Distiller Interview: Trent Tilton of San Diego Distillery


If you haven’t caught on by now, I’m working my way through San Diego’s craft distilling scene via these Distiller Interview posts. This week it’s Trent Tilton – and his wife Maria! – of San Diego Distillery

Trent and his wife Maria were the first people I introduced myself to at my very first San Diego Distillers Guild meeting over a year ago. They were warm and sweet, and Trent and I quickly bonded over our mutual love of Dry Fly. At the time, Trent and I were much in the same boat, working on our respective distilleries in planning, though Trent was a bit further along in the process than I was. Chatting over sculpin and duck nachos at the new Ballast Point, I got to know Trent and Maria and little better before the meeting started. As the meeting got underway I remember thinking to myself, “If everyone is this nice, I’m definitely in the right place!” They’ve since become great friends and although Trent is a leeeeeetle busy these days (read on!), I always look forward to catching up at the guild meetings for old times’ sake. 

1. Explain a little about your background and how and when you came to have an interest in distilling.
I have been a home brewer for over 15 years, starting with a standard extract kit then working my way up over the years to all-grain. When we moved into our first house, I was able to construct a small home brew system in the garage. Now that we are in a larger house, the brew system grew larger also. I currently have a 15-gallon brewery as well as five taps in a dedicated space in our kitchen. I have also worked on a 7-barrel system at a local brew pub, and was involved in recipe formulation for two of their core beers that are currently still a part of their rotating lineup.
I began to take an interest in distilling around 2011-2012. The first time I ever tried Lagavulin 16, it was a real eye-opener for me. I began to research how whiskey is made, and to my surprise and excitement, I realized that essentially making a “beer” is the first step in making whiskey.

2. How did you come to the decision to actually pursue distilling?
I came to the decision to actually pursue distilling and opening a distillery about 6 months after that life-changing sip of Lagavulin. I began to realize that the brewing world and the distilling world overlap to a point, so I decided to run with it and try a few test batches of spirits. It was during these test batches that I came to the conclusion that I would be happy doing this for a living, taking pride in a quality product that I made, and being able to share that product with others.

3. What does an average day look like for you? Do you still keep a “day job?”
I do still have a “day job” in the medical field. I work at my day job until 3:30pm on most weekdays and every other weekend. After the work day ends, that’s when my distilling day begins. I usually arrive at the distillery by 4pm where my still should be close to producing spirit at the correct temperature, after allowing the still to warm up on a timer throughout the day. I oversee the entire distillation run from heads to tails, testing for quality and the proper location of the cuts throughout. In any spare time, I routinely work on various tasks around the distillery, such as construction of our tasting room space, updating distillation logs for our monthly reports, swelling and filling barrels from previous runs, as well as general maintenance and cleaning. I usually do not leave the distillery until 10-10:30pm, making for a 16-hour work day!


4. Opening a distillery is a lengthy, difficult and expensive process. What was the most challenging speed bump on the road to opening San Diego Distillery?
For us, the most challenging task was navigating through the maze of paperwork that is required. The application process was very extensive, but fortunately we were able to turn to friends and fellow distillery owners who helped us immensely in the process!

5. Why did you choose San Diego, and in what ways do you feel the culture here aligns with your distillery’s vibe or unique selling point?
San Diego in general is a city that is the living embodiment of what San Diego Distillery is trying to accomplish. San Diegans embrace the local movement that the craft distilling industry represents. San Diego’s craft beer culture was an especially inspiring story for us. After seeing the heights to which the craft beer industry has grown over the years, we saw no reason why the craft distilling industry couldn’t do the same. San Diegans want to buy local and support their local businesses, but it’s more than that. San Diegans want to know where the products they are buying came from, what type of ingredients were used, what is the name of the person who made it, who is the owner of the company and does he/she represent the ideals that I believe in? Because of this unique consumer mindset in our local market, we are given the confidence that we couldn’t have started San Diego Distillery in a better city!

6. In terms of a hypothetical anonymity – to – mainstream spectrum, where do you feel the American “Craft” Distilling industry/movement is today and how would you describe this phase we’re in? Also, how quickly do you see it moving towards that mainstream anchor point?
I feel that the American craft distilling industry is only at about a 3, with San Diego’s micro-economy at only about a 1 or 2. The reason for this is because the small distilleries across the country are still competing with the large distilleries that can produce large amounts of quality product sold at a very competitive price. And it seems as though this movement is even lesser-known here in San Diego because a lot of the alcoholic beverage marketplace is still “preoccupied” with craft beers at the moment. However, I feel that once it gains some momentum, the craft distilling industry will move toward a mainstream anchor point at a much faster pace than the craft beer industry has. In a way, craft brewers have paved the way for craft distillers, especially here in San Diego.


7. Where or who do you feel is the driving, innovative force behind our craft distilling industry right now?
The two distilleries that come first to mind are Westland in Seattle, Washington, and Corsair in Tennessee. Personally, I admire Westland for their innovation and the broad range of single malt whiskeys that they make and the unique ways that they finish their whiskeys. Corsair is another distillery that is on the cutting edge with their unique lineup of spirits and incorporating unique ingredients and grains into their products. Corsair has also recently planted vineyards, presumably to be used for brandy distillation, which I believe shows great forethought and insight as to the direction the market is heading.

8. Name a few other distillers or distilleries who inspire you.
Some of my favorites include the aforementioned Westland and Corsair, Dry Fly, Balcones, and Wigle which is a regionally-distributed distillery out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

9. Where do you see San Diego Distillery in 10 years? What do you want to be known for?
In 10 years, I hope to make San Diego Distillery a locally- and regionally-recognized brand that represents excellence and quality. I hope to be able to expand my operation, including buying a larger still, opening an off-site tasting room, and possibly opening a rick house for barrel storage. I hope to be known for my whiskeys, not only for being flavorful and high-quality, but also for being inventive and unique. I also hope to be known for my brandy.


10. Your favorite thing about going into the distillery each day?
After working a “day job” all day, the most exciting thing for me when walking into the distillery every day is the realization that what I accomplish that day is completely up to me. It is a great feeling to be working for yourself, even if it means working for no money! It is so rewarding to see my work and efforts come to fruition when I try a spirit as it is coming off of the still and it is exactly as good as I was expecting, if not better. It is a great feeling to know that I am in control of the direction that San Diego Distillery takes, and this is my motivation to keep working harder and harder to get it where I want it to be.

11. 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!
Unfortunately we do not have any distillery cats…but you can usually find our two little chihuahuas, Trema and Mara, cozying up on their blanket at the distillery. And we do have a little squirrel who seems to visit us a lot. We’ve named him Bung Hole!

12. Tell us a little about your operation, seeing as you’re in no rush to bring products to market at the moment. What’s your current philosophy and when do you think we could potentially see some product launches from San Diego Distillery?
My philosophy is and always has been “It’s ready when it’s ready.” I would love to always have a constant high volume stream of product hitting the market, but I know this is not realistic. I can’t try to rush the process and risk producing a different product than what was originally intended. I have learned that even if I have to wait on product to age, it’s better in the long run. But with that being said, I was able to pull some of my first barrels after they’ve matured, so keep an eye out for San Diego Distillery whiskey launching as soon as March 2016!


Special thanks to Trent & Maria for these photos! Be sure to follow San Diego Distillery on Instagram.

Incase you missed it, my interviews with other San Diego Distillers:


Share this post!

Distiller Interview: Jeanne Runkle


For my next Distiller Interview I have the one and only Jeanne Runkle! Jeanne and I were first introduced by fellow San Diego distiller Ray Digilio after we both contacted him about distilling experience. Jeanne, like me, was keen to get into distilling but at a bit of a loss as to how exactly to jump into the industry. Our first coffee date turned into an hours-long chat and surprise, surprise, Jeanne and I became fast friends. Little did I know when we first met, Jeanne was years deep into a well-orchestrated plan to leave the corporate world behind and pursue distilling! Following that passion for liquor-making ultimately led her to take up a distilling position in North Carolina and she’s since enjoyed stints at several distilleries across the country. Writer, blogger, distiller, jet engine mechanic, whiskey aficionado, Jeanne’s accolades go on and on – it’s my honor to feature her here (and to return the favor in doing so)! 

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

I’ve always been a bit of a “jack of all trades” – my background ranges from being a jet engine mechanic in the Marines, to biotech, to the energy industry. And now liquor! My tastiest career choice to date, that’s for sure.

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

My brother-in-law is a financial advisor, and he watches trends in various industries. About 3 years ago, he asked me if I’d heard about craft liquor. After doing my own research, I launched LikeYourLiquor.com less than a year later, a site dedicated to craft distillers and their delicious spirits. The more I interviewed distillers, the more I wanted to trade in my corporate cube for a still!

3. Tell us about your current post.

Right now, I’m working at Quincy Street Distillery in Chicago as their assistant distiller/marketing manager, as well as shaking up a few cocktails in our tasting room bar. Illinois marks my fifth state that I’ve lived in, in 2015!

4. What are some of the pros to being a “nomad” distiller of sorts, a.k.a. working at several operations, not having to go through the process of opening up your own shop, etc.

I’ve learned things from each place I’ve been and I like to think I share that knowledge with the people I meet. I’ll also say that boredom at work is a thing of the past – who has time for that?! Every day is a new challenge. Plus, if I’d decide to open my own distillery, I’m learning all the do’s and don’ts from the best – things like, “floor drains are a must”, or, “tanks that are flat on the bottom are a b*tch to clean”.

5. Your favorite thing about going to work each day?

I love the variety each day brings. I’m not just making the hooch – I’m slinging it at our bar, I’m marketing it. Plus, the people make every day fantastic – both my coworkers, and our customers.

6. I love how you fearlessly gave the corporate world the middle finger and jumped into pursuing a passion. Do you ever have regrets leaving a safe 9-5? Is there anything about your transition you’d do differently looking back?

Out of everything that’s happened this year, not once have I looked fondly back at my old cube and wished I’d done it differently. It took me about a year and a half to jump off the corporate ladder, so I like to think I planned as well as I could. The road’s not always been smooth – but when is anything puppies and rainbows all the time? I wouldn’t change a thing.

7. What’s on your bar cart right now?

I always try to pick up local bottles in a new town – which means my bar “cart” is more like a covered wagon! Right now, I’ve got [Quincy Street] barrel reserve gin and straight single malt (yum!) along with Letherbee’s traditional gin, and Starlight Distillery‘s apple brandy.

Early Years_final

{ Jeanne, slinging hooch since day 1. :) }

All photos courtesy Jeanne Runkle.

Share this post!

Artisan Spirit Feature + Distillery Name Unveil


Artisan Spirit Magazine‘s fall issue has arrived and it includes a timely and relevant article, How To Get Into Distilling Without Having to Own the Joint, featuring yours truly! Click here to flip through the digital issue and head to page 101 for the full story.


Spoiler alert! We’ve officially given our upcoming operation a name: YOU & YOURS DISTILLING CO. I’ll be unveiling the logo and other creative, plus the inspiration behind the moniker soon so stay tuned!

Thanks a million, zillion times to the wonderful Jeanne Runkle for including me in this piece! Check out more of her work here and here.

Share this post!

Distiller Interview: Michael Skubic, Old Harbor Distilling Co.


{ Michael Skubic, Founder + Distiller, Old Harbor Distilling Co. | San Diego, CA }

If you consider yourself “in-the-know” re: San Diego’s craft cocktail scene, chances are you’re familiar with Old Harbor Distilling Co.’s proprietor, Michael Skubic – a true local San Diegan to the core,  first made his mark in the early days of SD’s craft beer boom (as one of the founding partners of Hess Brewing) and has now taken his time and talents to the world of craft spirits. He’s currently pumping out some of what I would consider to be the most intriguing and meticulously crafted spirits in southern California. Want proof? The “Skubic Driver” at Ironside Fish & Oyster just won Best Cocktail by San Diego Magazine. Keep reading to meet one of San Diego’s true craft pioneers!

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

I will try to make this quick… I started out as someone who drank exclusively whiskey, but in college my roommate was into homebrewing, spurred on by his dad’s love of the art, we got pretty into it. While I was attending PLNU, I was also interning for Mike Hess who had plans to eventually open up a brewpub in Colorado. I helped write the first draft of a business plan for that with my best friend who was also interning for Mike working on that project.

I graduated in 2009, the job market was non-existent, Instead of going back to school for an MBA, I went back to Mike Hess with an idea to perhaps start a craft brewery in my head… only because I knew that was potentially on his horizon as well.

Mike’s business partner, Ben Hodge, had read about “Nanobreweries” taking off up in the PNW and suggested we try that model. So we did. Hess Brewing was born out of necessity. Not a lot of capital but lots of love and hard work. It worked out great. They got so popular they had to expand to a second larger location in North Park.

Somewhere in between that point and when Old Harbor opened, we had collaborated with URBN Pizza in North Park on a (b)URBN Barrel Age Imperial Rye Stout because they had purchased an entire cask of Elmer T. Lee Bourbon and got to keep the barrel. At the release of that beer we also released a fresh batch of “Ex Umbris Rye Imperial Sout” and paired it with the aged stout and the bourbon that came out of the barrel. I decided (or perhaps, remembered) that night I preferred whiskey to beer…

That lead me down a path of drinking lots of whiskey and doing lots of research into the science / business of distilling. Two years and one month later I was having the soft opening of Old Harbor Distilling Co. Thankfully it was not my first rodeo in the alcohol business… without the prior experience at Hess, starting Old Harbor would have been nearly impossible.

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

Whiskey was my end goal. I happen to love all forms alcohol, so this seemed like a good idea.

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

Fire Code… but, there are many bumps in the road. One thing I wish (and I should have known better) is that I would have asked other distillers for more help. The industry is open and willing to help newcomers. Just ask.

{ Image courtesy Caava Design, who also deserve major cred for Old Harbor’s gorgeous branding }

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

I was born and raised in Southern California. I am not moving anywhere else. Sunshine tax be damned. Old Harbor is based off of the history of San Diego. San Miguel (our flagship Southwestern Gin) is named after the original title bestowed upon this city by Juan Rodriguez Cabrilllo. We try to keep all our branding / products grounded in some aspect of our history. Our rum, for example, is Navy Strength—a nod to our history as a navy town.

  1. In terms of a hypothetical anonymity – to – mainstream spectrum (On a scale of 1-10, 1 being “completely unknown” and 10 “house hold notion”), where do you feel the American “craft” Distilling industry/movement is today? Also, how quickly do you see it moving towards that mainstream anchor point?

Five & Five years. Maybe 1 and 1 year. Hard to say. I am in the business so my perception is skewed… I feel like EVERYONE knows about craft spirits, when in reality, NOBODY does.

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

Places like Portland. Seattle. NYC. Colorado. Texas… but mind you, California is home to two of the most OG distillers: St. George Spirits & Anchor Distilling Co.

  1. Name a few other distillers or distilleries who inspire you.
  •             Dry Fly
  •             Tate & Co.
  •             Lost Spirits
  •             FEW Spirits
  •             Clear Creek
  •             Leopold Bros.
  •             Germain Robin
  •             Corsair Distilling
  •             Garrison Brothers.
  •             New York Distilling Co.
  •             Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits

Old-Harbor-SanDiegoVilla-Distillerista{ Old Harbor’s Product Lineup | Image courtesy SanDiegoVille.com }

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

Sitting on a beach with lots of Diageo’s money. . . Just kidding. Releasing our first 10 year old Single Malt Whisky? That is a long ways away, but ideally being respected by the bar community and home enthusiasts a-like. I have plans to release products in MANY categories, so if I can manage to make all of our releases pleasing to people who like spirits in that category, but also get them excited and passionate about what we are doing… then I am doing my job right.

I am a huge nerd when it come to most things in life: movies, TV, books, music, beer, wine, art… so if I don’t think what I am making is top notch I won’t release it. It took me 18 months to develop San Miguel Southwestern Gin and we still slightly tweak each recipe for good measure to “perfect” the recipe. It took about 2/3 that time for Barrelflag Navy Strength Rum. The coffee liqueur, which we have not released yet, has been in the works for over a year. We do not rush things here at Old Harbor Distilling Co. I plan on being in the business for a lifetime.

If you get into this business to make money quick, then you are in for a rude awakening. Expect to make almost no money for a long, long time.

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

Being my own boss… but really, I absolutely love creating a product from scratch that I get to see out in the world. Going to a bar that is making some badass cocktail with my spirit is more rewarding than anything I can imagine. Probably up there with having a child… but I don’t have one of those, so maybe not?

  1. I’m sure you’re familiar with the tradition of distillery cats… does your operation have a feline mascot? 

We do… his name is Richard and he is the cutest, yet ferocious! He came on the recommendation of a close friend Greg.

IMG_1539{ Meet Richard! the “Cat” }

  1. Your location in East Village could be seen as either (or both) an investment and a gamble. What was the driving factor behind your decision to be downtown?
              I don’t like commutes & the building was exactly what I wanted. The East Village is a rough place to have a business currently. Lots of issues with zoning, homeless, etc… but it is my neighborhood and I love it. I think that in the future it will be one of the most exciting ‘hoods in all of San Diego, if it’s not already.

{ Old Harbor Tasting Room | Book your tour here! | Image Courtest SanDiego.Eater.com}

Thanks again Michael! Make sure to pick up Old Harbor’s Barrelflag Navy Strength Rum & San Miguel Southwestern Gin at a San Diego liquor store near you. The latter makes a bomb Gimlet! And keep an eye out for the release of Ampersand Coffee Liqueur. Cheers!

*Top Image courtesy SanDiegoHomeGarden.com

Share this post!

Distiller Interview: Bill Rogers, Liberty Call Distilling Co.

IMG_0743*{ Steve, Bill and Addison of Liberty Call Distilling Co. | San Diego, CA }

For the second installment of our Distiller Interview series I tapped Bill Rogers, President and Founder of Liberty Call Distilling Co. Beyond my personal affinity for Liberty Call’s patriotic Navy flair (several of my extended family serve or have served in all three branches of the Military), I also have a deep respect for Bill’s unapologetic dedication to the craft. He and his team use only premium ingredients to craft their delicious rums, gin and whiskies. They’re also creating some worthy buzz – along with a few other San Diego distillers – by pioneering new and exciting methods of aging (battery-powered barrel agitators anyone?). Read on to learn more about Bill and Liberty Call! 

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

I have 15 years of experience in Sales and Marketing, including 2 years selling Budweiser and Corona. I have a background in Chemistry, and I used to home brew a lot. A couple of years ago one of my chemistry buddies asked me if I’d be interested in getting a small still to make moonshine. I said a small still doesn’t make enough alcohol, and that we needed a bigger one. Now we are here.

2. How did you come to the decision to actually pursue distilling? Tell us how you settled on the name Liberty Call.

I looked at what it would actually take to make alcohol and to make a profit. I talked with a lot of distillers and saw that a small distillery could be profitable quickly if you kept the breakeven low. After crunching numbers my wife gave me her blessing and I decided to open up. My partner, Steve, is a Navy vet, and I grew up in Coronado with a Dad that was in the Navy. Liberty Call is the term used for sailors when they are on leave (R&R) in port. We thought it was a good idea to have a Navy themed distillery due to the large naval influence in San Diego.

IMG_0696*{ Getting ready to bottle a batch of Gin }

3. Opening a distillery is a lengthy, difficult and expensive process. What was the most challenging speed bump on the road to opening Liberty Call?

The never ending legal hurdles are the most challenging. We’re constantly trying to stay in compliance with the ABC and TTB, but there is usually no one that you can go to for answers. The gov’t is so arbitrary in their answers. It’s quite frustrating, and really is one of the reasons that we started a guild in San Diego. Each guild member wants to help each other out, and we compare notes to see how we can get through the bureaucracy

4. Why did you choose San Diego for Liberty Call, and in what ways do you feel the culture here aligns with Liberty Call’s vibe or unique selling point?

We live in San Diego. We we’re about to move somewhere else to start a new venture. San Diegans are very much into craft beer, maybe more so than anywhere else in the US. We wanted to capitalize on that and get the craft beer drinkers to put down the Bacardi and pick up some real craft spirits. That’s easier said than done, but they are our target market.

IMG_0717*{ Making the most of tight quarters with a compact four plate column }

5. In terms of a hypothetical ‘anonymity – to – mainstream’ spectrum, where do you feel the American “craft” distilling industry/movement is today, and how would you describe this current state?

In the US, the spectrum is about a 5, but in San Diego it’s about a 2. Other than Ballast Point, most people don’t know that there are other distilleries in San Diego. The needle is slowly getting moved as more and more craft distillers enter the market. It’ll probably take a couple years for there to be a real shift in the culture, but we feel it’s going to happen.

6. Where, or who, do you feel is the driving, innovative force behind craft distilling right now?

Seattle and the Washington Northwest are really putting out some good products. New York, and Oregon aren’t far behind. That being said, California is starting to get some really good distilleries that are doing off-the-wall stuff.

IMG_0693*{ Weathered barrels being used to finish a batch of Whiskey }

7. Name a few other distillers or distilleries you’re inspired by.

Lost Spirits in Monterrey has to be considered one of the top innovators in the country. They are making spirits that no one else is making, and they’re delicious. They also have innovated the industry with their aging processes and we could see some ground breaking technology spread through the industry because of them. St. George Spirits is one the original “Micro” distillers. They have a great approach to the craft and definitely lead the way in regards to getting legislation reform in CA.

8. Where do you see Liberty Call in 10 years? What do you want to be known for?

In 10 years we would like to be in a stand-alone building that we designed from scratch. We’re going to make the spectrum when it comes to spirits, but we are just starting to get into our whiskey program. We want to be known for taking risks and coming up with unique spirits that no one else has the guts to do.

9. Your favorite thing about coming to work each day? Free drinks

IMG_0740{ The Team: Addison, Bill & Steve }

10. 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!

No cats, but we have a dog named Rufus that can be seen from time to time. Usually sleeping.

10. I love how you’re targeting Coronado as a home base for your spirits. How is that effort going and what are some of your favorite Coronado spots to eat and drink?

Steve and I both live in Coronado and we know a lot of the local businesses. They really helped us out and brought us in. It’s nice to know that you are wanted in a small community. Saiko Sushi, Little Club, Candelas, and High Tide Bottle Shop all gave our spirits a chance. Not surprisingly they are all places where we can be found enjoying a drink. Saiko makes fantastic craft cocktails, while the bartenders in Little Club all promote our drinks. High Tide created a display just for us that is front and center when you walk in the door. Candelas is a Mexican restaurant that brought in our Gin just to give us a shot. You can’t beat the view at Candelas, it’s one of the best on the bay.

IMG_0688*{ Gin, Spiced Rum & Light Rum }

11. What is the first thing someone just stumbling upon the craft liquor trend should know about the industry?

Be careful when buying craft. If it doesn’t say “Distilled By” with the name of the company on it, it was probably made somewhere else. There are a lot of “craft” distillers that don’t make their own product, and the industry is suffering from it. Well said. Thanks, Bill!

Be sure to check out Liberty Call’s tasting room (Open to the public Fridays 4-7 & Saturdays 1-5) in Spring Valley and keep a lookout for their upcoming Groupon!

Huge thanks to Daniel Dreher for the photos! Check out Dan’s website and Instagram

Share this post!

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. 

Share this post!