Mike koozmin/The S.f. ExaminerCarter Raff of Raffe Distillerie on Treasure Island is the guy behind Bummer and Lazarus Gin and Emperor Norton's Absinthe.

SF native pays homage to city history in unique gin and absinthe offerings

I'm sitting in the backseat of a Dodge Durango on Treasure Island tasting gin and absinthe with the man behind Raff Distillerie. Nice way to catch a buzz on a sunny day.

The folks who have been waxing the tops of bottles of absinthe are making their way out to lunch as Carter Raff and I talk booze.

A fifth-generation San Franciscan with a love for The City's history, Carter said he has always been fascinated with the stories and lore that surround the town. He has made it a point that important figures — or animals — in San Francisco history make it onto his bottle labels.

His Bummer and Lazarus gin starts off as a grape brandy. It's then distilled again with things like coriander seed, bitter orange peel and licorice root. It's dry and citrus-forward, tasting of grapefruit peel on the front end and delicate juniper in the back with a silky mouthfeel.

In the Barbary Coast days, Bummer and Lazarus were two stray dogs that were so good at hunting and catching rats that San Francisco passed a law to protect them from the lethal dog catchers at the time. It's said that the two dogs met after Bummer saved Lazarus from a fight. From that point on, they were inseparable.

When Lazarus died, 30,000 people showed up at the funeral. When Bummer died, Mark Twain wrote his eulogy.

Raff's absinthe is rich, deep and spicy. It's named Emperor Norton Absinthe after the celebrated citizen of San Francisco and self-proclaimed emperor of the United States. Emperor Norton is said to have come up with the idea of connecting San Francisco to the East Bay with a bridge and tunnel. He also caught cable cars every day to make sure that they were on time. And, like me, he loved to prowl the city and raise his glass.

The absinthe is made in the old French way, with grape brandy and wormwood sourced from 30 miles outside of Pontarlier, France, the old capital of absinthe.

In the works for Raff is a rhum agricole and, possibly years down the road, a bourbon.

Long before he was distilling and shipping some 1,000 bottles of absinthe and gin a month, Raff developed an inkling for booze.

At 12, Raff was the kid making Ramos fizzes, pina coladas and blue Hawaiians when his mother had her friends over. While in college at Sonoma State, he made wine. And while working in Hollywood after college, Carter built a still in his small apartment where he first tried, and failed, at distillation.

“I tried my hand at distilling in '97, but it's really not something you should be doing in an apartment.” Raff said. “I've always liked making stuff, building my own equipment, making a product I could give to someone that I could be proud of.”

In 2010, Raff met Will Smith of San Francisco Vodka. Smith invited him to share his space if Raff shared his still.

“I was a still without a distillery and he was a distillery without a still,” Raff said.

In 2011, Raff established Raff Distillerie. The distilling and bottling line (all of which Raff built) is located in what was once a maximum-security prison, and Raff runs his test still in what looks to be an old cell.

Smith and Raff share equipment and space, but run their own operations. “I've always been fascinated with alcohol and the graphic design of it and that you could make a thousand different cocktails out of gin that are unique in its own way,” Raff said.

That's why some call gin the most important spirit in cocktails. Raff's booze can be found in 10 states at 650 locations, with plenty around the Bay Area.

After the distillery tour, I sat on the rocks of Treasure Island and popped open my bottle of absinthe and poured one back. By this time, the sun had gone but the top of the San Francisco skyline just floated on the thin layer of fog.

Life's no bummer.

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