Dorcol Distilling Company: Leading the Hipster Charge, Straight outta Serbia
I arrived at Dorcol Distilling Company before I was supposed to, leaving me with time to wander around the neighborhood. The locals here in San Antonio call it SoFlo, for south of Flores. As I walk around, I get the sense that I amidst a calm before a hipster explosion.
It's mid-morning, mid-week. That means no one on the streets and few businesses are open. I take stock of the buildings themselves. Red brick, corrugated iron, and the few windows are opaque with time and metal mesh. This is clearly an industrial part of town. The flashing, clanking boom barrier of a train crossing stops me in my tracks. And there goes the miles of freight cars, rumbling the ground beneath me. Nothing unusual so far.
At a corner, there is a former gas station. It's closed down, windows papered-over; antique pumps and old sign left in place. The building is covered in a fresh coat of black paint and the driveway looks pristine. It dawns on me: I'm looking not at an expired business, but the very germ of a real estate bonanza. Right here is Williamsburg circa 1995 or San Francisco's Mission District during the first dot-com boom (or Venice Beach just a couple years ago).
What was, and has been preserved to look as, an old general store is now a digital design agency. Look over there at an old warehouse with a freshly decorated water tower: it's lofts "starting in the mid 200s." Here comes the neighborhood.
In the middle of it all is Dorcol's unmarked neighborhood hangout (and distillery). It's been open since 2014. On the day I show up, Randy is running around like a one-man show. He is responsible mainly for the brewery side of the operation. With him is an apprentice, Dan, a soon-to-retire UT professor, with plans of running away to New Mexico and opening a brewery. He's already got the mountain man beard.
I hang out in the well-appointed bar area. It's normally open to the public at night and so sits empty now. I wait for Dan and Randy to get their brew under control. I won't get to meet the other owners, Boyan and Chris, but looking around, I'm guessing they have a connection to the art world. There's a lot of modernism happening at Dorcol, including a disco ball-bicycle contraption and white-on-white geometric figures on the wall. I hear the beers are pretty good too.
Randy and Dan emerge dripping. They help themselves to some refreshment from the tap. When he catches his breath, Randy gives me the rundown on the history of the place and the traditional Serbian-style Rakia, or apricot brandy, they make.
Boyan and Chris met as fraternity brothers at the University of Texas. Boyan was born in then-Yugoslavia, where his grandparents and family friends would make and enjoy this rakia. The idea of starting a business from it, however, would never have occurred to his kinfolk. Rakia was reserved for gatherings, celebrations and other special occasions. For that reason, and probably something to do with Soviet government not looking too kindly on private commerce, the rakia-making never left the confines of Boyan's grandfather's backyard.
Boyan and Chris decided to open a brewery first, amidst the micro-brew boom of several years back. Then they went to visit Boyan's family in Serbia, and the idea of whipping up rakia for the sidecar-drinking masses back home stuck.
Randy pours me a sample. This rakia is unaged, so it's clear. It has a sweet, fruity nose with just an underpinning of an alcohol smell. The palate is mostly floral, with no burn in the finish.
I try a version that's been aged in used sherry casks for one year. It's 84 proof, same as the unaged rakia. The nose has more of the alcohol scent, but also wood and grapes. The palate is very wood forward, finishing on a light wine note.
The Dorcol boys are also making a single malt whiskey, currently aging for between one and two years in used cognac barrels; and a brandy distilled from muscat blanc wine. That will be aged in sherry barrels for one year.
Before I leave, Randy has me try a sample of the single malt, aged one year so far. It has a wonderful nose of vanilla and wood. The palate is a mix of floral and spice, with some burn on the finish.
Randy shows me on his phone pictures from some of the events Dorcol has hosted in the space. They look like a lot of fun. I imagine a loose mix of Burning Man folk and brewing nerds, not that there can't be overlap. (Since I've never been: does anyone brew beer at Burning Man?)
It makes me a little disappointed I won't be hanging around the neighborhood for either evening or a weekend. I'm sure that in a couple years, SoFlo will be already past its heyday and the coolest of San Antonians will bemoan the neighborhood as soooooo 2017. Hopefully, Dorcol Distilling will stick around longer than that, pumping out plenty of booze and brews, and still hosting parties in its wonderfully weird space.