Distiller Interview: Trent Tilton of San Diego Distillery

Distillerista-Trent-Tilton-Distiller-Interview

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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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:

 

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