“There are no laws on how you have to make moonshine and there are countless ways to make it.” That’s Ray DiGilio, whose Kill Devil spirits emanate not from the hollows of Appalachia but from a nondescript corner of Spring Valley.
Kill Devil, and a handful of other legal hoocheries, are the pioneers in San Diego’s craft distilling movement, which seeks to do for hard liquor what local suds makers have done for beer — put the county at the center of the imbiber’s map.
Given the conflicted attitudes that America has about booze, it’s hardly surprising that nascent distillers (licit, that is) face an uptight and recondite web of rules, regulations, and requirements. No matter how smooth your vodka or innovative your whiskey, the potholes on the road to governmental imprimatur can drive one to drink.
But first — do you have the “runs”?
Craft distillery Kill Devil profile
A short video profile of San Diego craft distillery Kill Devil that shows their production environment and shares their philosophy.
Like everyone else, DiGilio starts the distillation process by extracting alcohol from fermentables; that’s the “strip run.” But the next phase, he says, the “spirit run,” is when his distillery shines: “I discard lots of heads and tails and keep only the ‘hearts of the hearts.’”
Foreshots, loaded with methanol, acetone, and other “bad” alcohols, flow first; even the basest of bootleggers will dump them down the drain. Next come the heads, retained in amounts that vary according to the fastidiousness of the still man. They’re high in ethanol (the “good” alcohol) as well as the undesirables. The middle, or heart, is what distillers keep. Tails, found at the end of the run, are neither harmful nor tasty.
Turning around a bottle of Kill Devil’s Rx vodka, I read, “Rx: Abbrev. To Receive.” DiGilio explains. “The feds gave us a lot of crap about the ‘Rx’ vodka label; the loophole was that I had to put the Latin translation for the abbreviation on the back of the bottle. I have some emails I’d like to show you, but I’m gonna lay low for right now.” When it comes to legal stills, bureaucratic standstills are the norm. “It’s like the California DMV. Label approval alone, six to seven months; there are four people in Washington DC for the whole country.” But the bureaucrats be damned — what does this clear liquid taste like?
“‘Legs,’ that’s it — this stuff has nice legs.” I’m using a wine term, but it seems to fit. Unfiltered (DiGilio says that’s key), distilled 12 times, Rx Vodka is round, oily and smooth. The packaging is minimalist, a liter glass jar emblazoned with a black “Rx” design, reminiscent of the Barbicide containers used by the crotchety old barber who inflicted crew cuts on me decades ago. Apparently, the bottle style is called “Boston Round Glass,” popular in the fin de siècle days and still used nowadays in labs. As for the distillate itself, yeah, I can sip this, even in East County in July. And as if I needed a reminder that I wasn’t in Moscow for New Year’s, the ever-voluble DiGilio notes, “Remember, you’re drinking this in 90-degree heat.”
I ask DiGilio: “Why should a guy spend $30 on a bottle of craft vodka when he can buy a bottle of Cupcake for $3.99 at Trader Joe’s?”
“There’s a lot of consumer deception. I tell them, ‘Research the product — see if you find the still behind the operation.’ What people don’t realize is that most of the spirits on the shelves come from a marketing company. There’s no Fireball distillery or Three Olives distillery; these vodkas are contracted through large distilleries, some of which don’t even have their own labels. We’re actually one of the few distilleries that makes vodka from scratch. It’s an even more prevalent practice among whiskeys; most of the whiskeys are made in one place in Kentucky and re-labeled.”
Like the others in the local cadre of spirit-makers, DiGilio has strong opinions about nomenclature and quality. “There’s misconception on what a craft spirit is. Do you want to make something different or just turn the still on 24 hours a day and churn it out? ‘Craft’ and ‘artisan’ are so overused, it’s hard to decipher. ‘Small batch’ whiskeys by large distilleries? I try to use terms like ‘boutique’ and ‘made to order;’ we actually go to the bartenders and ask them what they want us to make. And we thought it would be really cool to bring that creative San Diego progressive style of craft brewing to distilling.”
Legal or illegal, rotgut or revelation, the still’s still the thing, and I’m about to get up close with one in Santee. I climb to the top of a ladder, gingerly touching the smooth copper, which is warm, but not hot. I peer through a hatch, as if in a submarine, into the heart of the heart of a distillery, in this case, Twisted Manzanita Spirits, run by East County natives Jake Pitman and Jeff Trevaskis.
I ask Pitman, the hands-on guy, how he got the distilling bug. “Back in the 1920s and 1930s, my grandpa was a bootlegger in Tennessee. I heard the stories about him when I was a kid. So that’s when I became interested in distilling.”
Next door to Twisted Manzanita’s cool, wood-paneled beer-tasting room, the spirits side is all business, industrial and hot. A radio is blaring, and Pitman, a tatted guy, 40 or so, attired in a wife-beater, is showing off his copper pride and joy: “That’s a million BTUs of power.” The still has a 1000-gallon capacity. I asked him about the accoutrements. “There’s 100 feet of two-inch copper pipe and a two-chamber condenser, one glycol, one water.” I wondered: how does one gain the know-how to build a still from scratch? “Being able to build stuff is in my nature,” says Pitman. “I was a general contractor for 20 years, and I’m also a certified welder. I designed and built everything myself; it took about eight months.”
So, I ask, “What’s the most daunting task within the walls of the distillery?”