Distiller Interview: Michael Skubic, Old Harbor Distilling Co.

Old-Harbor-Cover-Skubic-Distillerista

{ 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

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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

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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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