Article and photos (unless otherwise noted) by Virginia Miller
Anchor Distilling is a local treasure. Fritz Maytag pioneered craft beer and craft spirits in America long before most were even thinking about it. Tracing back Fritz’ brewing days to the 1960’s puts San Francisco squarely on the map as a leader and trendsetter in beer, while in spirits Fritz alongside Jorg Rupf at St. George, and Hubert Germain-Robin of Germain-Robin, were all pioneering American craft spirits here in Northern California decades before the current renaissance.
Though I was sad to see Fritz retire and sell Anchor in 2010, I’ve been encouraged to witness the care invested by the new owners. Conversing with Anchor President David King is a pleasure. He came from London and Berry Bros. & Rudd (BBR), an iconic name in spirits and wine, now partnered with Anchor Distilling, with a historic shop in London’s posh St. James’s district (which I visited last year in my London explorations). King oversees all imports in their growing portfolio and Anchor’s spirits catalogue, maintaining a humble yet visionary mindset behind the company’s growth.
In keeping with Anchor and Fritz’ legacy, he’s been working to create a spirit different from any before it. It will be the first Anchor spirit to be releases since Genevieve years back: a hops-based spirit, appropriately named HopHead. Though King and Anchor brewmaster (of 41 years) Mark Carpenter long ago passed the conceptual stages, there’s still the waiting game of TTB approvals, including classification of the spirit. As King explains to me, HopHead is made in Anchor’s alembic still used to craft their whiskies, but it is produced like a gin, though made solely with hops in neutral grain spirit vs. gin botanicals.
Because it defies typical classification, it may even end up being categorized as vodka, which would be a mental hurdle for countless of us cocktail geeks and industry folk who have helped spur on the cocktail renaissance of the past decade plus. But HopHead is not flavored vodka. I’ve tasted numerous hoppy whiskies (a shining example being Charbay’s R5 made from Bear Republic Beer), but this is quite different. As King expressed, the goal is to have the taste of fresh hops without the bitter finish. It’s unexpectedly clean, smooth, vibrantly hoppy but with no lingering bitterness. Granted, IPA lovers and hops fanatics crave the bitter, but I find this a fascinating expression of hops, illuminated from other angles when chilled – unique cocktail creations are waiting to be made from this one. The HopHead label is designed by the same Sausalito houseboat artist who has designed Anchor’s Christmas beer labels for years.
Months back I visited Anchor’s new rooftop bar, a window-heavy respite with chic yellow couch, wood bar, and striking views of downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge. They are close to finishing a deck which will function as a beer garden of sorts, surrounded by herbs and hops. They’ve recently acquired bartending legend Brian Rea’s cocktail library, considered to be the most extensive in the world. King says they plan to have a library room on the top floor of Anchor near the bar where industry folk can peruse vintage books (cozy on the couch with those views) and try them out at the bar with the extensive collection of Anchor spirits and imports. It will be one-of-a-kind as an industry space.
On top of this, Anchor Distilling continues to sell a number of exciting imports in an ever-growing catalogue, like Glenrothes‘ brand new release of the first in a line of Extraordinary Casks from the 1960’s and ’70’s, and elegant, refined Hine Cognac, the standout being Hine Antique XO poured at this year’s WhiskyFest. Especially exciting is the import of Nikka whiskies from Japan. We have had to stick to Nikka when overseas and in general, there’s not close to enough Japanese whiskies being imported into the US compared to what is available in Japan. King says he’s hoping in to soon have five or six Japanese whiskies from the Nikka portfolio here in the States, including Yoichi and Taketsuru. We sipped the latter while I learned of the compelling story of its namesake, Masataka Taketsuru. He worked in various distilleries in Scotland, married a Scottish woman, Rita, eventually returning to Japan and founding Nikka as a company (initially named Dai Nippon Kaju K.K.)
We ended our chat with a pour of 16 year Hotaling’s single malt whiskey, Anchor’s crowning beauty (and rarity – this release at only 274 bottles), which I have been privileged to taste a few times. With the view of San Francisco before us, it seems our city’s entrepreneurial, visionary spirit continues to inform Anchor’s direction, just as it has with Fritz Maytag since the 1960’s.