...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, December 2, 2019

The deeply problematic St. George Baller Whiskey


In the middle of the socializing segment of last month's Columbus Scotch Night, Doctor Springbank handed me his bottle of St. George Baller Single Malt Whiskey and said, pokerfaced, "You have to try this."

At first glance the bottle label's Ukiyo-e-style art was gorgeous. Also, my wife and I love St. George's gins and I've found their absinthe to be a fun take on a beloved spirit. When it comes to whiskey, aside from Charbay and Westland, no other American distillery is doing anything that consistently appeals to me at this point, so I was quite excited by this new thing.

And then I drank the whiskey. And it was awful. As in "wait this cannot be that bad oh my fuck it is that bad ahh gah nooooo this finish" bad.

Perhaps it was my momentary vom face, but Dr. Springbank knew immediately. "Yes! I thought it was just me." We handed it out as a blind taster to at least six other people, and everyone hated it and was kinda mad we pushed it on them. And then I said "Please sir may I have another," and I took a sample home.


After I completed my home tasting (see NOTES below), I read Baller's official page and more issues became apparent.

The first words are, “A California take on the Japanese spin on Scotch whisky.” That phrase is problematic and possibly meaningless. The current "Japanese spin on Scotch whisky" is to mix together Canadian, Irish and Scotch whisky, bottle it with kanji on the label and call it Japanese whisky, or to bottle ultra-young NAS single malts. And the producers who are doing the latter each have different styles. So there is no current single Japanese spin on Scotch whisky. Even if one was to look at the Japanese whisky market in its heyday (quality-wise) Yamazaki, Hakushu, Yoichi, Miyagikyo and the dozens of upmarket blends each had its own character.

And what exactly is "A California take"? If you think the process is specifically Californian or Japanese, you are incorrect. This "single malt" uses both malted and unmalted barley (is that technically a single malt?), is aged in bourbon and French oak wine casks, then is charcoal filtered and then is finished in plum liqueur casks. They refer to the liqueur as umeshu, though it was made using California ume.

So, the plums are from California. And I guess the French oak wine casks are sort of Napa-ish. Charcoal filtration is very far from a born-in-Cali thing. And the mixed barley mashbill is kinda Irish.

Regarding umeshu casks, some portion of the late Hibiki 12 year old Japanese blend was finished in plum liqueur barrels, but was done with a very gentle hand.

Reading on, I learned the label "reimagined" St. George as a samurai slaying a dragon. And then there was the Japanese flag. This was becoming a plague of cultural expropriation. And since nothing surrounding this whiskey is actually Japanese, one begins to wonder if this entire farce was motivated by the hope someone would mistake it for actual "Japanese" whisky and pay through the nose for it.


Writing about this whisky forced me to think about my own choices. I love Japan. My two trips there were among the highlights of my life. I continue to study its culture, religions and history. I've repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to learn the basics of its language. I have filled my daily visual space (that I can control) with Japanese art and products. But I do this in my private time, and I do it with humility knowing I am an outsider looking in at a proud, profound and unique culture. Seeing a company market a product using nothing but cultural appropriation — even if it's a joke, exploitation is the whole show — empties me of any compassion for the producer, whether or not said company says their $200 whiskey was made for highballs.

Distillery: St. George Spirits
Type: Single Malt?
Region: Alameda, CA, USA
Mashbill: Part malted barley, part toasted unmalted barley?
Age: 3 years old
Maturation: First maturation in a Mix of bourbon and French oak wine casks, then a finish in California plum liqueur casks
Alcohol by Volume: 47%
(Thank you to Doctor Springbank)

Is there a mosquito infestation? Because my nose smells citronella candles and OFF spray. And Bounce fabric softener sheets. A violet liqueur note buries hints of grapefruit and toasted oak. The palate is watery but hot. It's also VERY floral (flowers, soap and perfume). Ginger liqueur and dried oregano. Burnt paper and eggy sulfur. After 20 minutes a strong note of Grand Marnier laced with Nutrasweet pushes forward. It finishes with hot floral soap, bitter orange zest and a chemical sweetness.

This is comparable to the height of the '80s Bowmore terrors, with perfumes and soaps and sulfur and chemicals and burnt things. As I am not a distiller, I can only guess at what went awry, but the level of tinkering involved in this whisky's production leaves a lot of potential for cockups. The liqueur casks are very aggressive, and makes one fear the actual liqueur. Charcoal filtration why? And what about the original distillate. Perhaps it started off in a good place? Or was the soap and perfume always present?

As I enjoy their gins and absinthe, I will certainly continue to purchase those St. George products. But Baller was wrong on so many levels that I'm going to forgo their whiskey products altogether.

Availability - UK, Singapore and 13 US states
Pricing - $150-$300, though a few stores now have it for less than $100
Rating - 57