SF distiller Arne Hillesland hits all the right notes with No. 209 gin 

click to enlarge Gin is like a jazz solo -- one player steps up at a time," distiller Arne Hillesland says. - GABRIELLE LURIE/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Gabrielle Lurie/Special to the S.f. Examiner
  • Gin is like a jazz solo -- one player steps up at a time," distiller Arne Hillesland says.

Straight out of the still, gin never tasted better.

It was mid-January when I visited a San Francisco gin maker, but the way the sun was shining it might as well have been the middle of August.

Distillery No. 209 master distiller Arne Hillesland and I stood on the second floor of his facility next to "Rosie," the 1,000 gallon copper alembic still, sampling gin straight from the spirit safe. The intensity of Bergamot orange peels, then juniper, then floral coriander were pronounced. Gazing out across San Francisco Bay from the distillery's waterfront location just south of AT&T Park, we watched boats full of shipping containers make their way to Oakland and talked shop. A perfect afternoon.

"Gin is like a jazz solo -- one player steps up at a time," Hillesland told me.

Before becoming the one-man distillery operation that is No. 209, Hillesland played as a saxophonist with different groups. He then went from cubicle to cubicle, swaying in the sea of inconsistency that is tech startup life, often replaced by something newer and more improved. This, Hillesland said, left him on the metaphorical deserted island, awaiting the next ship of opportunity.

"In the 20 years I was involved in tech, I had eight different jobs," he said. "Moving around that much can grow pretty tiring."

It all changed in 2003 when his then-girlfriend was sifting through the classified section of the newspaper (remember those?) and found an ad seeking a distillery assistant. In college, Hillesland made his own beer and wine, but he had no experience with distillation.

"I loved spirits, so I figured I'd give it a shot," he said.

For two years, Hillesland worked side-by-side with No. 209 founder Leslie Rudd and a distiller. They pored over countless recipes and runs of the still until they found the right ingredients, the right proportions, and finally the right gin. When the master distiller decided to leave, Hillesland took the job.

At the heart of No. 209 is 100 percent neutral corn spirit from the Midwest that offers a pleasant, round mouthfeel and a soft sweetness.

"America loves to talk dry, but likes to drink sweet," Hillesland said.

Hillesland sources botanicals from all over the world -- juniper from Italy, coriander from Romania, lemon peel from Spain, orange from Morocco, cassia from Southeast Asia.

No. 209 is named after the 209th licensed distillery and winery in America that was built in 1870 (the still was put in 12 years later) in St. Helena before the operation was relocated to Pier 50 south of AT&T Park in 2003. Back in the late 1800s, it was common practice for grape growers to make their extra juice into brandy.

Hillesland said No. 209 is the only distillery he knows of that literally sits over water.

The consistent temperatures that the Bay provide make the job a bit easier for Hillesland, who doesn't have to tinker with the heat very much while distilling.

Last year, No. 209 pumped out 20,000 cases of gin that can be found all over The City, state and country.

"Distilling isn't as lucrative as the tech world, but it's been the most consistent job I've had in my life," Hillesland said. "And heck, who wouldn't love the job of making gin right by the Bay? In the end, this is what I'd rather be doing."

About The Author

Rhys Alvarado

Rhys Alvarado

Rhys Alvarado is a cocktail enthusiast and sucker for soul and sweet reggae music. A food and drink blogger since 2009, Rhys has sipped his way from Hawaii to Santa Barbara and up the coast to San Francisco, where he's found a glorious wave of craft concoctions and expert drink-makers.
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