Like many college roommates, Clint Potter and Tim Obert went their separate ways after school. Having participated in a 3-2 program at UC Santa Cruz where the two met, Clint transferred to UC Berkeley in his fourth year to attend an engineering program, after having received a business degree in his first three years. Tim, on the other hand, spent some time in San Diego, then moved to the Bay Area, where he began running a transcription service specializing primarily in medical transcription. Along the way, Tim also developed a serious interest in brewing beer—enough to do an internship at Pacific Brewing Laboratory and even apply to the master brewer’s program at UC Davis (which he is currently attending).
In parallel, Clint was developing his own serious interest—in whiskey. While attending Berkeley, he lived with a pot still whiskey maker from Ireland, Finn O’Connor, a member of the Irish Whiskey Society who taught a whiskey class at the university. O’Connor, who, according to Clint is prolific in the world of whiskey, became his whiskey mentor, teaching Clint about whiskey and the distillation process.
Although Tim and Clint had developed these separate interests, they “sat idle for a while,” Clint said, until one night after he and Tim had both come to live in San Francisco. Over beers, Clint explained to his friend that the first step in the process of making malt whiskey was very much like the process of making beer. That got Tim thinking that they should combine their interests in beer and whiskey making by “messing around” with distilling different styles of beer to see what they came up with. So Tim began brewing over 60 different styles of beer including porters, Belgians, Pale Ales, even Kolsch, and Clint started distilling them—in a 10 gallon pot still, fired with a propane burner, which Clint described as “a very humble set up.”
“We were just getting these crazy flavor profiles that we’d never tasted before. Some don’t turn out well,” Clint said. “Some don’t translate well. And some are great.” After going on a “long, experimental journey,” in trying different formulations and recipes, the two decided that they should legitimize their operations by starting a business.
“We decided that with the things we produced, it made sense to bring it to market because there wasn’t anything else like it out there at that point in time,” Clint said.
Both had saved some money from their respective jobs (Clint was working as a structural engineer, and Tim had the transcription business), so they decided to invest their savings in starting Seven Stills of San Francisco. Although they didn’t have enough to build their own distillery, they did have enough to make a start and fund one batch of whiskey and one batch of vodka under what’s called a rectifier’s license, which allows users to buy distilled spirits from a producer and then age, blend and bottle it under their own name. As opposed to having a distillers license, which takes longer and is more complicated to get, the rectifier’s license allows them to create their own recipes, then give them to a brewer and a distiller to make before they bottle their wares. That allowed them to get up and running so they could eventually earn funds for their own still. They’ve been operating officially for the past nine months and now have hopes of buying their own still within a few months.
Because Clint and Tim wanted to get their names out into the marketplace and acquire customers as soon as possible but they also wanted to make aged whiskeys, the first six months of the business were dedicated to selling vodka as they aged their whiskey. They chose vodka, in part, because there are currently a lot of craft gins on the market, and they wanted to differentiate themselves from the competition. Clint says vodka is a very tough sell, though, because “it’s not sexy like whiskey is” and people tend to either want the cheapest vodka available or really high-end products like Grey Goose or Chopin.
According to Clint, whiskey is defined as “an all grain mash build,” which is why they’re able to distill whiskey by starting with a beer product. Because the two products start from the same grain-fermenting process, they are effectively the same in the eyes of governing bodies, he said. The intent for Seven Stills is to specialize in whiskeys distilled from beer, or as it’s sometimes called, “Bierbrand” (also known as beer brandy or bier schnapps in Germany).
“That’s actually one of the hardest things about this whole process is explaining to people that our whole concept is distilling beer into whiskey to show how the flavor profile translates because a lot of people don’t get that concept. They think we just put beer in the whiskey or beer in the barrel and then take it out and put whiskey in the barrels to get some flavors,” he said. “We’re still struggling with how to educate people about it.”
Although spirits are clear when distilled, it’s the oak-aging process that both colors the grain-based liquid and makes it a whiskey. “Pretty much magic happens when you put stuff in barrels,” Clint says.
“All the color of the beer is left behind [in the distilling process.] That’s another common knowledge gap in whiskey–how the color gets in there. Any colored spirit you see has been aged in oak,” Clint said. “It’s picked up from the wood in the barrel.”
The Seven Stills name is a play on the seven hills of San Francisco and also represents both the lucky number seven and San Francisco’s 7×7 mile footprint, Clint says. “We wanted the name to have to do something with San Francisco and have to with distilling.” The long-range goal for their line of whiskeys is to have seven types brewed from seven of their own house-made beers. They also plan to do whiskey collaborations with local breweries, such as Pacific Brewing Laboratory.
“The whole thing with the collaboration series is that you’re able to let the consumer taste the beer that the whiskey was distilled from side by side, which makes the education process so much easier,” Clint says.
Currently Seven Stills sells their vodka and has two different whiskeys brewed from beer in production. Their Chocosmoke whiskey, made from a smoked chocolate oatmeal stout, was named for Twin Peaks in San Francisco, which Clint says was originally called “Los Pechos de la Choca” (or breasts of the Indian maiden). The Whipnose whiskey, the first in their collaboration series, is distilled from a double IPA that Clint and Tim made in conjunction with Pacific Brewing. In addition to spirits, they are making bitters and selling those to local bars. Their Meyer Lemon bitters are currently available, and they plan to roll out other flavors, such as cranberry.
Despite their vodka and bitter production “the focus is really on whiskey and how we can use beer to make spirits,” Clint said. “Because the whole idea in using beer to make whiskey is that you have such a whole wider palate of colors to work with. So a traditional whiskey maker just uses raw grains like corn, malted barley, rye, wheat. That’s for the most part it. When you’re using a brewer’s palate of grains, then you have all those grains, but then you have hops and adjuncts like maple sugar or candy sugar, which is beet sugar, brown sugar, you have specialty malts, which are malts that are roasted longer and they produce different flavors in the malt. There’s just a lot more to play with.”
Clint says that getting into the industry and navigating all the federal regulations from the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB) and California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) can be a “maze.” Although Clint still does some engineering consulting and Tim has maintained the transcription service, the majority of their focus now is on building the business.
“If we wanted to succeed at this, we needed to put all our focus into it and that’s pretty much it. You have to go all out or else it’s not going to work. Because it comes through in what you produce, how you present yourself, how you sell your product. It comes through if you don’t put your all into it,” he said.
What drew you to distilling?
I guess it was beer, which is ass backwards, but it was really my passion for whiskey and Tim’s passion for beer and trying to do something that hadn’t been done before. Albeit Bierbrand has been done before and there are a few people that have distilled beers into whiskey, but not in quite the exploration we plan to do it and [how we want to] educate the public about it.
It’s been great since. It’s been fun. It’s a fun industry to be in. And it’s so cool to have an actual material product that you produce, to be able to hold it in your hands at the end of the day. There’s definitely a sense of pride that comes with it.
The vodka was really because we wanted something that to get to market immediately. Vodka has very quick turnaround. The longest part of that process was getting the bottles printed because they’re screen printed. But the actual distilling takes no time for vodka. And then the bottling took three days. So the whole idea around that was to produce something that we could get to market immediately as soon as we got licensed and then build up our presence before we released the whiskey so people would know who we are, so we wouldn’t just be sitting on our hands and our dollars until the whiskey came out. Also we looked around and there was really no one producing vodka in the Bay Area. In fact, people have picked us up because Hangar One was bought out.
Where does your inspiration come from?
It’s all the craft beer movement, I mean the craft beer movement did so many crazy things, and that’s where we look to get inspiration. I mean before the craft beer movement it was just Budweiser and low alcohol lagers. Now you can get a 14 percent sour beer that’s been barrel aged—just like crazy stuff like that. So we’re following in their footsteps in some ways, but some of that stuff doesn’t translate so you kind of have to look for inventive ways to get around that.
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
What a hard question! Because everyone tries to give you advice…
If I gave advice to someone it would be, if you want to do it, start right now because it’s going to take longer than you would expect, especially with the TTB and the ABC and learning everything.
Best piece of advice? I guess it was to get a rectifier’s license because before we thought the only way we could do this would be building an actual distillery. We wouldn’t have been able to do this without it because we just didn’t have the money. I think Tim got that advice from Arthur [Hartunian] at Napa Valley Distillery who runs the California Distillers Guild. I don’t know if he still does, but he did at the time. If we hadn’t been able to do that, we wouldn’t be able to be at this point where we’re actually able to build a distillery.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
Labels. It’s horrible. You want to release something but it takes five months to get a label approved. They’re backed up. That’s not the biggest challenge, but it’s a huge headache. They’re backed up in Washington D.C. at TTB and their co-hort, Certificate of Label Approval, it’s that department specifically. There’s not many of them that work there and they have to approve so many labels, and it’s such a weird way that they do it. So you submit it online, it takes about two months, give or take, for them to even look at it and once they look at it, they only say one thing that’s wrong with it at a time, so they’ll kick it back to you and you’ll correct that and they’ll say another thing is wrong and they’ll kick it back to you. If they’d just give you everything that’s wrong at once, the process would be two months and a week, instead of four months.
So there’s that. And we haven’t really faced this hurdle because we’ve been self-distributing, but everyone tells us that working with a distributor is very hard. So we haven’t faced that challenge yet, but one of the great parts of self-distributing is that I get to see our customers a lot, which I think they like and I enjoy it, too. You get to know exactly who’s selling your product, which helps leaps and bounds. I mean there’s really no substitute for going out there and selling your own product.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
We get to make whiskey! I just dream of the day when we have our own distillery where we can produce all these funky whiskeys that we haven’t housed to just taste people on. And hopefully have a brew house attached where people can go try the beer, then they can go try the whiskey, that they sample from both. That would just be so cool! I think people would really respond to it.
But as of right now, it’s just running your own business and getting to do what you want. If you want to make a label called ‘Whipnose’ that has a fox with a barrel on it’s nose, we can do that. It’s freedom.
What’s your favorite spirit that you’re making right now?
My hat would go into the ring for Chocosmoke. I’m much more on the scotch side of things with my palate and what it appreciates. I think Tim would go for Whipnose, but there’s a lot of recipes that we haven’t released that are delicious also.
What other local brewers/distillers that you admire and why?
I guess I just admire everyone that has made it in this industry. It’s such a rewarding industry to be in. And anyone who’s being inventive with it, too. Like the Almanac guys, they’re making great stuff with their sours. We work with Pac Brew Lab, he makes some very cool stuff. We actually distilled all three of his beers before we settled on [the beer for Whipnose]. He has a Hibiscus Saison, which is great as a beer. It’s delicious—doesn’t work as a whiskey, it didn’t turn out, but it’s great beer. The guys over at Anchor, they laid the way for us. I guess Dave Classick [of Essential Spirits], he’s been around for a long time and he’s paved the way as well.
If you had to choose your last drink, what would it be?
I gonna go with just a Budweiser, but like a lot of them. I like it all. That’s just what came to mind.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef/bar?
I like Dogpatch Saloon—they strike a really good balance between being a mixology bar, but also being—I don’t want to say dive bar—but that feel. You can get a Bud Light there. Another bar I love to go to is LaTrappe in North Beach, it’s a Belgian restaurant, but they have insane beers there.
Seven Stills of San Francisco
Photos courtesy of Seven Stills of San Francisco.