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San Diego spirits brand relaunches with local ingredients

Home of the scorpion-peppered vodka

Image by Chris Brake

As of the new year, 619 Vodka is produced in its home area code. When Nick Apostolopoulos decided to launch the San Diego–based brand back in 2011, setting up a distillery in San Diego was a complicated process, and few were doing it. "It was really hard back then," he recalls. "The rules were super strict." So he sourced vodka produced in Bend, Oregon — for which he says he's caught a little grief.

The laws have eased up in the time since, as evidenced by the growing number of craft distilleries that have been popping up around the county. So, last year Apostolopoulos made the switch to start distilling with Ray Digilio, who owns Kill Devil Spirit Co. That's brought about some changes to the vodka — it's now distilled from cane sugar rather than corn. It's also available with cucumber, scorpion pepper, and coffee infusions. And it's made locally, from scratch.

"The plan was always to establish the vodka brand first, then pursue infusions," Apostolopoulos explains. "To release a new one every month or two," he continues, "kind of what the breweries do — where we'll have a staple that we produce, but we can go out and produce seasonal stuff, too." Plans include flavors such as vanilla, watermelon, strawberry, or strawberry-basil, all made using whole ingredients. "As much as possible, all of the ingredients will be sourced in San Diego," he says.

The infusions created their own set of hurdles with the TTB — the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, a Department of Treasury agency that oversees alcohol production and sales. Adding ingredients to a spirit requires formula approval first, which Apostolopoulos says can take anywhere from four to six months. That's followed by a four- to six-week labeling-approval process. That lag put a damper in his seasonal infusion plans.

So, Apostoloupos spent 14 months and a lot of money lobbying the bureau to approve four formula variants that would grant 619 approval for several thousand combinations of botanicals and produce, up front. He points out, "We're in a unique position, where there's no other distillery I know in the country that can do that."

It's still not a perfect process. Apostolopoulos says he still has to submit paperwork proving, for instance, that a fruit such as kiwi is safe for consumption, or to debate semantics issues like whether cucumber counts as a fruit. However, he adds that most of these problems can be resolved in a week or so, allowing the federal agency to process labeling and him to move forward quickly with a new product line— say, when a local farm tells him they've got a great crop of white strawberries coming to harvest.

With this year's relaunch for the 619 Vodka brand, Apostolopoulos, who also hosts a local ESPN Radio show dedicated to cocktails and spirits, looks forward to expanding his vodkas' availability in the local market, and eventually open a dedicated tasting room.

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Image by Chris Brake

As of the new year, 619 Vodka is produced in its home area code. When Nick Apostolopoulos decided to launch the San Diego–based brand back in 2011, setting up a distillery in San Diego was a complicated process, and few were doing it. "It was really hard back then," he recalls. "The rules were super strict." So he sourced vodka produced in Bend, Oregon — for which he says he's caught a little grief.

The laws have eased up in the time since, as evidenced by the growing number of craft distilleries that have been popping up around the county. So, last year Apostolopoulos made the switch to start distilling with Ray Digilio, who owns Kill Devil Spirit Co. That's brought about some changes to the vodka — it's now distilled from cane sugar rather than corn. It's also available with cucumber, scorpion pepper, and coffee infusions. And it's made locally, from scratch.

"The plan was always to establish the vodka brand first, then pursue infusions," Apostolopoulos explains. "To release a new one every month or two," he continues, "kind of what the breweries do — where we'll have a staple that we produce, but we can go out and produce seasonal stuff, too." Plans include flavors such as vanilla, watermelon, strawberry, or strawberry-basil, all made using whole ingredients. "As much as possible, all of the ingredients will be sourced in San Diego," he says.

The infusions created their own set of hurdles with the TTB — the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, a Department of Treasury agency that oversees alcohol production and sales. Adding ingredients to a spirit requires formula approval first, which Apostolopoulos says can take anywhere from four to six months. That's followed by a four- to six-week labeling-approval process. That lag put a damper in his seasonal infusion plans.

So, Apostoloupos spent 14 months and a lot of money lobbying the bureau to approve four formula variants that would grant 619 approval for several thousand combinations of botanicals and produce, up front. He points out, "We're in a unique position, where there's no other distillery I know in the country that can do that."

It's still not a perfect process. Apostolopoulos says he still has to submit paperwork proving, for instance, that a fruit such as kiwi is safe for consumption, or to debate semantics issues like whether cucumber counts as a fruit. However, he adds that most of these problems can be resolved in a week or so, allowing the federal agency to process labeling and him to move forward quickly with a new product line— say, when a local farm tells him they've got a great crop of white strawberries coming to harvest.

With this year's relaunch for the 619 Vodka brand, Apostolopoulos, who also hosts a local ESPN Radio show dedicated to cocktails and spirits, looks forward to expanding his vodkas' availability in the local market, and eventually open a dedicated tasting room.

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