was established in 1993 by Fritz Maytag, the same beverage visionary that sparked the craft beer movement through his purchase of Anchor Brewing in 1965. Fritz recalls, "Those of us that were there in the early days just had a fantastic time, because we knew we were onto something that was really unique. If we were right, we could change the brewing world. And we did that….and it was marvelous. For many years, almost everything we did was radical and wildly unpopular in the broad beer market, but gradually accepted and admired." By the early 1990s, with the craft beer movement in full flight, Fritz was inspired to look beyond brewing to continue feeding his creativity. Distilling would provide that opportunity, an idea which Fritz had been considering for some time, "I had a vision back in the early seventies that maybe making a rye whiskey would be an interesting idea. Historically, rye whiskey preceded bourbon, and at the time was totally out of fashion. That appealed to me because one of the things we did in the early days of brewing was to do things that were purposefully not popular."
Brewmaster Mark Carpenter and Mario Gardin installing the condenser coil at Anchor Distilling (mid 1990’s).
Fritz's vision of a rye whiskey revival took a step closer to becoming reality with the bold realization that there were no pot distilled whiskeys being made legally in America at the time. “By then we had learned how relatively simple it is, to start something on a very, very small scale." Finding inspiration in the rye whiskies of America's past and the great single malt whiskies of Scotland, Fritz gathered a small team to begin top secret research and experimentation in the distillery. According to Bruce Joseph, who has been at Anchor since 1980 and is the current Head Distiller, “When we started, we were making the only pot-distilled whiskey in the U.S. Fritz wanted to go back before bourbon, to colonial times, and we had to do a lot of digging in really old books to teach ourselves about it. Those of us working on the project were able to experiment and really wanted to push the boundaries of American Whiskey”. The rules say that rye must be 51% rye, yet Fritz opted for 100% rye and for all of that rye to be malted, allowing him to designate the final product as being 'single malt'. The barrel program was just as unique, with the team choosing toasted handmade barrels over the charred barrels that were the status quo for whiskey.
The first whiskey went into barrel on December 9, 1994, and while Fritz and his team weren't sure how the spirit would age, they didn't expect it to come to life so quickly. "I thought that after six to eight months that our whiskey was just charming. It didn't taste quite like any other whiskey, but it was beautiful." The decision was made to bottle the young whiskey at one year old in January of 1996. Over time, Anchor began producing 3 rye whiskeys under Fritz’s guidance, all pot-distilled spirit from a mash of 100% malted rye: Old Potrero Single Malt 18th Century Style Whiskey, aged in uncharred oak barrels for a minimum of 2.5 years; Old Potrero Single Malt 19th Century Style Straight Rye Whiskey, aged in new charred oak barrels for over 4.5 years; and Old Potrero Hotalings Single Malt Whiskey - a now 17 year old single barrel per year release, commemorating the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, in celebration of our indomitable City’s rebirth.
Members of the original distilling team bottling Junipero Gin (late 1990’s)
Anchor's foray into gin was a natural evolution fueled by the same creative inspirations that led to the distillation of rye whiskey. "We realized distilling is fun, and I had learned a lot about herbs, spices and exotics flavorings from our spiced Christmas Ales." The research process for the gin was extensive- Fritz and his team created a list of ingredients and began experimenting one by one using a base built around the fundamental ingredients in most gins. Further experimentation and refinement would eventually lead the Anchor team to create Junipero, a process that seemed endless at the time but was obvious when it arrived. “That's it. It's wonderful and different. It's distinctive, let's put it in the bottle!' Junipero launched in April of 1996, and soon after the team also launched an obscure style of gin—“What in the old days, was simply un-aged whiskey distilled with herbs and botanicals- primarily juniper”. The result was Genevieve, which quickly became a celebrated cocktail ingredient amongst bartenders with an appreciation for classic cocktails.
In 2010, a new chapter of Anchor Distilling Co. began when Fritz Maytag decided to retire and sell his business. “I tried to find the right new owners for more than five years. These guys have the right ideas. They understand what we have achieved.” After owning and managing the brewery and distillery for a combined 62 years, he now looks forward to the Anchor team taking his prized products to new heights, and has one final distilling wish: “Someday, I hope to see Junipero Gin in every bar in the world.”
The team here at Anchor is looking forward to the next chapter and an incredible journey.