San Francisco, CA
The Raff Distillerie in San Francisco, CA has many stories to tell. It is the creation of just one person and the culmination of its founder’s lifelong dream of opening a distillery. Raff’s products are named after historical figures from San Francisco’s colorful past. It exists on a decommissioned naval base on a small island in the middle of the San Francisco bay. The production facility is a former jail for the United States Navy where, until very recently, violent criminals were held. Carter Raff, the man behind the entire operation, is a 5th generation San Franciscan, with a penchant for doing things on his own, and a background in Hollywood story telling. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Raff's flagship product has the historical reputation of giving its tipplers hallucinatory trances and is named after a former "Emperor" from the City by the Bay.
To put it mildly, Carter Raff does nothing ordinary. He began on the path to opening his distillery while in college in the 90’s. As a student, Carter began his journey by making wine. Not content with the ABV nature was giving him, he began researching distilling a few years later and, while living in a small apartment in Hollywood, tried his hand at distilling. His wine making was going fine, but his attempt at urban moonshining was less successful. Carter determined that he needed more space and that meant putting his distilling pursuits on hold until he could move back to Northern California. Carter continued to study distilling between 1997 and the 2011 opening date of his San Francisco distillery.
Carter has almost limitless energy, an important quality for someone who is the entire company (outside of international sales). This energy manifested itself, initially, in his construction of nearly all of the machinery in his distillery. The wood and copper still that is housed on the outside of the distillery's prison-home? Hand crafted by Carter. The bottlers? Made by Carter. The test still? A Carter-converted mini-keg. How far did his craftiness extend? Down to the pump heads. Only the bottle labeler was made and purchased elsewhere. For Carter, it all came down to dollars and cents. He could have spent a half-million dollars buying all his equipment. Instead, this independent creator spent pennies on raw materials and used his own time and skill to craft things exactly as he wanted them.
Not only is Carter a handy person with a desire to make top-notch alcohol, he is also a fifth generation San Franciscan and lover of the City's history. He readily acknowledges that opening up a distillery in a city with 3% vacancy rates is more difficult than other options, but he wanted his labels to read "made in San Francisco." The city of San Francisco is notoriously difficult to do any kind of construction, even when there is more real estate vacancy. This explains why the Raff Distillery is currently headquartered on the decommissioned Navy base sitting on Treasure Island. If Carter couldn't build a new industrial space, he would just have to make do with the industrial spaces the City had available.
After 14 years of planning, Carter was going to make something unique. He could have made a vodka, gin, or whiskey - all products with large, established consumer bases. Instead, he decided to make an absinthe. He had wanted to make an absinthe since 1985 when he learned about it in a movie and, fifteen years ago, he decided that was the first thing he was going to commercially distill. His Emperor Norton's Absinthe is a traditional French absinthe. First, Carter starts with a brandy base made from 100% California grapes. He then blends in two kinds of wormwood, anise, and fennel (among other herbs). His wormwood actually comes from an herbary in Pontarlier France, the original home of absinthe. The result is an absinthe unlike many of the larger absinthe labels on shelves today. Emperor Norton Absinthe does without the star anise that so many others include. As a result, Raff's absinthe lacks the overpowering licorice flavor found in many absinthes. Why did Carter leave this ingredient out? As he says, it was not originally in French absinthe so it isn't in Emperor Norton.
Raff's second product is a citrusy gin named Bummer and Lazarus. Like the absinthe, Raff's gin also starts out as a 100% California grape-based spirit. Raff feels that the grapes lend a creamier texture to his gin. He then blends together his botanicals to suppress the juniper berries and highlight the citrus and floral notes. It is a gin that actually begins on the nose and then finishes on the palate. Carter says that if you want a juniper-heavy gin, you should look elsewhere. He wants his gin to stand out.
The names of Raff's spirits are as heavily rooted in San Francisco as Carter's own history with the City. Emperor Norton, the namesake of Raff's absinthe, was a business man in mid-1800's San Francisco who lost everything on a bad business wager. After a ten year disappearance, he re-appeared in the City a changed man. He was known to wear a half-Confederate/half-Union uniform and a feather in his cap and proclaim himself Emperor Norton the First. He was quite famous in Northern California and actually had audiences with the State Assembly. He is a true legend in San Francisco and a fitting namesake for a spirit historically tied to hallucinations and the most creative minds of the 19th century.
Bummer and Lazarus were two famous stray dogs in 19th Century San Francisco. They were given free reign of the City and provided the City's writers with endless stories as they roamed the streets. When Lazarus died, thirty thousand people attended his funeral and his eulogy was written by a young Mark Twain - quite a history to associate with a new-style gin.
The Raff Distillerie is heavily invested in the history of San Francisco and being a part of its future. Carter is already working on an agricole style rum, recalling the Barbary Coast, and many more products. He knows that city-planned redevelopment will mean leaving Treasure Island one day. When the time comes, he intends to move onto the mainland of San Francisco. He's already envisioned the space he will build for his new distillery - an homage to the 19th Century. If it is anything like the rest of his distillery, he will probably do it all with his own hands.
To learn more about the Raff Distillierie visit its website at http://www.raffdistillerie.com