Distiller Interview: Ray Digilio of Kill Devil Spirit Co.

{Ray Digilio | Founder + Distiller, Kill Devil Spirit Co. | San Diego, CA }

It’s fitting that I begin my Distiller Interview series with Ray Digilio. Beyond being one of those rare, truly genuine and accountable humans, he was the first legit industry player to give me the time of day. When I wanted to break into this business in some way, but had less than zero ideas of how to go about it, Ray was a much appreciated ally. His unconditional assistance in helping anyone he can build their business faster and more efficiently is, in my opinion, one of the shining lights of this industry, and one that will continue to push our collective endeavors forward as distillers.  His story below is impactful, so don’t miss a word of it.

{Ugly CA Rise & Chine, Valor West Coast Gin, Rx Unfiltered Vodka, Ugly CA Moonshine}

  1. Explain a little bit about your background and how and when you came to have an interest in distilling?

My background is all over the map, literally. I am originally from New York City but lived in many other cities throughout the US prior to settling in San Diego. No matter where I lived or what industry I worked in one thing was consistent: If it wasn’t love, it wasn’t for me. The industries I worked in prior to distillation were music, teaching, real estate, and supply chain management.

The concept of working in a warehouse and tailoring a premium product by hand has always been a dream. In 2009, I bought a stove top still (*to distill water at home – wink) and practiced everyday as if I was learning a new musical instrument. At that time, literature on distillation technique or how the industry operates was nearly inexistent. For me it was all trial and error…mostly error. Perfecting the art took years but I believe that being self-taught was critical to the development of the signature quality in the spirits we make today. I also think that it gave me a competitive advantage over other novice distillers who paid top dollar to learn how to distill from other manufacturers. I never felt confined to produce products that were industry “standards” or operate within the limits of someone else’s art.

  1. How did you come to the decision to actually pursue distilling?

About a week after my 30th birthday I fell into a very dark place. I was unclear as to why I was following a career path that did not represent the person I truly wanted to be. Up until this point I was successful and financially secure but there was still no love. I found myself one morning sitting at a bar in Downtown San Diego drinking spirits in hopes to drown the unsettling feeling that I was in the lead role of the movie “Groundhogs Day”. I remember looking down at my empty glass of gin, then looking out to a colorful array of craft tap handles, and looking up at a cluttered shelf of spirits with no backlighting. The lights on the shelf suddenly flickered on and for the first time in life my path became clear. It was last call for me to face the fear of instability and recognize my dreams no matter what the cost.

  1. Opening a distillery is a lengthy, difficult and expensive process. What was the most challenging speed bump on the road to opening Kill Devil?

The most challenging obstacle was the transition from day job to distilling professionally full-time. The day we became legal I quite my job and sold off all of my personal belongings. On average I would work 20 hours a day, 7 days a week relying on the minimal sales we had and driving Uber/Lyft at night to keep the operation from failing. If you’ve heard the story, yes, it is true, I went to the extent of living in a tent in the warehouse to keep costs low enough to power the still. In short, California State distillation laws are extremely outdated and Sacramento lobbyists are extremely corrupt. Being profitable at distilling spirits in California is a monumental challenge at this point in time. The paradox of market entry plays out like this: if you don’t have a distributor, you are not in business. Distributors look at new manufacturers as a risk and many are not willing to take on new products until there is a proven track record.

  1. Why did you choose San Diego, and in what ways do you feel the culture here aligns with Kill Devil’s vibe or unique selling point?

I absolutely love San Diego. I’ve called this place home for over a decade and moved here because its something I always wanted to do. The people here are notorious for their support of local business and have a rare pallet for craft products. I believe that the alcohol beverage market here sets the trend for the rest of the nation. If your product can be a success in San Diego it will be a success anywhere. There is no doubt that we are extremely motivated by the people who live here. Kill Devil Spirit Co. products are a celebration of the open-minded nature and savvy taste buds of the local consumer.

  1. In terms of a hypothetical anonymity – to – mainstream spectrum, where do you feel the American “craft” Distilling industry is today and how would you describe this state? 

Today I would have to rate the industry as a 2 on the scale from 1-10. However, the rate at which that number is increasing is provocative. Every year we weather the storm waiting for the CA government to other local distilleries to become legal and help spread the word that there is a birth of a new industry here in San Diego. Within the next 5-10 years I predict a major overhaul in the way people buy spirits both locally and nationwide. It’s the final frontier in the alcohol beverage industry to be explored. I believe that the average consumer has made it clear that they care about how and where their products are made..

  1. Kentucky aside, where or who do you feel is the driving, innovative force behind our craft distilling industry right now? 

Portland, OR has been leading craft distilling for quite some time. Moving forward I think that Brooklyn, NY will probably become the poster child for the craft distilling industry.

  1. Name a few other distillers or distilleries who inspire you.

My Grandmother

Kings County Distillery

Death’s Door Spirits

Prohibition Distillery

  1. Where do you see Kill Devil in 10 years? What do you want to be known for?

I see Kill Devil being one of Southern California’s most recognized craft spirit houses. I want to be known as an artist; a loving, caring, social and environmentally responsible leader in the dawn of a renaissance in American manufacturing.

  1. Your favorite thing about coming to work each day?

The smells, the sounds, the personalities, the creativity, the challenges, all is love. Oh… and riding the forklift.

  1. I’m sure you’re familiar with the tradition of distillery cats… does your operation have a feline mascot? If so, name and story please!

We are so overdue for a distillery cat that we have chose a name for it before even getting one. FALCO. If you don’t know who Falco was Google his name and prepare to have the same urge to name a cat after him. You’re welcome! Cha Cha!

  1. You guys were one of the first to begin distilling in San Diego County, with Ballast Point moving into spirits around the same time. Tell us about how the landscape for craft distillers in Southern California has changed since you first began.

For the record, we were not the first in the County of San Diego to begin distilling; Ballast Point started right before we did in North County. We were, however, the first in the City of San Diego to be granted a license to operate since prohibition. We were also the first company to focus solely on distilled spirits in San Diego.   We did not have the luxury of beer or wine sales to help finance the start-up or lend recognition to the brand. In saying that, Kill Devil Spirit Co., in many ways, acted as the guinea pig in the local industry for other distilleries that would open thereafter.   When we started the conditions were brutal. There were approx. 300 distilleries nationwide and only 3 in all of Southern California. We entered the market way before a demand for craft spirits was to surface. The good news is that each year the number of new distilleries has doubled over and because of that we have seen an increase in demand for our products. The truth is, at the moment, no craft distiller is in competition with another. We need each other to create the fuel needed to ignite the industry. In fact, for years, I have been consulting for new distilleries in hopes to bring them to the market quicker. What’s the benefit for us? More boots on the ground to promote the industry that we love.

Thanks Ray!

Be sure to pick up some of Kill Devil’s offerings if you inhabit central or southern California. Their West Coast Gin, distilled with chinook hops and local grapefruit, is not to be missed. 

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