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San Diego distillers of bourbon. rye, gin, rum, vodka plus infusions of truffles, passionfruit

Making the hard stuff go down easy

“Our emphasis is on quality. Everything we make needs to taste great neat before I am satisfied.” — Ken Lee
“Our emphasis is on quality. Everything we make needs to taste great neat before I am satisfied.” — Ken Lee

When I told people I was doing a story on San Diego’s alcohol industry, almost everyone asked what angle I would take on our vibrant craft beer community. “I’m actually writing about our local distillers,” I’d answer. My response was met with looks of either confusion or surprise. “This is a craft beer town. We have distilleries? Are they any good?” they asked. “We do, and I’m going to find out!” I answered.

Owner and master distiller Ken Lee at Malahat Spirits Distillery and tasting room.

The numbers don’t lie: production-wise, at least, San Diego is clearly a beer town. Give or take, breweries outnumber craft distillers 10 to 1. And while people are happy to travel to San Diego to sample the local suds—yes, craft beer tourism is a thing—San Diego has more chance of sustaining a championship sports franchise than it does of displacing Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail as the go-to American destination for the harder stuff.

Nationally and locally, beer is the most common first choice among drinkers at 37%. But while San Diegans like their beer, extrapolating from national data, among the two-thirds of adults in the county who imbibe, 31% would tell you a distilled spirit is their go-to libation. Drinkers, however, often switch it up when they throw a couple back; most people who imbibe will occasionally drink beverages other than their first choice. (You might be a wine snob, but I’m guessing if you were eating a taco plate at one of the local dine-in Mexican restaurants, you’d rather sip a nice big margarita than a Napa Cab.) Making things more interesting, there are now more alcoholic, low alcohol, and non-alcoholic choices out there than ever before. Distilled spirits in the form of craft cocktails and pre-made, canned cocktails, are a big part of that ever-changing menu.

Before launching into an overview of this little niche of San Diego’s alcohol industry, or offering you any tasting notes, let’s pour ourselves a local sipping whisky, and take a brief look at the fundamental differences between beer and distilled spirits. All alcoholic beverages have common chemistry: sugars, when exposed to moisture, yeast, warmth, and time, ferment. Distilled spirits all start with some already fermented beverage. Brandy, for instance, is distilled wine; whisky is essentially distilled beer, and so on. Distillation is a process in which heat is used to cause condensation, which removes (distills) alcohol from water. The processes and ingredients used to make different types of alcoholic beverages can vary within and across beverage types. And that is where the art and craftsmanship of brewing, wine making, and making spirits gets interesting.

San Diego’s Craft/Micro Distilleries

According to the San Diego Guild of Distillers, there are currently 18 distilleries operating in San Diego County, making a variety of distilled libations ranging from the traditional favorites—bourbon, rye, gin, rum, and vodka—to creative infusions or distillations that include ingredients ranging from truffles to passionfruit.

Although time, logistics, and my liver precluded visiting every local distillery or tasting every locally produced spirit, I set out, notebook in hand, to visit three of San Diego’s oldest distilleries as well as one of our smallest and newer craft spirit makers. Along the way I talked to several owners and distillers willing to share their knowledge, opinions, and, thankfully, beverages.

San Diego Distillery

I started by visiting San Diego Distillery, located in Spring Valley, a scant three miles from my house. San Diego Distillery was among the first to operate in the county. Although it’s not intentionally obscure, finding the place was akin to locating a speakeasy. My GPS took me to a building that looked vacant, and I couldn’t find any signage. After walking around for longer than I had taken to drive there, I spied a telltale whisky barrel on the sidewalk and headed into the otherwise unmarked suite. The speakeasy vibe carried through to the small entry room, which had a clubby feel, then on into the warehouse, bar, and distillery.

Beyond being excellent sipping whiskies, any of Dieter Steinmetz’s offerings in the whisky range would make excellent cocktails.

The tasting room felt like an old-time whisky bar, and featured a large, nicely built bar and bar back with stools. The tasting space also offered a comfortable sitting area. The only thing differentiating it from a speakeasy was that all the alcoholic offerings hailed from San Diego Distillery. My buddy Dan “Rico” Harris joined me; we had the space to ourselves. Well, mostly: Rico and I spent an hour chatting with Devon, one of the distillers — and head barkeep. As we tasted a variety of San Diego Distillery’s offerings, Devon shared a wealth of boozy information and related some history.

Not surprisingly, San Diego Distillery has strong links to our local craft beer community. Founded by longtime local brewer T. Trent Tilton, the distillery experiments with innovative beer-related mash bills to produce small runs of whiskies with unique flavor profiles. Devon explained it this way: “All our whisky starts as beer. The distillation process allows us to pull out and concentrate the best flavors and eliminate flavors that might otherwise ruin a batch of beer.”

Place

San Diego Distillery

2733 Via Orange Way #101, Spring Valley


Full disclosure: before getting into the tasting notes I took, I should note that I am a bourbon, American whisky, and rye whisky guy. I drink my spirits neat. I do like the occasional sipping tequila or rum. I can do Scotch whiskey, but I need to be in the mood, and that mood seldom strikes anymore. Most Scotch drinkers would consider me a heretic, as I prefer blends over single malts. I am not a huge fan of flavored whiskies…

Devon started our tasting, not with a whisky, but rather a pure agave-based spirit. Although I don’t drink a lot of tequila, I do like the higher-end sipping tequilas like Casa Azul. My buddy Rico, an aficionado of hard-to-find sipping tequilas, has a better palate than I for all things agave, and I deferred to his tuned palate for his impressions.

“It reminds me of some of the small-batch sipping tequilas I’ve had down south. Better than almost anything you can get up here—at least without selling your kidney,” Rico noted. High praise indeed!

I liked it well enough to imagine it in a margarita or on ice with a twist of lime, or neat with a stogie. I found it had a silky finish and hints of vanilla and caramel. For those readers whose tequila experience is limited to dollar margaritas at Applebee’s, guzzling Cuervo Gold in high school, or having some nameless tequila poured down your throat in TJ while a guy blows a whistle in your ear (if you know, you know), do yourself a favor and try some high-end sipping tequila. Better yet, drink local and give San Diego Distillery’s juice a try. You won’t be sorry.

Devon moved us on to taste a few different whiskies. The first one, was an unnamed fruity elixir that we tasted straight from the still. It was interesting, but not my jam. To me ,it tasted like Now and Later candies crushed into Everclear. (To be fair, anything straight out the still is going to taste better once it has mellowed in barrels.)

A motorcycle trip through southeast Asia inspired Ken Lee’s Mekong River Gin, which features herbs from that region.

Next Devon poured a collaborative effort between San Diego Distillery and Orange County’s Bottle Logic Brewery, who provided a supply of their Byzantine Imagination as the base. The resulting whisky tasted of honey, pistachio, and the more common notes found in whisky. Overall, the experience reminded me of eating baklava while sipping a shot of a nice bourbon.

Next, we tasted, the cheekily named Nuts and Beavers, a Trent Tilton distillate featuring local brewery, Belching Beaver’s Peanut Butter Stout. Rico and I both thought it tasted more like whisky than Screwball, another local peanut butter whisky. I thought it would be a good base for a coffee-based cocktail.

Given my tastes, I was not surprised my favorite offering was the (currently sold out) X Cali Gold high rye, a custom blend of Kentucky-sourced whisky that is bottled locally.

You might be asking yourself, what does Kentucky sourced mean? Although it’s common knowledge among whisky nerds, the average drinker doesn’t know that many whisky brands purchase their whisky from distillers in Kentucky and Indiana. Indiana’s MPG is currently the largest producer of sourced whisky in the U.S., although Whiskey House Distillery, a monster facility currently being built in Kentucky, might change that soon. What happens with sourced whisky ranges wildly. On the least creative side, some outfits buy the high-octane juice, water it down a tad, bottle it and slap on a label, and ta da, they’ve made a new whisky brand. Some new distillers use sourced whisky to raise revenue and develop a following while their own first-batch whiskies are aging. Still others, like San Diego Distillery use the purchased whisky as a jumping-off point for more creative approaches by blending barrels based on taste profiles, aging in it in interesting barrels, and the like.

“About 30% of San Diego Distillery’s bourbon and whisky is sourced, but we select it and the blending happens here,” said Devon. “We also take a lot of time selecting used barrels that held wine or other spirits to match the blend and make the flavors more interesting.”

San Diego Distillery’s tasting room is open on Saturday afternoons. Their products are available onsite and online.

Oceanside Distillery

For my second stop, I headed north to the tiny Oceanside Distillery, owned and operated by Dieter Steinmetz. Dieter’s journey into the local alcohol industry was markedly different than the folks at San Diego Distillery. Dieter, a pharmacist by training and trade, explained the unlikely story:

“Well, when my son was in high school, he needed to do a science project and decided to make an alcohol still to illustrate the chemical processes of fermentation and distillation. His teacher told him it was illegal to make alcohol at school.”

I nodded and chuckled. As a professor who has studied alcohol and drinking for three decades, I had to give the kid extra credit for some creative thinking!

Dieter continued, “You can make beer and wine at home, so I assumed we could have a home still. Then I learned that was illegal. So, I decided to apply for a federal distillery license.”

Place

Oceanside Distillers

3044 Industry Street #107, San Diego


Dieter explained that the process of procuring a federal license requires the applicant to have a still and fermentation equipment, a dedicated space and the like before a license can be granted. That level of commitment, effort, and expense significantly exceeded brewing beer at home as a hobby. But after some consultation with his wife and son, Dieter decided to go for it, procured a still, fermentation tanks, and a warehouse space, and applied for his federal license to distill spirits.

After that, he still needed a license from California and Oceanside. “It was a long process. California’s license was the easiest and the local permits were the most difficult. The whole process took over 18 months.”

Once Oceanside Distillery was up and running, Dieter focused on producing a straight-forward line of classic spirits with a heavy emphasis on craftsmanship and quality. Dieter produces two bourbons, an 89 proof and cask strength version. He produces a rum (89 proof) and an interesting gin that is infused with a truffle. Finally, he distills two versions of rye whisky — again, 89 proof and cask strength. Committed alcohol writer that I am, and for the benefit of all you readers of the Reader, I tried each one. Overall, I found every offering was excellent.


Let’s start with the booze I thought I’d dislike: gin. I can honestly say I went into this adventure hating gin—I blame my buddy Joe for convincing me that “gin and tonics are a gentleman’s drink” at the Who concert in the late 1970s then filling my Big Gulp -sized cup with a shot of tonic and half a bottle of no name, rotgut bathtub gin. I don’t need to say more.

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As for Dieter’s take on the juniper berry-infused spirit, I was dubious about the truffle sitting at the bottom of the bottle. Despite being a “foodie”, I can take or leave truffles. Unlike some gastro enthusiasts and chefs, I don’t think they go with everything. In Dieter’s gin, the small black nugget looked like the type of present your dog or cat might accidentally leave on the carpet. So I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the crisp herbal notes that finished earthy, like a Spanish red wine. I found the overall taste intriguing, and learned you shouldn’t judge a gin by its truffle.

I sipped the rum next. I found it as good as any sipping rum I’ve tried, including a $100 bottle from the Caribbean I recently enjoyed. I could easily imagine the mellow molasses notes would make a hell of a rum punch on a hot summer day, or sparkle in other fruity cocktails. I don’t know why, but I got a hint of bananas on the finish.

As a whisky guy, I was cautiously hopeful for Dieter’s amber offerings. If he could produce a gin I liked, what magic might he conjure with corn and rye? I was not disappointed.

Oceanside Distillery’s award-winning whisky offerings reminded me of some of my favorite offerings from Kentucky. I found the sipping bourbon excellent, with slight floral hints in addition to the vanilla and caramel notes common to good bourbons. It reminded me of a recent experience with single-barrel Four Roses. The cask strength had similar notes, and despite the higher octane, the fire I expected on the finish never came. I found Oceanside Distillery’s rye whisky nicely spiced but subtle, and again not overly hot on the finish. Beyond being excellent sipping whiskies, any of Dieter’s offerings in the whisky range would make excellent bases for cocktails.

Oceanside Distillery offers tastings by appointment on Saturdays. Their line of spirits is available online through their website and at Keg and Bottle.

Malahat Spirits

I visited Malahat Spirits Distillery and tasting room next. Malahat, named for the ship that ran rum into San Diego during prohibition, is one of San Diego’s older spirits producers, getting its start in 2014. In the spirit of its Prohibition-era namesake, the tasting room is accessed through a speakeasy-style entrance (this one intentional) with a vintage shipyard vibe. I sat down with owner and master distiller Ken Lee to taste some of their offerings and chat about the local distilled spirits scene.

Malahat specializes in rum and gin as its main offerings, although they occasionally make a whisky or vodka. Ken, a former homebrewer and cooking enthusiast, explained that he creates each mash bill by carefully testing combinations of ingredients until he gets the taste he is after.

“Our emphasis is on quality,” he said. “Everything we make needs to taste great neat before I am satisfied. Cocktails were created as a way of hiding flawed spirits. I want our spirits to shine in cocktails. Everything we make has my personal touch and is palate-driven.”

Ken’s inspiration for specialty spirits often comes from his travels. For instance, a motorcycle trip through southeast Asia inspired Ken’s Mekong River Gin, which features herbs from that region. Another one of their gins uses herbs found along the California coast.

For a self-proclaimed “not a gin guy” I enjoyed tasting both and could imagine them being an excellent base for refreshing summer cocktails.

When I explained my gin aversion, Ken noted, “People who don’t like gin typically have only tasted London Dry-type gins. The gins you just tried have more floral and herbal notes. They taste clean and fresh.” Indeed they did.

Place

Malahat Spirits Co.

8706 Production Avenue, San Diego


Like their gins, Malahat’s rums feature handcrafted mash bills that give them clean and dangerously drinkable flavor profiles. I enjoyed both the spiced and black tea rums. For those of you who think of a certain pirate when spiced rum is mentioned, Malahat’s version is much brighter, with a clean finish. Curious whether some trip to a far-flung location inspired his spiced rum, I asked Ken how he came up with his mash bill.

“Well, I was doing these father-daughter campouts with a bunch of parents. Around the campfire, the drink of choice was spiced rum and Coke. I just couldn’t drink what they had. I kept tinkering until I got the version we just tried.”

The tea rum is simply wonderful and so drinkable it would be very easy to overdo it.

To showcase his creations, Ken works closely with some of San Diego’s best bartenders who use Malahat’s spirits in their own high-end cocktail recipes. These can be sampled at the Malahat tasting room. Malahat is open for tastings Thursday through Sunday (check website for hours) and you can book private tastings. Their spirits are available at Total Wine, BevMo, and local liquor stores.

Seven Caves

My last stop was Seven Caves to meet with Geoff Longenecker. Geoff founded Seven Caves in 2016 and is owner and distiller. Seven Caves focuses on producing small batches of highly crafted rums and gins, plus a popular canned cocktail line-up. I asked Geoff how he came to focus on rum and gin as his signature offerings.

“I’m from Louisiana, so I was very familiar with rum-based cocktails. It was a logical place to start. As for gin, I really like the process of distilling it. You can do a lot of creative things with gin.”

My time with Geoff was limited, so I picked up two of his offerings, and did my own tasting at home with a bottle of Seven Caves Barrel Aged Rum and their kelp-infused La Jolla Cove Gin.

Place

Seven Caves Spirits

7950 Stromesa Court, San Diego


I enjoyed the rum neat. My palate — fine-tuned for whisky — picked up nutmeg, a hint of cinnamon, and vanilla. I will likely try pairing it neat with my other vice, cigars. Like the other local gins I tasted, I expected to dislike the La Jolla Cove Gin. As someone who spends a good deal of time fishing the local kelp, I imagined “hints of calico bass” as one of the flavors. Again, I was pleasantly surprised. by the faint taste of something like the kelp beds smell when you are out on the water. Don’t be misled: that’s a wonderful smell, fascinating, like the whiff of Band Aid that some novice Scotch drinkers describe. I tasted more floral and herbal notes up front, with the subtle savory kelp note coming on the nose and finish.

Seven Caves offers tastings and craft cocktail classes. With the holidays around the corner, you might want to check out their Cocktail Archives pages for some twists on holiday classics — buttered gin! Their spirits are available onsite and in several major retailers like Total Wine.

The Future of Distilling in San Diego

Geoff currently serves as the president of the San Diego Distiller’s Guild. Given that position, and his tenure in the local scene, I wanted his take on San Diego’s spirits producers and to learn more about our local distilling history and where he sees the industry going.

I asked Geoff about the connection between brewing beer and distilling that kept coming up in my visits.

“Yeah, most of us started as home brewers. A few people worked at craft breweries. When the first distilleries got going around 2015, our craft beer scene was booming. It was a natural progression. Brewing beer involves playing with ingredients to produce different flavors. Distilling is similar, and takes it up a notch.”

Staying with the similarities between the local beer world and our distilleries, I asked Geoff if he saw parallels.

“We (the distillers) are a lot like the brewers were 15 years ago. We are all friendly with each other. We help each other out. And there’s not really competition…none of us are really hoping to strike it rich by selling out to one of the national or international companies.”

Geoff continued, “We have a nice mix of distilleries, ranging from really small, like Oceanside, to big and corporate, like Cutwater. We are all really into the craft of distilling and most of us focus on producing interesting and high-quality spirits.”

As someone who values both the craft and local aspects of our spirit producers, I was glad to hear that the focus isn’t to sell out to the big boys. It inevitably changes things. For instance, I reached out to Cutwater and got a corporate marketing rep in NYC. She asked for my questions and ran them up the flagpole…I’m still waiting for a reply.

Geoff saw our small distilleries as an important part of the local alcohol scene. “San Diego a has a vibrant bar scene and a lot of excellent bartenders. The synergy between the bartenders and us craft distillers is important and makes for some exciting offerings.”

He went on to say, “The local restaurants also do some interesting collaborations with us. There is a really nice vibe right now.”

Finally, I asked Geoff if he thought the local distilling scene would grow.

“I think there is room for growth—both in volume of our current producers and the addition of new distillers down the road. The investment is bigger than starting a craft brewery, but there are people out their dedicated, with the money and interest.”

Whether the local distilling scene grows or stays small and interesting, I think it’s worth supporting. I certainly will be stalking my home bar with local offerings this holiday season. And I look forward to trying the offerings of the distilleries I couldn’t visit this time around. Until then, I’ll raise a glass to the local craft distillers who carefully make spirits in the spirit of America’s Finest City.

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“Our emphasis is on quality. Everything we make needs to taste great neat before I am satisfied.” — Ken Lee
“Our emphasis is on quality. Everything we make needs to taste great neat before I am satisfied.” — Ken Lee

When I told people I was doing a story on San Diego’s alcohol industry, almost everyone asked what angle I would take on our vibrant craft beer community. “I’m actually writing about our local distillers,” I’d answer. My response was met with looks of either confusion or surprise. “This is a craft beer town. We have distilleries? Are they any good?” they asked. “We do, and I’m going to find out!” I answered.

Owner and master distiller Ken Lee at Malahat Spirits Distillery and tasting room.

The numbers don’t lie: production-wise, at least, San Diego is clearly a beer town. Give or take, breweries outnumber craft distillers 10 to 1. And while people are happy to travel to San Diego to sample the local suds—yes, craft beer tourism is a thing—San Diego has more chance of sustaining a championship sports franchise than it does of displacing Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail as the go-to American destination for the harder stuff.

Nationally and locally, beer is the most common first choice among drinkers at 37%. But while San Diegans like their beer, extrapolating from national data, among the two-thirds of adults in the county who imbibe, 31% would tell you a distilled spirit is their go-to libation. Drinkers, however, often switch it up when they throw a couple back; most people who imbibe will occasionally drink beverages other than their first choice. (You might be a wine snob, but I’m guessing if you were eating a taco plate at one of the local dine-in Mexican restaurants, you’d rather sip a nice big margarita than a Napa Cab.) Making things more interesting, there are now more alcoholic, low alcohol, and non-alcoholic choices out there than ever before. Distilled spirits in the form of craft cocktails and pre-made, canned cocktails, are a big part of that ever-changing menu.

Before launching into an overview of this little niche of San Diego’s alcohol industry, or offering you any tasting notes, let’s pour ourselves a local sipping whisky, and take a brief look at the fundamental differences between beer and distilled spirits. All alcoholic beverages have common chemistry: sugars, when exposed to moisture, yeast, warmth, and time, ferment. Distilled spirits all start with some already fermented beverage. Brandy, for instance, is distilled wine; whisky is essentially distilled beer, and so on. Distillation is a process in which heat is used to cause condensation, which removes (distills) alcohol from water. The processes and ingredients used to make different types of alcoholic beverages can vary within and across beverage types. And that is where the art and craftsmanship of brewing, wine making, and making spirits gets interesting.

San Diego’s Craft/Micro Distilleries

According to the San Diego Guild of Distillers, there are currently 18 distilleries operating in San Diego County, making a variety of distilled libations ranging from the traditional favorites—bourbon, rye, gin, rum, and vodka—to creative infusions or distillations that include ingredients ranging from truffles to passionfruit.

Although time, logistics, and my liver precluded visiting every local distillery or tasting every locally produced spirit, I set out, notebook in hand, to visit three of San Diego’s oldest distilleries as well as one of our smallest and newer craft spirit makers. Along the way I talked to several owners and distillers willing to share their knowledge, opinions, and, thankfully, beverages.

San Diego Distillery

I started by visiting San Diego Distillery, located in Spring Valley, a scant three miles from my house. San Diego Distillery was among the first to operate in the county. Although it’s not intentionally obscure, finding the place was akin to locating a speakeasy. My GPS took me to a building that looked vacant, and I couldn’t find any signage. After walking around for longer than I had taken to drive there, I spied a telltale whisky barrel on the sidewalk and headed into the otherwise unmarked suite. The speakeasy vibe carried through to the small entry room, which had a clubby feel, then on into the warehouse, bar, and distillery.

Beyond being excellent sipping whiskies, any of Dieter Steinmetz’s offerings in the whisky range would make excellent cocktails.

The tasting room felt like an old-time whisky bar, and featured a large, nicely built bar and bar back with stools. The tasting space also offered a comfortable sitting area. The only thing differentiating it from a speakeasy was that all the alcoholic offerings hailed from San Diego Distillery. My buddy Dan “Rico” Harris joined me; we had the space to ourselves. Well, mostly: Rico and I spent an hour chatting with Devon, one of the distillers — and head barkeep. As we tasted a variety of San Diego Distillery’s offerings, Devon shared a wealth of boozy information and related some history.

Not surprisingly, San Diego Distillery has strong links to our local craft beer community. Founded by longtime local brewer T. Trent Tilton, the distillery experiments with innovative beer-related mash bills to produce small runs of whiskies with unique flavor profiles. Devon explained it this way: “All our whisky starts as beer. The distillation process allows us to pull out and concentrate the best flavors and eliminate flavors that might otherwise ruin a batch of beer.”

Place

San Diego Distillery

2733 Via Orange Way #101, Spring Valley


Full disclosure: before getting into the tasting notes I took, I should note that I am a bourbon, American whisky, and rye whisky guy. I drink my spirits neat. I do like the occasional sipping tequila or rum. I can do Scotch whiskey, but I need to be in the mood, and that mood seldom strikes anymore. Most Scotch drinkers would consider me a heretic, as I prefer blends over single malts. I am not a huge fan of flavored whiskies…

Devon started our tasting, not with a whisky, but rather a pure agave-based spirit. Although I don’t drink a lot of tequila, I do like the higher-end sipping tequilas like Casa Azul. My buddy Rico, an aficionado of hard-to-find sipping tequilas, has a better palate than I for all things agave, and I deferred to his tuned palate for his impressions.

“It reminds me of some of the small-batch sipping tequilas I’ve had down south. Better than almost anything you can get up here—at least without selling your kidney,” Rico noted. High praise indeed!

I liked it well enough to imagine it in a margarita or on ice with a twist of lime, or neat with a stogie. I found it had a silky finish and hints of vanilla and caramel. For those readers whose tequila experience is limited to dollar margaritas at Applebee’s, guzzling Cuervo Gold in high school, or having some nameless tequila poured down your throat in TJ while a guy blows a whistle in your ear (if you know, you know), do yourself a favor and try some high-end sipping tequila. Better yet, drink local and give San Diego Distillery’s juice a try. You won’t be sorry.

Devon moved us on to taste a few different whiskies. The first one, was an unnamed fruity elixir that we tasted straight from the still. It was interesting, but not my jam. To me ,it tasted like Now and Later candies crushed into Everclear. (To be fair, anything straight out the still is going to taste better once it has mellowed in barrels.)

A motorcycle trip through southeast Asia inspired Ken Lee’s Mekong River Gin, which features herbs from that region.

Next Devon poured a collaborative effort between San Diego Distillery and Orange County’s Bottle Logic Brewery, who provided a supply of their Byzantine Imagination as the base. The resulting whisky tasted of honey, pistachio, and the more common notes found in whisky. Overall, the experience reminded me of eating baklava while sipping a shot of a nice bourbon.

Next, we tasted, the cheekily named Nuts and Beavers, a Trent Tilton distillate featuring local brewery, Belching Beaver’s Peanut Butter Stout. Rico and I both thought it tasted more like whisky than Screwball, another local peanut butter whisky. I thought it would be a good base for a coffee-based cocktail.

Given my tastes, I was not surprised my favorite offering was the (currently sold out) X Cali Gold high rye, a custom blend of Kentucky-sourced whisky that is bottled locally.

You might be asking yourself, what does Kentucky sourced mean? Although it’s common knowledge among whisky nerds, the average drinker doesn’t know that many whisky brands purchase their whisky from distillers in Kentucky and Indiana. Indiana’s MPG is currently the largest producer of sourced whisky in the U.S., although Whiskey House Distillery, a monster facility currently being built in Kentucky, might change that soon. What happens with sourced whisky ranges wildly. On the least creative side, some outfits buy the high-octane juice, water it down a tad, bottle it and slap on a label, and ta da, they’ve made a new whisky brand. Some new distillers use sourced whisky to raise revenue and develop a following while their own first-batch whiskies are aging. Still others, like San Diego Distillery use the purchased whisky as a jumping-off point for more creative approaches by blending barrels based on taste profiles, aging in it in interesting barrels, and the like.

“About 30% of San Diego Distillery’s bourbon and whisky is sourced, but we select it and the blending happens here,” said Devon. “We also take a lot of time selecting used barrels that held wine or other spirits to match the blend and make the flavors more interesting.”

San Diego Distillery’s tasting room is open on Saturday afternoons. Their products are available onsite and online.

Oceanside Distillery

For my second stop, I headed north to the tiny Oceanside Distillery, owned and operated by Dieter Steinmetz. Dieter’s journey into the local alcohol industry was markedly different than the folks at San Diego Distillery. Dieter, a pharmacist by training and trade, explained the unlikely story:

“Well, when my son was in high school, he needed to do a science project and decided to make an alcohol still to illustrate the chemical processes of fermentation and distillation. His teacher told him it was illegal to make alcohol at school.”

I nodded and chuckled. As a professor who has studied alcohol and drinking for three decades, I had to give the kid extra credit for some creative thinking!

Dieter continued, “You can make beer and wine at home, so I assumed we could have a home still. Then I learned that was illegal. So, I decided to apply for a federal distillery license.”

Place

Oceanside Distillers

3044 Industry Street #107, San Diego


Dieter explained that the process of procuring a federal license requires the applicant to have a still and fermentation equipment, a dedicated space and the like before a license can be granted. That level of commitment, effort, and expense significantly exceeded brewing beer at home as a hobby. But after some consultation with his wife and son, Dieter decided to go for it, procured a still, fermentation tanks, and a warehouse space, and applied for his federal license to distill spirits.

After that, he still needed a license from California and Oceanside. “It was a long process. California’s license was the easiest and the local permits were the most difficult. The whole process took over 18 months.”

Once Oceanside Distillery was up and running, Dieter focused on producing a straight-forward line of classic spirits with a heavy emphasis on craftsmanship and quality. Dieter produces two bourbons, an 89 proof and cask strength version. He produces a rum (89 proof) and an interesting gin that is infused with a truffle. Finally, he distills two versions of rye whisky — again, 89 proof and cask strength. Committed alcohol writer that I am, and for the benefit of all you readers of the Reader, I tried each one. Overall, I found every offering was excellent.


Let’s start with the booze I thought I’d dislike: gin. I can honestly say I went into this adventure hating gin—I blame my buddy Joe for convincing me that “gin and tonics are a gentleman’s drink” at the Who concert in the late 1970s then filling my Big Gulp -sized cup with a shot of tonic and half a bottle of no name, rotgut bathtub gin. I don’t need to say more.

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As for Dieter’s take on the juniper berry-infused spirit, I was dubious about the truffle sitting at the bottom of the bottle. Despite being a “foodie”, I can take or leave truffles. Unlike some gastro enthusiasts and chefs, I don’t think they go with everything. In Dieter’s gin, the small black nugget looked like the type of present your dog or cat might accidentally leave on the carpet. So I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the crisp herbal notes that finished earthy, like a Spanish red wine. I found the overall taste intriguing, and learned you shouldn’t judge a gin by its truffle.

I sipped the rum next. I found it as good as any sipping rum I’ve tried, including a $100 bottle from the Caribbean I recently enjoyed. I could easily imagine the mellow molasses notes would make a hell of a rum punch on a hot summer day, or sparkle in other fruity cocktails. I don’t know why, but I got a hint of bananas on the finish.

As a whisky guy, I was cautiously hopeful for Dieter’s amber offerings. If he could produce a gin I liked, what magic might he conjure with corn and rye? I was not disappointed.

Oceanside Distillery’s award-winning whisky offerings reminded me of some of my favorite offerings from Kentucky. I found the sipping bourbon excellent, with slight floral hints in addition to the vanilla and caramel notes common to good bourbons. It reminded me of a recent experience with single-barrel Four Roses. The cask strength had similar notes, and despite the higher octane, the fire I expected on the finish never came. I found Oceanside Distillery’s rye whisky nicely spiced but subtle, and again not overly hot on the finish. Beyond being excellent sipping whiskies, any of Dieter’s offerings in the whisky range would make excellent bases for cocktails.

Oceanside Distillery offers tastings by appointment on Saturdays. Their line of spirits is available online through their website and at Keg and Bottle.

Malahat Spirits

I visited Malahat Spirits Distillery and tasting room next. Malahat, named for the ship that ran rum into San Diego during prohibition, is one of San Diego’s older spirits producers, getting its start in 2014. In the spirit of its Prohibition-era namesake, the tasting room is accessed through a speakeasy-style entrance (this one intentional) with a vintage shipyard vibe. I sat down with owner and master distiller Ken Lee to taste some of their offerings and chat about the local distilled spirits scene.

Malahat specializes in rum and gin as its main offerings, although they occasionally make a whisky or vodka. Ken, a former homebrewer and cooking enthusiast, explained that he creates each mash bill by carefully testing combinations of ingredients until he gets the taste he is after.

“Our emphasis is on quality,” he said. “Everything we make needs to taste great neat before I am satisfied. Cocktails were created as a way of hiding flawed spirits. I want our spirits to shine in cocktails. Everything we make has my personal touch and is palate-driven.”

Ken’s inspiration for specialty spirits often comes from his travels. For instance, a motorcycle trip through southeast Asia inspired Ken’s Mekong River Gin, which features herbs from that region. Another one of their gins uses herbs found along the California coast.

For a self-proclaimed “not a gin guy” I enjoyed tasting both and could imagine them being an excellent base for refreshing summer cocktails.

When I explained my gin aversion, Ken noted, “People who don’t like gin typically have only tasted London Dry-type gins. The gins you just tried have more floral and herbal notes. They taste clean and fresh.” Indeed they did.

Place

Malahat Spirits Co.

8706 Production Avenue, San Diego


Like their gins, Malahat’s rums feature handcrafted mash bills that give them clean and dangerously drinkable flavor profiles. I enjoyed both the spiced and black tea rums. For those of you who think of a certain pirate when spiced rum is mentioned, Malahat’s version is much brighter, with a clean finish. Curious whether some trip to a far-flung location inspired his spiced rum, I asked Ken how he came up with his mash bill.

“Well, I was doing these father-daughter campouts with a bunch of parents. Around the campfire, the drink of choice was spiced rum and Coke. I just couldn’t drink what they had. I kept tinkering until I got the version we just tried.”

The tea rum is simply wonderful and so drinkable it would be very easy to overdo it.

To showcase his creations, Ken works closely with some of San Diego’s best bartenders who use Malahat’s spirits in their own high-end cocktail recipes. These can be sampled at the Malahat tasting room. Malahat is open for tastings Thursday through Sunday (check website for hours) and you can book private tastings. Their spirits are available at Total Wine, BevMo, and local liquor stores.

Seven Caves

My last stop was Seven Caves to meet with Geoff Longenecker. Geoff founded Seven Caves in 2016 and is owner and distiller. Seven Caves focuses on producing small batches of highly crafted rums and gins, plus a popular canned cocktail line-up. I asked Geoff how he came to focus on rum and gin as his signature offerings.

“I’m from Louisiana, so I was very familiar with rum-based cocktails. It was a logical place to start. As for gin, I really like the process of distilling it. You can do a lot of creative things with gin.”

My time with Geoff was limited, so I picked up two of his offerings, and did my own tasting at home with a bottle of Seven Caves Barrel Aged Rum and their kelp-infused La Jolla Cove Gin.

Place

Seven Caves Spirits

7950 Stromesa Court, San Diego


I enjoyed the rum neat. My palate — fine-tuned for whisky — picked up nutmeg, a hint of cinnamon, and vanilla. I will likely try pairing it neat with my other vice, cigars. Like the other local gins I tasted, I expected to dislike the La Jolla Cove Gin. As someone who spends a good deal of time fishing the local kelp, I imagined “hints of calico bass” as one of the flavors. Again, I was pleasantly surprised. by the faint taste of something like the kelp beds smell when you are out on the water. Don’t be misled: that’s a wonderful smell, fascinating, like the whiff of Band Aid that some novice Scotch drinkers describe. I tasted more floral and herbal notes up front, with the subtle savory kelp note coming on the nose and finish.

Seven Caves offers tastings and craft cocktail classes. With the holidays around the corner, you might want to check out their Cocktail Archives pages for some twists on holiday classics — buttered gin! Their spirits are available onsite and in several major retailers like Total Wine.

The Future of Distilling in San Diego

Geoff currently serves as the president of the San Diego Distiller’s Guild. Given that position, and his tenure in the local scene, I wanted his take on San Diego’s spirits producers and to learn more about our local distilling history and where he sees the industry going.

I asked Geoff about the connection between brewing beer and distilling that kept coming up in my visits.

“Yeah, most of us started as home brewers. A few people worked at craft breweries. When the first distilleries got going around 2015, our craft beer scene was booming. It was a natural progression. Brewing beer involves playing with ingredients to produce different flavors. Distilling is similar, and takes it up a notch.”

Staying with the similarities between the local beer world and our distilleries, I asked Geoff if he saw parallels.

“We (the distillers) are a lot like the brewers were 15 years ago. We are all friendly with each other. We help each other out. And there’s not really competition…none of us are really hoping to strike it rich by selling out to one of the national or international companies.”

Geoff continued, “We have a nice mix of distilleries, ranging from really small, like Oceanside, to big and corporate, like Cutwater. We are all really into the craft of distilling and most of us focus on producing interesting and high-quality spirits.”

As someone who values both the craft and local aspects of our spirit producers, I was glad to hear that the focus isn’t to sell out to the big boys. It inevitably changes things. For instance, I reached out to Cutwater and got a corporate marketing rep in NYC. She asked for my questions and ran them up the flagpole…I’m still waiting for a reply.

Geoff saw our small distilleries as an important part of the local alcohol scene. “San Diego a has a vibrant bar scene and a lot of excellent bartenders. The synergy between the bartenders and us craft distillers is important and makes for some exciting offerings.”

He went on to say, “The local restaurants also do some interesting collaborations with us. There is a really nice vibe right now.”

Finally, I asked Geoff if he thought the local distilling scene would grow.

“I think there is room for growth—both in volume of our current producers and the addition of new distillers down the road. The investment is bigger than starting a craft brewery, but there are people out their dedicated, with the money and interest.”

Whether the local distilling scene grows or stays small and interesting, I think it’s worth supporting. I certainly will be stalking my home bar with local offerings this holiday season. And I look forward to trying the offerings of the distilleries I couldn’t visit this time around. Until then, I’ll raise a glass to the local craft distillers who carefully make spirits in the spirit of America’s Finest City.

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