Photo Courtesy Skrewball Whiskey
Peanut Butter Whiskey was born in Ocean Beach.
A new spirit concept debuted in San Diego this July, and it’s just oddball enough to have originated in Ocean Beach. Called Skrewball peanut butter whiskey, it’s pretty much what it sounds like: American corn whiskey flavored with the creamy smoothness of peanut butter.
Skrewball is the brainchild of restaurateur Steven Yeng and his wife, Brittany Merrill Yeng. “We’ve been working on this for five years,” Steven tells me over a table of peanut butter whiskey cocktails at one of his three Ocean Beach businesses. On his phone, he shows me pictures of well-known American entertainers and pro athletes drinking the stuff. However, so far, it’s exclusively distributed within San Diego.
It’s made in San Marcos, working on an alternating proprietor license with craft booze maker
California Spirit Company, the spirit distilled by Justin Wilkinson, who works for California Spirits and is a founding partner of Pier View Gin. However, the label pays specific homage to “OB, CA,” where the Yeng couple grew up, met in high school, and still call home.
Steven is known around Ocean Beach for his businesses, OB Noodle House, Bar 1502, and The Holding Company music venue. When he and his brother opened the first Noodle House in 2008, they served a sake and peanut butter cocktail. The second, 1502 location opened in 2013 with a full liquor license, allowing Yeng to upgrade the cocktail to peanut butter whiskey, a muddy, almost chewy, peanut buttery drink that has proven immensely popular. People usually drink it quickly, because peanut oils don’t dissolve in whiskey.
Brittany has a masters in chemistry, which proved useful in developing the proprietary formula that allows Skrewball to remain both clear and shelf stable. “When we first started,” she explains, “we thought we could take [the original cocktail] recipe and bottle it.” That was five years ago. “It ended up being a longer process than we thought,” she laughs.
“We weren’t satisfied until we hit it,” says Steven, adding “Things that are good don’t come easy.” So why such determination? “I have a special bond with peanut butter,” he offers, then tells me the remarkable story that explains why.
Steven Yeng’s family emigrated from China to Cambodia before he was born, his parents giving up everything to get the family out from under the violence of the Khmer Rouge. But first, they wound up in a Thai refugee camp, where they would spend the next five years as virtual prisoners: guarded, contained, and fed on light rations. The Yengs finally had a turn of good luck in 1992. “We got sponsored to the U.S.,” Steven recounts, “by an Obecian couple.”
It’s when they moved to Ocean Beach that these harrowing early life experiences heightened Steven’s appreciation of that most universal staple of American childhood: the peanut butter sandwich. The couple who sponsored his family would bring by gift baskets including jars of peanut butter, and its deceptively simple pleasure — the combination of sweet and savory, light saltiness and creaminess. In other words, it was one of his first tastes of America, and its opportunities and freedoms.
It’s a taste he still cherishes. “It brings back that forgotten taste of childhood,” he tells me fondly, “where your mom makes you a peanut butter sandwich and cuts off the crust for you… it brings back that happy memory.”
Named Skrewball to reflect the quirky nature of their home neighborhood of OB, and its historically misfit residents, peanut butter whiskey is distributed to 200 bars and shops around San Diego County, but the Yengs hope to eventually scale up the operation to distribute nationwide.