Upon entering the Malahat Spirits Co. tasting room in Miramar, customers find a small maze meant to invoke the smuggling operations once required to bring San Diego contraband liquor. It's also a nod to the craft spirits company's namesake.
The original Malahat was a Canadian schooner known as the Queen of Rum Row for running rum up and down the U.S. West Coast. "It would sit off the coast," says Malahat Spirits co-founder Ken Lee, "off of Rum Row, which was the jurisdiction line for the Coast Guard. Then all the little rum runners and speedboats would go out to the Malahat, pick up the booze, and bring it back onto shore."
Until recently, California laws haven't been much easier on the burgeoning craft distillery movement. Prior to this year, they could not sell bottles out of their tasting rooms. Before 2014, they couldn't even sell tasting samples. Consequently, many of the early distilleries to launch in San Diego have small, low-occupancy tasting rooms, built as an afterthought.
Since Malahat opened in September 2014, Lee and co-founders Tom Bleakley and Tony Grillo saw the laws trending in their favor. Beyond the entry maze, a spacious, well-appointed room both serves and sells spirits in style. Plenty of seats front a long bar built around a dual-column 1000-liter, copper-coated still and racks of oak barrels.
Last month, Malahat released its first aged product from these barrels — a cabernet aged rum that won best in class at this spring's American Distilling Institute competition. The Malahat team spent months developing the recipe for its white rum base, derived from several types of molasses and champagne yeast. It's also the base of their spiced, ginger, and black tea rums. Each flavored rum uses only natural ingredients — hand split vanilla beans, crushed cinnamon sticks, and hand-peeled ginger, for example.
Beyond devotion to ingredients, Malahat produces spirits elevated by higher purity. "One of the things that we're doing differently is take a very narrow cut of the distillate," Lee says, "We take the purest of the heart."
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In distiller's terms, the first liquor out of the still is called "the head," and it includes unwanted components, such as methanol, which has a lower boiling point than drinking alcohol. Once that boils off, the still starts producing "the heart" — the part of the distillate people actually want to drink. At the end of the process comes "the tail," when heavier fats and oils start to come through.
All distillers discard the head and tail, but for efficiency's sake they keep as much heart as they can get away with. "The hearts are typically about 75 to 80 percent of the run," Lee explains, "but we take a much narrower cut than that, so that we get the purest of the pure."
Malahat used the same approach with new spirits it plans to release beginning this month: a distinctly smooth four grain vodka comes first, followed by rye- and bourbon-style whiskeys that will have been aging on oak for two years when they release later this summer.