I love it when a product and its packaging both have a story to tell. It’s even more fun when one of our young local entrepreneurs is also in the mix.
On a recent visit with friends, I was treated to a really interesting gin and tonic. Further exploration was required. Definitely tasted the subtlest hints of citrus and floral. The silky finish was notable.
My taste buds were not deceiving me; there was something definitely different about this gin. Two distinct differences in this Bummer & Lazarus gin. First, it is grape-based as opposed to the standard neutral grain alcohol base. The second big difference? The primary botanical is not juniper.
I’ve learned that the silky mouthfeel and creamy texture I enjoyed was thanks to the grape base of the gin. The grapes are sourced in California and include different varietals.
The forwardness of juniper in most gins is recognizable and typically the star of the show. The botanicals in this gin are angelica, cinnamon, coriander, juniper, lemon, licorice, orange and orris root, with the juniper in the midst of the balance of botanicals. The botanicals are sourced locally, per partner Jason Hooten.
Grabbing the bottle for more study, I was instantly drawn to the hand-illustrated label. The description is spot on. “A floral and herbacious small batch gin made in San Francisco. Hints of citrus, with a spicy finish.” It was, however, the illustrations of “Bummer & Lazarus” that really got my attention — more about this later.
Life-long Napa resident Hooten, whose background since graduating from college has been in the world of beers, wine, spirits and the creation of his company Prolific Beverage, LLC, has partnered with fifth-generation San Franciscan Carter Raff and Dave Stoop, who has worked with Hooten since 2014.
Raff Distillerie (they use the traditional French spelling) was the first client for Jason and Dave. Their mission is creating “craft” products in their San Francisco-based distillery. Working together since 2013, they have been partners since 2016.
Raff began in medical school and then realized he had not found his passion there. Film production became metal and woodworking; then he moved onto wine and mead, with the Raff Dilstillerie in 2011.
A San Francisco resident since he relocated from Pennsylvania to attend college in the 1980s, Stoop also comes from the spirits industry. He was one of the first salesman on the streets hired by Skyy Vodka in 1992. Stoop joined Hooten at Prolific and is now on board at Raff focusing on sales and distribution.
With Raff’s engineering skills, the partners built their own stills, designed and crafted the iron and woodwork that decorates the tasting room in the distillery. They also to built their own bottling line from the ground up, literally. They can move 1,500 bottle an hour.
Their total production is 5,000 cases, with the majority of it gin. All is sold primarily in California.
Raff’s passion for his products — and San Francisco history — is obvious the minute he begins to share the story of Bummer & Lazarus gin, Emperor Norton’s Absinthe and Barbary Coast Rhum Agricole.
Bummer & Lazarus
Bummer & Lazarus: These guys are famous, or maybe infamous. In the early 1860s as they wandered the streets of San Francisco, their unique bond and special abilities made them a fixture in newspapers and cartoons. They were often exempted from city ordinances.
Bummer became well known for sitting outside the saloon of one Frederick Martin and took the place of Bruno in this territorial part of San Francisco. Bruno had been poisoned just before Bummer’s arrival. Bummer figured out how to live by begging for scraps from local passers-by and customers of the saloon located on Montgomery Street.
Bummer was a black and white Newfoundland cross and an extraordinary rat killer. This skill was the key to his survival. In the 1860s, many large cities had a greater population of stray and feral dogs than they did people — sometimes 2-1. Due to this dog population explosion, free roaming dogs were often poisoned or trapped and killed. Hence the old “dog catcher” stories. If a dog was a good “ratter” or had other notable traits, it was possible for them to survive.
According to legend, in 1861, Bummer rescued another dog from a fight. The injured dog was so badly wounded, he was not expected to live. Bummer coaxed him to eat, brought him scraps from his scavenger hunts and curled up next to him to keep him warm at night. The injured canine survived and began to accompany Bummer on his rounds in the streets of San Francisco. His survival earned him his name, Lazarus. He became an Olympian ratter.
Martin’s saloon was a favorite hang-out for newspapermen, so the accomplishments of Bummer and Lazarus were often shared in print. Their stories became comparisons to the human conditions of the time. With editors vying for competitive stories about the two dogs, the truth may have become blurred. Nonetheless, the story of their friendship struck a cord with the public.
They may not have been Rin Tin Tin or Lassie famous, but famous they were, and still are in San Francisco.
On one occasion, Lazarus was captured by the dog catcher and a mob of irate citizens demanded he be freed. A petition was created to have Bummer and Lazarus proclaimed “city property,” which allowed them to wander freely. They were not to be harassed in any way. Once, the pair apparently stopped a runaway horse.
The dogs were regularly seen with the “Emperor of the United States,” the outlandish Joshua A. Norton. It’s possible cartoonist Edward Jump created this legend because he loved to feature the three of them together. Norton was said to be jealous of the attention the dogs received and mostly disavowed his connection.
Sadly, Lazarus was killed in 1863. One story says he was kicked by a horse pulling a fire engine, while another states he was poisoned. Citizens collected $50 as a reward for the name of the poisoner. Well-recognized San Franciscans made up the funeral procession, with Bummer in attendance. It was reported that thousands in attendance. Lazarus was not buried, but prepared by a taxidermist so he could be displayed at Martin’s bar. One of the local newspapers featured a lengthy obituary titled, “Lament for Lazarus,” which honored both dogs.
After the loss of Lazarus, the press became less interested in Bummer, and he disappeared from their scene, but not from the eyes of the locals. A year later, a young writer for the Daily Morning Call, Mark Twain, wrote that he had “taken in a black pup.” Bummer died in 1865 after being kicked by a drunk, Henry Rippey. To avoid havoc in the streets over this cruel death, the city arrested Rippery. Even his cell mate was furious and “popped him in the smeller.”
Bummer’s eulogy was, however, written by Mark Twain in the Virginica City Enterprise. Also taxidermied, both dogs were donated to the Golden Gate Park Museum in 1906. These were removed and destroyed in 1919. In 1992, a touching brass plaque was placed in Transamerica Redwood Park.
Had it not been for the compelling labeling on the gin bottle, I might not have ever heard the story of these two popular San Franciscans.
Absinthe and Rum
In keeping with the theme of 1800s San Francisco, Raff named the Emperor Norton Absinthe in honor of the businessman who lost his immense fortune and became homeless and a bit insane. Often seen in a pieced together military uniform, he began to print his own currency and proclaimed governmental decrees. His idiosyncracies endeared him to the people of San Francisco.
During my visit to the distillery, Raff clarified rumors about absinthe. As a result of the temperance movement, absinthe, which is 136 proof, was blamed for suicides and murders. This is just urban legend, along with the idea that it was or is a hallucinogen. It is not, but in 1915 it was banned all over the world. Bottles stored for 120 years have since been tested and there have not been any traces of hallucinogenic properties. This ban was lifted in 2007.
No matter what method you choose to taste, over ice, flaming sugar cube (not recommended due to the obvious risk), or in a cocktail, this aperitif will not produce the infamous Green Fairy. I was relieved to know this, because I had at one point tried to see her at a ceremonious serving of the liquor, with no luck. I thought it was just me. The absinthe I had tasted previously was not an artisan-crafted liqueur and was way too licorice in flavor for my taste buds. The French-style absinthe produced by Raff Distillerie is a really pleasant blend of herbs with subtle hint of anise.
Last, but not least, is the Barbary Coast Rum. This is a drier style of rum with earthy and more grassy notes, made by fermenting juice from sugar cane instead of utilizing fermented molasses, and then distilling it. The nose on this style of rum really pleasantly surprised me. Back in the day, the Barbary Coast district of San Francisco was known to be a rough neighborhood, lawless and harsh. In no way harsh, this rum speaks of the terroir of the tropics.
Located at 1615 Innes Ave., Unit C, in San Francisco, the Raff Distillerie tasting room is open Friday through Sunday. Visit raffdistillerie.com for hours. Midweek tastings are possible for groups of 10 or more by appointment only.
According to Jason, Bummer and Lazarus and Emperor Norton’s Absinthe can be found on the shelves of Lawlers and BevMo in Napa and Sunshine Market, St. Helena, as well as some chain grocery stores in the area. It’s also served at Carneros Inn, Basalt, Morimoto, Charlie Palmers, Bounty Hunter and Allegria. Barbary Coast Rhum is a little harder to find, but should be available at Lawlers.
Inside and out, these spirits are attention-getters.
The Bummer and Lazarus cocktail I was served at the distillery was absolutely delicious and refreshing. Here is the recipe for the Gingerbeer Collins. Note that not all gingerbeers are created equal, and Carter was specific when sharing that we should use “Bundaberg.”
1½ oz. Bummer & Lazarus Gin
3/8 oz. Simple Syrup
3/4 oz. Lemon juice
3 dashes Angostura Bitters
2 oz. Bundaberg Gingerbeer
Combine all ingredients except gingerbeer and shake with ice. Pour into glass. Stir in gingerbeer.
Root Of All Evil
1 oz. Emperor Norton Absinthe
2 oz. root beer
Pour absinthe into a glass. Add ice. Add root beer.
The Big Easy
1 oz. Emperor Norton Absinthe
2—3 ounces ginger ale
Fill an 8 oz. glass with ice. Add absinthe, ginger ale and a squeeze of lime. Drop lime wedge into glass and stir.
Chocolate Absinthe Frosting
1/2 cup unsalted butter
2/3 cup dark cocoa
1/2 oz absinthe
3 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup whole milk
Melt butter in small saucepan. Gently stir in cocoa. Move from heat. Using a hand mixer or electric whip, add Absinthe. Alternate add powdered sugar and milk. Beat to your preferred consistency. If you need to thin the mixture add a few drops at a time of either milk or Absinthe to personal taste. Frost dark chocolate cake or cupcakes.
Europeans enjoy adding absinthe to puddings, so I experimented adding a hint to my Panna Cotta recipe. Thumbs up. Please email me if you would like this recipe. email@example.com.