Casey Miles, President of the San Diego Distillers Guild, is helping to drive forward the burgeoning movement. The potential for craft liquor, he shares, is huge in San Diego. “California is 51% of the overall wine and spirits market in the United States. Big brands use San Diego as a test market for new products. We're in the lion's den. If we can make it here, the entire industry will change. Many across the US are watching San Diego to see how we will grow, what brands will emerge, and how that will affect consumer behavior. There is no more difficult place to start a distillery than Southern California, but there is no other place with such potential if you're successful,” he explains.
While the passion and enthusiasm for local distilleries is growing, San Diego’s regulations make it difficult for the industry to grow. Distilleries are so new that there is still a lot of grey area to deal with, along with outdated restrictions. In addition to permitting, local distilleries are challenged with zoning, finding a tasting room location in an area with ample foot traffic that's also zoned for industrial production. Another hurdle is trying to get picked up by a quality distributor. The ABC laws in California don’t allow distilleries to self-distribute like a brewery or winery can.
“San Diegans are constantly talking about a locally made whiskey, gin, vodka, and rum. That being said, distilled spirits are very different than beer,” Miles added. “Craft beer grew up in San Diego over the past 18 years. It took a long time for the local retailers to see the value in providing their customers a selection of local beers. We hope to cut that time down by being a bit more coordinated than the Wild West of the early craft beer years in San Diego. We have the luxury of studying a trend that went before us and picking the things that worked and hopefully avoiding the things that didn't.”
Will craft spirits be San Diego's next great claim to fame? Visit a few tasting rooms at local distilleries and decide for yourself.
8706 Production Avenue, San Diego
Malahat owner Ken Lee knows that it isn’t easy being a pioneer. “When we first applied for a permit in San Diego, we had to explain what a distillery was since we had the first distillery permit in San Diego,” he said of his initial struggles to launch Malahat, which is named after the schooner that sailed down the West Coast during Prohibition carrying over 60,000 cases of contraband liquor.
Though they’ve expanded their handcrafted selection to include whiskey and vodka, spiced rum put them on the map. And tasting their spiced rum certainly evokes images of sailing on that stealthy ship, with strong banana flavors accented by cinnamon and vanilla. Malahat rum is an easy addition to tiki drinks, but I like to sip on it with a couple ice cubes, like you would a nice whiskey.
Private Tastings Available by Appointment
Hours: Thursday, 4pm - 9pm; Friday & Saturday, 12pm - 9pm; Sunday, 12pm - 5pm
1495 G Street, Downtown San Diego
San Diego's first urban distillery, You & Yours, is known for their gin. “I'm not sure we'll ever be on par with the craft beer mania that's taken hold in San Diego, but I do think craft spirits provide a welcome respite from an oversaturated craft beer landscape,” says Laura Johnson, Owner & Head Distiller. “San Diegans are loyal to local, and always looking for something new.”
Their local collaborations are the best in the business, including a recent partnership with the Loews Coronado for whom Johnson created a Summer Citrus Vodka with kumquat and rosemary plucked from the hotel’s own gardens.
Tasting Room Hours: Saturday & Sunday, 12pm-10pm; Wednesday to Friday, 4pm-10pm
2739 Via Orange Way #110, Spring Valley
There were only two distilleries in San Diego when Founder Bill Rogers started in 2013. Now, there are seventeen active distilleries in the county with another five or six that will be ready to open by the end of the year. Rogers is optimistic about the growth of the industry. “The craft distilling industry in San Diego is still in its infancy, and more and more people are starting to convert, just like the growth that the craft beer industry went through.”
His spirits are certainly setting the right tone, winning multiple awards including The California Craft Spirits Competition (CCSC) Best of Show, Gold Medal, and the Best Bourbon award. Try the smooth Blue Ridge four grain whiskey, the Old Ironsides single malt, or the unique chocolate rye bourbon.
Tasting Room Hours: Friday, 5pm-8pm; Saturday, 2pm-7pm; Sunday, 1pm-5pm
9750 Distribution Avenue, Miramar, San Diego
“Back when we began the distillery in 2007 under Ballast Point, we sought to be the first distillery post-prohibition in San Diego,” said explained Marketing Director Nicole Wood. “The laws for distilling are much more restrictive than craft brewing. As distillers, we comply with current system, which restricts us from selling to accounts directly as can be done in the brewing world. Even in our own tasting room we need to have an educational experience for all of our guests in order to legally sell our cans and bottles, and only in limited amounts.”
Cutwater remained locally owned when Ballast Point was sold to Constellation Brands, and while their individual liquors, including craft liquors, are all top-notch, their craft canned cocktails have been truly groundbreaking. They now offer 14 different canned craft cocktail varietals, including their most recent release of the Fugu Horchata Vodka Cold Brew.
My favorite is the Whiskey Highball with their Black Skimmer Bourbon, soda water, and mint. It is refreshing and just sweet enough, with no added sugar or sweeteners.
Tasting Room Hours: Sunday to Thursday, 11am–10pm; Friday and Saturday, 11am–11pm