Distiller Interview: Michael Skubic, Old Harbor Distilling Co.

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{ 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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