Three years ago, Clint Potter was storing dozens of bottles of homemade whiskey in his bedroom. Now, the cofounder of San Francisco distillery Seven Stills has opened a dedicated tasting room in the Bayview — the first hard alcohol tasting room in San Francisco, and the first of its kind in California.
In late May, the small-batch whiskey makers began welcoming customers to sample the porters, stouts, and other flavorful microbrewed beers that form the base for their maverick whiskeys. For now, whiskey sampling remains by appointment only, due to a quirk in Bayview's zoning laws that Seven Stills is working to overturn. (But it's very easy to get an appointment.)
Seven Stills was only one of a number of distilleries to apply for California's new Type 74 permit, which went into effect Jan. 1 and allows distillery visitors to purchase bottles directly as well as sample spirits in cocktails on-site.
But Seven Stills was the first to get its Type 74 permit approved.
“Last week was a big week for us,” distillery CEO Tim Obert says on a warm Wednesday afternoon in early June. “We got our federal permits, we got our Type 74 permit, and we got our final inspection signed off.”
They'll celebrate with a public grand opening July 16, when visitors can taste Seven Stills' whiskeys, beers, and house-made bitters, alongside small bites and food-truck offerings. The party also kicks off a series of new whiskey releases planned for fall and winter.
Obert and Potter first met as students at UC Santa Cruz and went their separate ways for years, before reuniting through a mutual friend. At the time, Obert was experimenting with craft brewing while Potter was teaching a community course on whiskey at UC Berkeley that involved jaunts to Beckett's on Shattuck Avenue (which is now Tupper and Reed) for tastings.
“I told him how whiskey was made,” Potter says. “He said, 'Why don't we try distilling the beer I'm making?' “
Together, they purchased an old copper still for $500, which now stands inside the entrance of their Bayview brewery and distillery.
Before long, they were making new batches of beer and whiskey every two weeks. Obert asked the owners at local liquor chain Healthy Spirits whether they were selling whiskey made from beer. They weren't, meaning he'd discovered an essentially untapped market.
“I didn't like how many breweries were popping up,” Obert says. He wanted to do something different.
The pair started with California Courage vodka. After they'd opened about 100 accounts with bars and liquor stores, Seven Stills launched its first whiskey, the complex and lightly sweet Chocasmoke, made from a chocolate oatmeal stout and peated barley.
Created in honor of San Francisco's Twin Peaks, Chocasmoke features an illustration of a Native American woman inked by local street artist Zio Ziegler. It recently released Fluxuate, made from coffee porter — a nod to Folgers Coffee's roots on Rincon Hill, with artwork from David Polka — and will soon roll out a whiskey made from a Russian imperial stout in honor of Russian Hill. Seven Stills ultimately plans to create whiskeys for each of the city's seven major hills.
In addition to the beers that are the pre-distillation sources for the liquors, visitors will be able to try beers aged in casks that held the whiskeys made from them. A meta-tasting, if you will.
“It's beer-ception,” Obert says. “A beer within a beer within a beer.”
Seven Stills has also teamed up with a number of local breweries: Whipnose whiskey is made from Pacific Brewing Company's Double IPA, while Dogpatch comes from Almanac's Dogpatch Sour. (For extra funk, it's finished in the original beer barrels.) Several more are currently aging, including a tart whiskey based on San Francisco Brewing Company's sourdough sour, one made from Laughing Monk's Sunshine Saison, and a third, hop-filled whiskey distilled from Simpleton's Double IPA.
As Seven Stills rolls out several new whiskeys this fall — including a warm, spicy Oktoberfest dram — it's also gathering letters of support for a change to the local alcohol restrictions in Bayview. If changed, tasting-room guests will be able to sample whiskeys solo and without an appointment.
Although whiskey and bourbon are increasingly popular, Obert and Potter say there's still a long way to go before brown liquor is as popular as craft beers. Many beer enthusiasts are curious about whiskey, but the laws against home-distilling have probably kept whiskey education from flourishing as dramatically, they say.
They're hoping that will help make Seven Stills a success.
“We're going after those craft-brew people who want to try everything,” Obert says.