“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?”
Pitman replies without hesitation, “Cleaning inside the still. Sooner or later you have to go inside, so I built a ladder inside the still. Right now, it’s a little too hot to go in, 107.”
Pitman has a way of coaxing out flavors that are fresh and intense, but dangerously smooth, the sort of booze that makes you forget its proof. At the time I visited the Twisted plant, they were offering two spirits on retailers’ shelves, Rebellious Rye whiskey and SoCal Moonshine. For my tasting session, Pitman also brought out nascent bottlings that illustrate the difference between mass-market booze and the local approach. One bottle held an eminently quaffable, amber-colored, apple-infused spirit, intended, Pitman says, to resemble his grandmother’s apple cobbler. But the star of the ethanol show was a clear spirit made entirely from oranges, redolent of rose petals, with nary a trace of sugar — as good as the best grappa could be if the ballyhooed brandy ever lived up to its pedigree and reputation.
Distilling’s the easy part. No matter how ethereal and glorious a spirit, no matter how evident the craftsmanship, Pitman and his fellow alcohol-artisans agree, distribution is key.
“It’s harder to distribute than make,” Pitman laments. “The distributors doubt whether a small distillery will be able to keep up with demand.” Even after one negotiates the regulatory thicket and ponies up prohibitive start-up costs, it’s all for naught if no one buys your booze. But if any of San Diego’s craft distilleries is close to turning the financial corner, it’s Ballast Point Spirits.
Is that mash I smell emanating from the building? I’m outside Ballast Point, tucked inside a sleepy industrial park in Scripps Ranch. It’s not far from home, but I hadn’t realized that Ballast, best known around these parts for beer, has been distilling since 2008.
Ballast’s national sales manager, Skip Stegmair, leads me to a large window overlooking the distilling room, where a maze of shiny metal cylinders, pipes, valves, lines, along with a host of other things I can’t identify, make up the beating heart of the distillery. I count three stills, including, says Stegmair, a research-and-development unit employed for small, experimental batches of mystery liquor. The big dog in the room is a 500-gallon hybrid pot/column still; think a bulbous, polished pot-bellied copper behemoth with an obelisk fastened to the top, connected to a jumble of gauges by way of fittings. “It’s our single biggest outlay, $200K, maybe $250K. It was custom-made for us in Louisville, Kentucky.”
A prominent sign on the door says, “no smoking or open flames.” Before I enter, Stegmair hands me a pair of safety goggles, “just in case there’s a splash.” But unlike some distilleries, largely in Europe, Ballast Point’s firewater isn’t cooking with fire. “This one is relatively safe because it’s heated from the outside with a steam blanket.”
I sniff a small glass holding a clear liquid; destined to be Devil’s Share Moonshine, it’s aromatic and inviting, heavy on the corn. But Stegmair cautions, “I wouldn’t drink it because it could have a lot of acetone. Unlike some guys who just want to make a quick buck, we actually want to make something that tastes good, so we’re pretty careful about doing a very diligent ‘heads and tails’ cut to make sure all that acetone and methanol are gone. It’s a little more expensive this way, flushing stuff down the toilet.”
I ask Stegmair to walk me through the distillation process.
“It’s a traditional recipe, but we also incorporate some two-row malted barley, the same barley that goes into our beer. We put 2500 pounds of raw materials — corn, malted barley and a little wheat — into the mash tun to ferment. After we toss the heads and tails, we have 200 gallons at 135 proof.”
The first distillery in San Diego since Prohibition, Ballast Point is the biggest player in a microscopic league; its biggest seller, Fugu vodka, finds its way into around 2400 six-bottle cases per year. Their target market, they say, “is the person who wants to drink San Diego.”
By contrast, a huge big commercial distiller like Smirnoff churns out, according to Stegmair, “millions of bottles a year. Even when you compare it to Pappy VanWinkle — a highly allocated bourbon that can fetch upwards of $500 a bottle — they produce about 300 times as much as we do.”
Around a dim corner is the tasting room, built to resemble a speakeasy, where wall lamps give off a whiskey glow and the coffered ceilings hover low. There’s an antique cash register from Europe, an old copper fire extinguisher, rows of small, dark-wood drawers and apothecary jars filled with botanicals used for their gin. Tastings, restricted to tour participants, have an ABC-imposed limit of six quarter-ounce pours, the equivalent of shot; and tasters are required to sign in, preventing them from coming back in later in the day for another nip.
My first taste at Ballast is Old Grove Gin, their first spirit release. Pointing to a row of apothecary jars on a shelf, Stegmair says , “These are the actual botanicals we use. Most commercial distillers don’t even use real botanicals in their gins anymore; they use compounding chemicals that taste like juniper berries, even some of the nice ones.”
I’m not really a gin guy, but this is tasty enough to risk riling up the ABC. “It’s a new western-style gin,” says Stegmair, “lighter juniper than most; there’s a lot of citrus to give it a roundness.” Stegmair calls out the botanicals: angelica root, bitter orange peel, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, Curacao oranges, grains of paradise, juniper, lemon peel, orange peel, rose petals. We’re joined by Earl Kight, Ballast’s chief commercial officer, who bears a strong resemblance to Breaking Bad character Hank Schrader. Kight chimes in, “I think I can detect the grains of paradise, a peppery taste.” I’m not sure if he’s kidding. And then there are what Ballast calls their “taco-shop vodkas”: hibiscus, jamaica, habanero, horchata — no compounds allowed. Hilary Cocalis, director of marketing, stresses, “We actually have people slicing pineapples and chopping up habanero peppers.”
Next up is Fugu, in a bottle adorned with a silk-screened puffer-fish logo; I’d seen it at a few local liquor stores but never tried it. Why “Fugu”?
“Our distilling process leaves a higher pH,” says Stegmair. “You should notice a little tingling on your tongue, just like you would if you were eating fugu. It’s not going to kill you like a bad fugu would, but there should be a little character left, not a flavor or aroma.”
At the other end of the sensory spectrum from Fugu is Devil’s Share Bourbon. Stegmair exults about their flagship: “It’s liquid gold.”
Kight jumps in, “The way you describe it makes me want to drink some. Damn you, Skip Stegmair!”
As it turns out, someone’s stashed a bottle in a cabinet, presumably for research purposes, and it doesn’t disappoint. Rich, round, complex — could even the elusive “Pappy” be any better? But before I can rush off to Holiday Wine Cellar in Escondido to buy a bottle, they inform me that the 714 bottles of the most recent batch, even at $79 to $99 a bottle, are long gone. Ninety percent of it sold in San Diego County.
All legal distillers start as illegal distillers. While some of San Diego’s still-masters are more coy than others, not one with whom I spoke suggests that, before fighting the battle of bureaucracy and bucks, he didn’t conduct a strip run or two. Although Ballast and the other licit locals are punctilious about adhering to legalities, they admit that the pathway to bonded imprimatur often starts in the basement. Ballast’s Cocalis quips, “Yussef Cherney [chief distiller and founder of Ballast Point Brewery] will tell you on the record that he’s ‘very good at distilling water at home.’”
Over at Liberty Call Distilling, co-owner Bill Rogers laughs, “Starting off less than legal? I’ve heard that rumor as well, but they’re pretty quiet about it.” I asked Rogers if home distilling would ever be legal in the U.S. “I’d like to think so, because there are so many countries that allow it. Of course, in the U.S., there’s the taxation issue.”
Is do-it-yourself distilling dangerous? Kight opines, “The alcohol can be deceiving. It can be dangerous. You can either drink methanol or you can drink ethanol; you have to know what you’re looking for. Also, unless you have a steam generator, you have an open flame. I was here when the fire marshal came in to sign off on the first still. We don’t even keep all of our finished product here. We have another bonded location with about 500 barrels of whiskey, bourbon, and rum aging. It takes up a lot of space and it has to sit around for four years.” He won’t reveal the location, saying only, “It’s in the city of San Diego. If things go sideways here, we don’t want to risk losing everything.”
But Rogers believes the dangers are overblown. “I personally know of three distilleries without sprinklers. A distillery is no more of a hazard than a liquor store: a liquor fire burns only two feet high and it doesn’t explode. When I first started, I remember telling my dad and he said, ‘How do you know you’re not going to kill people with what you’re making?’ ‘Really, Dad? The degree in chemistry doesn’t help you with that question?’” Rogers adds, “There’s a big misconception about home distilling and going blind and stuff. Back during Prohibition, some guys were cutting their liquor with formaldehyde; that’s the reason we have these crazy Prohibition laws, because so many people were making bad liquor that was actually hurting people. When the feds legalized it, they imposed these rules and they haven’t changed them since.”
Regulatory barriers aside, notes Kight, “It’s not like you build a distillery and you’re digging gold; it takes time to build a brand. Five years ago we were in the convincing business; now we’re in the positioning for the future business. It helps to have a constant stream of revenue coming from someplace else — our beer.”
I ask Kight: “What does it take to become a distiller? Is a hardcore technical background a prerequisite?”
“Yussef is unique; he’s self-taught. “
Kight expounds on Cherney’s distilling ethos: “Not necessarily better — but different. He thinks it’s easier to make beer that’s better than the big guys make…than make spirits better than the big guys make. The spirits being made by Jack Daniel’s, Maker’s Mark — they’re making quality stuff, right? They’ve been doing this the same way for hundreds of years; they’ve never deviated. What’s the one thing that can make us different? We’re brewers, we love yeast. We use a temperature-controlled fermentation; keep the yeast nice and happy so you’re not getting any off-flavors coming through. A big distiller? ‘Screw it, man.’ They want to get alcohol as fast as possible. They don’t care if the temperature gets up there; they’re jammin’ through.”
Like every other above-ground distillery in the United States, Ballast Point is under the watchful eye of the alphabet squad, the federal Alcohol Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau and the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. “There are distribution laws that have stayed the same from the 1950s, the three-tiered system where consumers can’t buy directly from the distiller.”
Planning to open a craft distillery in California? Think the chicken or the egg.
“Most distributors won’t take a chance on you,” says DiGilio, “unless you have proof of a year of sales. But you can’t apply for licensing until you have your equipment in place. So, you apply for state licensing first, then federal. Then you can run your still and make a hypothetical product, until you finally get label approval.” DiGilio, who predicts that there will be a dozen or so San Diego craft distillers in the next year, notes, “It’s pretty easy to get a basic permit to distill, but label and formulation approvals take another year or two. The rule of thumb is, expect to be rejected the first time. The approval process is very nitpicky. The worst part about it is that you’re sitting on that equipment and plant for over a year without any revenue.”
Kill Devil, which DiGilio characterizes as a “nano” player among micro-distilleries, consists of himself, production chemist Cyrus Kafai and head brewer/distiller, Luke Oskam.
“We’re one of the smallest in California. We push out 10 to 20 cases a month, which is minuscule, but we plan to ramp that up soon. With pride, he adds, “We’ve won a couple of international awards, which was enough for us to dislodge some national-name vodkas on a few retailers’ shelves and build the brand. We had just gotten legal and sent a few bottles up to the International Spirits Competition in San Francisco. We didn’t even have it shrink-wrapped. We’re talking to Whole Foods and BevMo. But right now, I pretty much live here; the three of us take shifts.”
Part of Kill Devil’s mission, he says, is giving a leg up to other San Diego craft distillers. “I’m different than most because I want people to enter the market. In our apprenticeship program, they can hang around us a day or two and shoot the shit; the common goal is to have an entire San Diego shelf at retailers. I have six apprentices under my wing.”
He uncorks a bottle of Ugly California Moonshine; like his vodka, it has character beyond ethanol. “Our take on moonshine is completely different. We decided to trash the old recipe completely and trash the old idea that moonshine comes from grandpa’s closet in a mason jar and is harsh, rough to drink.”
Kill Devil’s non-traditional approach is evident when I taste “Baconshine” (used by some as a bloody Mary mix), which is infused with bacon smoked at the distillery. They also plan a “Rise ’N Shine,” collaborating with San Diego coffee roasters to make a spirit containing coffee. And then there’s the “wildfire whiskey” project: “A firefighter obtained a patent using charred oak from California wildfires to age whiskey,” explains DiGilio. “We’re using a variation of ‘Ugly’ as base. The box set of 100-milliliter bottles will specify locations and type of oak, because you may never get that flavor again. Proceeds will go back to Cal Fire.”
Creativity aside, it’s still a business. “One of the biggest hurdles in California is the tiered system: you can make it, but that doesn’t mean they have to sell it. Distributors clamp down in Congress to make sure laws stay intact, because change would take money out of their pockets. We’re trying not to piss off the distributors. They fear that if the craft distillers are eventually allowed by the ABC to sell on-site, we’ll corner the market, which is a crock. The distributors in California make insane amounts of money.”
Rogers agrees: “If someone asks me about a good business to get into right now, I suggest becoming a local craft-spirit distributor — because there’s nobody doing it right now.”
According to DiGilio, it’s one thing to get a bottle on the shelf, but quite another to achieve turnover.
“If we were to go to a Target, Costco, or a Ralphs, it would be detrimental to us. We’d get that initial payment, but we’d be up against national brands like Fireball, whose reps are paid to push the brand hard. San Diego retailers are more willing to promote our products; they’ve been supportive as hell. They’ve been to our distillery, tasted it. They believe in us. The locals’ response has been fantastic due to the craft-beer movement.”
Kill Devil’s motto is, “From grain to glass.”
“We strive to be 100 percent local and self-sustainable. We do everything on-site except make the one-liter bottles. We mill our own grains and grow herbs for the botanicals.” Nothing goes to waste. “We reuse the discarded alcohol; some of it goes to a local woman who uses it in her perfume-manufacturing business, some goes up to San Francisco for gasoline use. We also have car guys around here who use the foreshots to clean rust and polish windows.”
I ask DiGilio, who has a business degree from the University of San Diego, about the Kill Devil moniker. “I used to surf the Outer Banks of North Carolina. British rum-runners would come ashore near the Kill Devil Hills, and Kill Devil was the name for the local moonshine.”
I walk past 100- pound bags of sugar piled on metal racks; nearby are huge “totes,” cube-shaped plastic containers holding a total of 1000 fermenting gallons of mash, waiting for their turn in the still. The totes aren’t numbered but are named, instead, after game-show hosts whose photos are slapped on. In the corner is a reflux column still in action, another hand-made Hillbilly Stills number. Fermented to 11–13 percent alcohol, the mash is now being distilled and redistilled, water to vapor, as the six columns work their magic to produce and then clean up the spirit. What’s left is almost pure ethanol, 191–192 proof, dripping slowly from Kentucky’s finest into a 6.5 gallon carboy, a bigger version of the standard five-gallon glass receptacle that sat atop water coolers in the pre-plastic era.
I’d like to try some, but DiGilio cautions, “It’s undrinkable. You could run a car on this.” I ask, “What could happen?” “It might burn a hole in your esophagus or give you alcohol poisoning. It’s a risky thing to drink. You could drink gasoline, but it wouldn’t be good for you.”
The next step, diluting it with water to reach desired proof, seems a sacrilege, but DiGilio says that a certain alkaline water, from a 1700-foot-deep artesian well first drilled in 1882 in Carlsbad, is essential to obtain the flavor and character for which he toils. So he mixes it with Carlsbad Alkaline Water’s ballyhooed 8.76 pH water, an elixir said by some to have health benefits, and finally, there are five or six cases of Rx vodka.
Part of DiGilio’s mission is to disabuse tipplers of certain notions about liquor made with corn versus wheat versus potatoes. “That’s all marketing; at 191 proof, none of those flavors are detectable; all you want to do is produce pure alcohol. If I put a blindfold on you and asked you to tell me which vodka was made from corn, potatoes, or wheat, you wouldn’t be able to tell me what the base product is. In whiskey, yes. You don’t hear people saying ‘potato gin,’ because gin is just vodka with herbals. Neutral spirits, by law, must be distilled at 191 proof or higher, pure ethanol. You’re actually tasting the water.”
When it comes to throwing red tape at aspiring craft distillers in San Diego, perhaps the biggest, stickiest ball comes courtesy of the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, whose dedication to foiling demon rum could make even Carrie Nation envious. The agency, say local distillers, goes to great lengths to inhibit promotion of craft spirits.
Bill Rogers, co-owner of Liberty Call Distilling, whose products have yet to hit the shelves, observes, “Even the feds aren’t as bad as the State of California. Some states, like Arizona, are really easygoing about tasting, but in this state, if we wanted to have an outdoors liquor festival, we’d have to find a restaurant with a liquor license.”
Rogers also states that it’s easier to deal with San Diego County than the City of San Diego.
“The reason I went out to Spring Valley is that it’s an unincorporated part of San Diego County; it has really loose regulations, compared to the City of San Diego.”
Liberty Call isn’t yet at liberty to sell.
“I submitted paperwork in March, was thinking three months, hoped to have bottles for sale by the end of the summer; but at this rate, I’m hoping for the end of the year.”
How much money does it take to open a legal distillery? At Kill Devil, there’s a dormant still emblazoned with a cursive logo, “Hillbilly Stills.” With a certain fondness in his voice, DiGilio notes, “We started with a little baby still made by a family in Kentucky that’s been building stills forever. You can get a nice system for $5000 to $10,000.”
But that’s just for the still. Rogers says, “It’s possible to get started with $50–$60K. But is it enough to sustain your marketing? Can you make any money?” Rogers adds, “The guys that are going in big like Ballast Point and Old Harbor, they’re gonna start off runnin’ hard.”
DiGilio surmises, “Malahat and Old Harbor [local spirits factories awaiting approval] probably have $500,000 to $1 million invested already. We’re the antithesis, nearing 100 grand in our operation. We’re a ‘bootstrap’ operation; we didn’t take out huge loans, didn’t overextend.”
At Liberty Call, Rogers forecasts that he’ll need to sell around 10,000 bottles a year to break even, adding, “It has to be under $30 a bottle for people to start thinking about trying it....
“We’re trying to get people who are already drinking microbrews to drink craft spirits.” Hence his website intro: “San Diegans enjoy their micro-brews enough to make it the Mecca of craft beer. Known for discerning palates and a keen nose for artisanal beers, the locals have made San Diego a very respected and sought after destination for micro-brews. So why not spirits? Our goal is to create one-of-a-kind whiskeys and rums that will have consumers wishing for all things San Diegan.”
Rogers, who grew up in Coronado and whose father is a retired Navy man, also applies a nautical theme to his spirits. (Business partner Steve Grella is an active-duty sailor but the Navy prohibits him from being listed on Liberty Call’s website.)
“We named our moonshine ‘Shellback Shine,’ after an old Navy initiation ritual, but then we found out that some company in Puerto Rico makes a ‘Shellback’ rum, so we’re going to have to change the name.”
“We’re planning a rum infused with locally sourced citrus and we’re also going to make a San Diego–style whiskey.” And the mash bill? “We’ll use a blend of different grains, but that’s about as specific as I want to get.”
Rogers’s strategy is to start in bars and restaurants and “hope that carries into retail stores.” “Some locals have told me, ‘as soon as you start making it, we’ll buy it,’” he laughs. “We’ve already sold ten bottles. It would be nice to get into a place that makes its own $15 [cocktail] creations and be the alcohol in them, but we also want to be on the top shelf in the dive bar next to Jim Beam and Old Crow.”
Meanwhile, back at Kill Devil, DiGilio states, “Distillation is part of our history and culture. You can buy a still online, but it comes with a risk. You have to be ready for some type of audit. Recently, we got a letter from Hillbilly Stills that the feds would be nosing around. They said, ‘Hope you have your permits in order.’ Eventually there will be a face-off between distillers and the feds.”