404 South Coast Highway, Oceanside
A December 5 grand opening of Pacific Coast Spirits has officially made the city of Oceanside home to an urban distillery. For the past two years, the craft spirits producer has been transforming the 12,000-square-foot former home of a furniture shop into an active distillery, tasting room, and scratch restaurant (404 S Coast Hwy, Oceanside).
Most of the work has been done by the people behind the effort, led by founder and distiller Nicholas Hammond. “We built this whole place,” he says, “We swung the hammers, we built the tables, built the benches, the planters, we put the I-beams in.” Part of the hands-on approach is a function of being funded by family, friends, and small business loans. But part of it’s an ethos growing out of Hammond’s approach to producing liquor.
Take that vodka, for example. For any boozemaker of this size, working on a 300-gallon still, buying and redistilling a mass-produced neutral grain spirit proves more cost effective than producing one from scratch. And since vodka is traditionally defined as lacking flavor and aroma, this practice is fairly common, even among self-described craft spirit labels. But to Hammond’s thinking, it’s boring.
“If we wanted to make rubbing alcohol, we could just buy that and bottle it,” he contends, “It’s not fun for us to do that. We want to have a little residual flavor there.” Rather than potatoes or grain, he produces vodka from California grown grapes. Along with that hint of flavor, he says it adds more character in other ways. “You have that silky mouthfeel with the fruit that you don’t get with grain.”
That vodka provides a base for Pacific Coast gins, which he infuses with botanicals on a separate, 80-gallon still. He opened with a dry gin, infused with traditional gin botanicals including juniper, angelica root, and coriander, plus lavender and a decidedly non-traditional addition. “We threw in some hops,” Hammond reveals, “kind of a nod back to our location in a beer mecca.” Moving forward, he expects to produce six different gins, including a California gin featuring citrus and desert sage. Perhaps most intriguing is the plan for “seaside gin,” infused with seaweed and katsuobushi — a.k.a. bonito flakes.
Hammond’s background includes winemaking, and apprenticeships at distilleries around the country, experiences he applies to production of brandy and both reposado and añejo agave spirits (think tequila). But like many spirit makers, Hammond’s true passion is making whiskey. It’s why he first started Pacific Coast Spirits six years ago, and why he began producing grain spirits four years ago, contract distilling in San Marcos and Los Angeles. Hammond had pursued a Carlsbad property he’d hoped to open two years back, moving on to Oceanside when permitting issues iced those plans. The extra time didn’t help the business’s bottom line, but it did give those whiskies extra time to mature in the barrel.
Hence, Pacific Coast spirits was able to open with a pair of four-year old whiskies, which most new distilleries can’t do for obvious reasons. One of these whiskies is the American Single Malt, produced with an all-barley grain blend built around golden promise, the malt base of many a renowned Scotch. But the main attraction has to be the California Bourbon, produced entirely from grains grown in California, including organic heirloom yellow corn. The whiskey future looks even more colorful: Hammond’s already got a blue corn whiskey with two years in barrels, and younger spirits made with white corn and a red corn dubbed Bloody Butcher.
But that’s only half of Hammond’s ambitions. He wants to secure an alternating winemaking license at the same location, in part to revive his family’s tiny wine label, Climbing Monkeys (currently on hiatus). And next year he hopes to install a one-ton malting floor, which will allow him to malt his own barley. “We’ll be able to start building our own single malt, that’s distinctively ours,” he says, for whiskey production that’s truly “grain to glass.”