1512: Guided by Spirits

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I arrive at 1512 Barber Shop in the pouring rain for a long overdue haircut, the humidity doubling the volume of my hair like a round of proofing dough. Inside the tiny old-school barbershop located on Pine Street, owner Salvatore “Sal” Cimino is behind the chair finishing up with a customer, each sipping discreetly from a glass graced with a lemon twist. Sal offers me one with clear liquid, and I recognize the sweet aroma of corn grain distillate usually found in bourbon, here accompanied by an unusual whisper of oak smoke. “Unaged bourbon whiskey?” I ask. He smiles.

Part of the reason I’m here is to tame the thatch of hair that is threatening to become a mullet-fro, but the other is to talk to Sal, who is also a distiller. The unusual combination of work – barber by day at 1512 Barber Shop, distiller by night – intrigued me. Sal co-owns 1512 Spirits, makers of the appropriately named Barbershop White Rye Whiskey, an unaged whiskey that captures the essence of the grain so perfectly that the smell is like a freshly baked loaf of pumpernickel. Sal tells me that the recipe contains a blend of corn, wheat, and rye smoked over white oak, with a special British two-row barley known for a nutty, hard husk, adding a black cherry accent. His idea is to create a whiskey that tastes like a Manhattan straight out of the bottle. Sal is possibly the only person alive who can professionally put hair on your chest then shave it off.

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A third-generation barber for the last 27 years, Sal was taught by his father, who has been behind the chair for 64 years (and still works), who in turn was taught by his father who cut hair in Palermo, Italy, until he moved to the U.S. Sal’s mother was a beautician for 30 years, and his uncle and cousin are also barbers. “It’s throughout the entire family line; we all share the same traits,” he notes.

Besides cutting hair, one of the other shared qualities is the love of making wine and grappa. Sal grew up in Potrero Hill, where his family maintained a cellar and improvised winery with a pot still. His grandfather fermented wine in a four-ton redwood water tank that was collected from a building demolished by the 1906 quake. Worn-out apple presses were salvaged from orchards and used for crushing grapes, and oak barrels were purchased from the old American Distilling Company in Sausalito, leftovers from bourbon production, to age the wine. All the residual fermented grape solids leftover after wine production were distilled into grappa, which is how Sal learned to run a still.

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My turn to sit in the chair comes up and with a single look, Sal reads my hair, studies the shape of my head, and makes his recommendation. He’s going to cut my hair dry since the humidity of the air has made it expand, and wetting it would only force him to overcut. I feel mildly like a shrub going from an unruly hedge to a more man-shaped topiary. “Whiskey is like sculpting,” he says. “You’re taking a raw piece of material and you’re creating your vision of what you want.” He considers hair in the same way, except it’s shaped to fit a specific person.

He explains that, “In this industry, just like distilling, you’re taught one size fits all. You’re taught how to do one procedure. So basically that one procedure has to fit everyone that comes through your chair. When you’re a true artist, each haircut is individual to the person who is in the chair. So no two are the same.”

For Sal, that process and the dance of adjustments to hair or the still is what keeps him interested. “Every single whiskey that goes to barrel in every single batch has a uniqueness that the last didn’t,” he says. For him, creating an environment where he can control everything and produce the exact same product every single time is not inspiring. “If you are going to buy an artisan whiskey, don’t you expect me to have some variance in my profiles?”

As I leave the shop, Sal tells me that my hair is going to change and finally settle in the next few days, and like a good whiskey, needs time to rest to let its true form emerge.

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I see Sal a few days later since he let me visit the distillery in Rohnert Park, located in southern Sonoma County. The space is barely bigger than the barbershop; it’s a small 700-square-foot space that houses the whole operation, including the rickhouse, or barrel storing warehouse, where he ages his whiskey. Much of his equipment is either fabricated from scratch or retrofitted from other things, like old beer kegs. You see the influence the training with his father and grandfather had on him, instilling a sense of importance for the building and maintaining of the equipment, and how it is as much a part of the production process as making the ferment and running the still. He is invoking the experience from past elders to guide his hand.

Running a still is essentially nothing more than boiling a liquid and capturing and working with the steam. Condensing it, heating it up again, and condensing it again. This cycle allows heavier liquids, including water and impurities, to stay in the pot, permitting lighter alcohols to move out. Of course, this is as easy as saying mixing water and flour will produce bread. Doing it is easy, doing it well is not.

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The still where all the spirits are produced is a small alembic that holds a mere 90 gallons of fermented material, meaning that a full batch takes several days of careful work to create. The heat source is an open gas flame – the placement and size of the flame are the only controls Sal has, and he approaches the process like a cook, each time guided by his senses of smell, touch, and taste. “It’s me getting on my hands and knees, going under the burner and looking at the flame and pitching the flame like a musician playing an instrument,” he explains.

“The still is the most beautiful thing in the room to talk about, but the least impacting,” says Sal. For him, “That’s just like having a screwdriver in my toolbox – it helps me turn a screw.” The real magic is in the base ferment: wine for brandy, beer for whiskey. He has me sip some fermented pears that are in the process of racking, or clarifying. The nose is remarkably delicate and floral, the high notes all pear, mixed with vanilla, and the flavor perfectly crisp and dry.

While most of these flavors come from the pear itself, many more come from compounds produced by the yeast, called esters. For these he depends on the wild yeasts that come from the fruit. “I take a chance and depend on 30–40 percent wild yeast to embrace my sterile yeast and set the profile up, because she brought something from the field with her,” Sal says. Wrangling wild yeast is not an easy task, and when it doesn’t work out, when the wrong kind of yeasts get in there, it ruins the whole batch.

With close to 40 years of experience learning from his father, Sal recalls the first time he made wine. “At five years old,” he says smiling. “I saved my allowance to go down to the grocery store to buy grapes and I was mashing and fermenting my first wine in the garage in a little plastic tub. My father knew I was coming for him.”

Undoubtedly, Sal’s move to go legitimate as a distiller is motivated by his need to nourish and his love of the methods, the tradition, and the game involved in creating spirits. The actions and decisions he makes are part of what manifest the final product. His vision is holistic rather than single-minded, with the final product simply a part of the ride, and the spirits a conduit through which he reaches out and tells his story.

Handing me a glass of his rye whiskey he says, “A distiller’s job in life is to share, is to express, and you’re trying to tell a story bottle by bottle, batch by batch, and vintage by vintage.“

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Take a trip to Polk Gulch to get a cut or straight razor shave from Sal at 1512 Barber Shop. Call (415) 286-4731 or schedule an appointment online. While Sal’s distillery isn’t currently set up for visitors, you can find 1512 Spirits’ products in SF’s finer liquor stores like Cask, Bi-Rite, K&L Wine Merchants, Blackwell's Wine & Spirits, or D&M Liquors. Or find them by the glass and in cocktails at 15 Romolo, Rickhouse, Swig, Rye, and 83 Proof.

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Published on February 18, 2013, 2013

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