By Adam Rains
Carter Raff is living the American Dream. As master distiller and founder of Raff Distillerie, Carter is doing what he loves in the city that he loves, San Francisco. He’s riding a wave of a craft fervor and making a difference. Not only enticing and delighting the palates of Californians, he’s bringing the goods to a larger market without giving up quality nor his passion. With a mixture of science, hard work and serendipity, his mark is still being made on our craft distillery scene. On a recent Mixology Made Simple interview with Carter, I was fortunate enough to discuss Absinthe & Rosebud, Gin & Juniper and the REAL Martini.
Where does “Bummer & Lazarus” lie in the pantheon of American Boutique Gin? & Worldwide?
Carter: I think I make a very unique gin. Most gins in the past usually follow the typical London dry style with a clear dominance of juniper-berry. I went for a more citrus and floral gin. I also make mine with 100% California Grapes, which differs from others that use grain alcohol.
I’ve heard gin called the “distillers muse”? What is your approach to the spirit? And how did you find your recipe?
Carter: That’s definitely true. I really do try to make products that are different from anything else on the market. I don’t see the point of making the standard. I want to be proud of what I make. Because of that I use direct maceration; which means I put the botanicals directly in the still to get maximum flavor. I’ve been distilling for 15 years so I’ve playing with gin for that long. I start from the most basic of questions. What do I want to taste? I go from there. With this gin, as I said already, I wanted a flavorful gin with citrus and floral notes on the palate.
The Bummer & Lazarus lore is classic and people love a good story; how did you correlate between the story and the gin, as well as the famed street doggies that the gin is named after?
Carter: Well, I’m 5th generation San Franciscan and base all my labels off San Francisco history. So I’ll continue that will all my products. I found it to be more intriguing to associate a spirit with a story so it’s not just the alcohol, but something else as well. Bummer and Lazarus were two stray dogs that lived in San Francisco in the late 1800s. Bummer rescued Lazarus from a fight and from that point on they never separated. Most of the time, back then, strays were killed on sight because dogs outnumbered humans 2 to 1, but Bummer and Lazarus were so loved that there was a separate statute allowing the dogs not only to roam the city, but downtown San Francisco where NO dogs were ever allowed. The reason for this was these were the best ‘ratters’ in the city. When Lazarus died over 30,000 people attended the funeral and when Bummer died Mark Twain wrote the eulogy. Mark Twain actually used the dogs in some of his stories.
How would you entice the vodka drinker to switch to your gin?
Carter: I don’t have to. I’m coming out with a grape based vodka in the next few months, but once a NON-gin drinker tried my gin they’re hooked. They are used to heavy juniper flavored gins.
It’s safe to say that we are in a beverage renaissance, with all things craft being in vogue and boutique distillers doing some really great things. How do you view Boutique Distillery movement? Tell me about your journey?
Carter: Oh yes, there are new distilleries opening every week. Competition, creativity and public awareness are good things. The problem is the market gets diluted and honestly the old standby big brands are only big because people love it. What this means are the craft distillers are going to have to work hard to come up with something unique and high quality.
All things in life are cyclical, including our industry, how far do you see the current craft movement going?
Carter: I don’t think it will ever go away, but in the next 5 years it will diminish to the ones that can sustain and have done well in sales. Its like Bourbon, for example, 10 years ago was still your grandfather’s drink. Now it’s more popular than ever, which is a good thing. So Bourbon won’t ever be in the back seat again.”
If there is a contraction in the market, how will you remain competitive?
Carter: By continuing to make great products without sacrificing quality. Some craft distilleries make every product under the sun and continue to do so. I would love to make weird and unique eau de vies, but I can’t rightly do so and keep the quality. You can only make so much. I will top out at Bummer & Lazarus Gin, Emperor Norton Absinthe, Barbary Coast Rhum Agricole, Russian Hill Vodka, A Bourbon, A Rye and two barrel aged versions of the Bummer & Lazarus Barrel Aged Navy Strength Gin and Barbary Coast Rhum Agricole.
What is your favorite bar (s) in SF?
Carter: Do I have to? Really? Honestly there are SOOO many in SF it’s unreal. Let’s go this route, for modern takes on Italian bites and stellar bartenders, Zero Zero on Folsom, for seafood and great bartenders, George’s SF on Samson and finally, Emperor Norton’s Boozeland on Larkin. Those are only to name a few.
Where do you go to wet your whistle while in Vegas?
Carter: That’s tough as well but I absolutely love Sage in the lobby of the Aria. The staff is tremendous.
Out of so many great classic Gin-based cocktails, which ones work the best with your Gin?
Carter: Well this is easier. I love our signature cocktail the Ginger Beer Collins. A take on the original it has 2 oz.Bummer & Lazarus Gin, 1/2 oz. Simple Syrup, 1 oz. Lemon Juice, 4 Dashed Angostura Bitters – Shake with Ice – Pour Over Ice and Top off with Bunderberg Ginger Beer – Stir.
And of course a REAL Martini. Most people have been brainwashed by James Bond, don’t get me wrong I love James Bond, but a dry martini? A true Martini made with 2 1/4 oz. Bummer & Lazarus Gin and 3/4 oz. Dolin’s Dry Vermouth – Shake with 1 piece of ice and serve Up.
The one piece of ice is so you don’t chill the gin too much. Cold is cloying and the super cold martini cuts the flavor by 80%. Make this way it will be the best martini you ever had.
Who are some people that inspire you in the industry?
Carter: Well up until recently, Balcones. Chip Tate has done some great stuff in the craft spirits world. My friend Adam at Sonoma County Distilling makes whiskey from scratch.
What are some brands that you look up to and/or enjoy?
Carter: I try to find all the new craft brands that come out that show passion. This includes only brands that take the effort to create a great package. Most the time these days people are designing them themselves and that really doesn’t work.
If you were on your deathbed, what would you drink?
Carter: Tough one. Quite possible a glass of my absinthe. Or maybe a glass of my original 1931 Pernod Absinthe. Or wait I just remembered I have a bottle of 1973 Rene Lalou Champagne. Or maybe a nice glass of 50 year old Scotch. Being my deathbed, I would want something classic steeped in history. Kind of like Rosebud at the end of Citizen Kane, but a drink not a sled.