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. 

Five Favorites: American Craft Vodka

Top 5 Craft Vodkas Distillerista

Although considered a bit of a black sheep in the craft cocktail world, Vodka happens to have several redeeming qualities, at least if you ask me. Besides the conveniently low calorie content, Vodka has a mellow flavor profile and is therefore an ideal neutral base for at home cocktails. Notice I did not say odorless or flavorless. In my opinion, any Vodka worth drinking should have both a subtle aroma and a nuanced flavor profile when tasted straight. Here are five of my craft Vodka favorites that fit that bill.

  1. Silver Tree Vodka | Leopold Bros. Distillery | Denver, CO

Arguably one of – if not THE – finest American-made vodkas actually being made from scratch these days. Head Distiller Todd Leopold uses a blend of wheat, potatoes and malted barley to get a final product that goes down almost too easily.

  1. George Spirits All Purpose | St. George Spirits | Alameda, CA

St. George originally made Hangar 1 Vodka (next up on the list) but have since sold the product line to Proximo and recently completed their contract to keep producing it for them. Now they’ve launched a new and equally delectable line of their own. The current lineup includes a straight “All Purpose” version they make from a corn-based spirit and pear Eau de Vie, as well as Green Chile and California Citrus options.

  1. Hangar 1 Straight | Hangar 1 Vodka | Alameda, CA

Now made by one of the few female Head Distillers in the country – Caley Maker – from a blend of a wheat-based neutral grain spirit and a grape Eau de Vie that softens the heat perfectly. One of my all-time favorites.

  1. Spring 44 Vodka | Spring 44 Distilling | Loveland, CO

Spring 44’s claim to fame is where they get their water. It’s supposedly collected from a Rocky Mountain artesian mineral spring in Colorado’s Buckhorn Canyon. Personally, I take slight issue with using water as a marketing ploy, seeing as it really only comes into play in the final proofing stages of distilling, but you simply can’t argue with the smoothness of Spring 44. Also not to be missed is their Honey Vodka made with Colorado honey straight from the comb.

  1. Prairie Organic | Prairie Organic Spirits

Heads up, I’m throwing in something a little more commercial. The jury’s out on the actual “craft-ness” of this so-called craft vodka, seeing as there’s seemingly no physical distillery location to speak of. Nonetheless, I’ve noticed that if a a bar manager isn’t a fan of vodka but still has to stock it, this is the one they most often choose to have on hand. It also happens to be pretty damn good and easy to find nationwide.

Honorable Mention: Woody Creek. This 100% potato vodka received double gold at this year’s World Spirits Competition in San Fransisco a.k.a. like, the Oscars of distilling.

Are you a Vodka drinker? Have you tried any of these? If so, let me know your favorites in the comments below!

A Gringa’s Guide to Baja

Guide To Baja HeaderWhen I first heard about a supposedly world class wine region lurking less than a couple hours’ drive from my home, I knew I had to get there and see for myself. All it took was one trip down to Valle de Guadalupe (A village and wine region located in the Ensenada municipality of Baja California, Mexico) and I knew I’d found my new go-to weekend getaway locale. Incredible wines, insanely talented chefs, plenty of affordable beach front accommodation nearby and mere minutes in the car… what more can you ask for? The following is my guide to a perfect 48 hours in Baja.

Baja Map Guide{ Map of Baja | Refinery 29 }

A few essentials…

Good to know:

  • Don’t bring Pesos. Everywhere takes USD.
  • It goes without saying, but don’t forget your Passports.

Good to bring:

  • We like to bring groceries for dinner one night and breakfast each day. This is obviously only applicable if you rent a place. See accommodation suggestions below.
  • iPod/iPhone speakers and games.

Good to buy once you’re across the border:

  • Booze & produce. We like to stop at a MEGA super store (there’s one just off the highway on your left, as you come up on Rosarito) and pick up tequila and beer for the weekend. We also get things like limes and other citrus for making drinks. There’s just something about those cute little Mexican limes.

Gaviotas Daylight Baja{ View from our rental }

First thing’s, first. Accommodation. I like to rent a house with friends in this super-secure gated community just south of Rosarito, but I’ve also heard great things about this resort nearby if you’re not hyped on the rental thing. Alternatively, you can stay in the Valle – there are tons of cool glamping and yurt/pod options, but my crew prefers to be by the ocean so they can take advantage of the pretty consistent surf around that area.

pouring tequila{ Luke’s Margaritas… Lime + Honey + Tequila + Splash of OJ + Tajin rim }

Friday: We usually leave the San Diego area around 3pm. This ensures minimal traffic (beware, minimal is a relative term when crossing an international border) and plenty of time for settling in and making a round of margaritas (or two) before the sun sets. It can be as few as 45 minutes “door to door”, from downtown SD to our rental community in Las Gaviotas. Seriously, it’s just too easy. But if you do run into gridlock, the good news is you can always stop by Misión 19 in Tijuana for killer apps and craft cocktails to break up the trip.

Margs Cheers{ Cheers! Off to the beach. }

Since we’ve just arrived, we usually take a walk through the grounds, as Gaviotas has a great community pool deck and jacuzzi down by the beach, and then cook a big dinner at the house. Most of the rentals have outdoor grills, and there’s a convenience store/mini market just across the street if you need to pick up charcoal, a missing ingredient or more beer.

grill at sunset{ Grill going at sunset }

From there we settle in, open a few good bottles of wine, and usually end up on the couch playing Heads Up or Cards Against Humanity.

sunset clouds baja{ Gorgeous clouds over Ensenada}

Saturday: The guys wake early to surf, and the girls get to work on breakfast at a leisurely hour. After a long breakfast, we crack a few beers and head back down to the common areas. There’s always a good dose of LA hipster cats running around, so you’re sure to have some interesting, if not entertaining, poolside conversation.

I know what you’re thinking… It’s already well into Saturday and we haven’t really done anything yet. Take my word for it, once you’re down there soaking up the sun and salt water, you won’t want to do anything that involves more effort than walking back to the house to make another round of margaritas. However, we do like to get out and about a bit so we usually end up hopping in a taxi for lunch or drinks at one of the nearby beach clubs. Ask the gate staff/resort staff or cab drivers for the go-to spots that time of year.

baja cheese board{ Sunset spread: Sun-dried Tomato Pesto, Meat + Cheese, Modelos }

At some point there’s a nap involved, then maybe a bottle of white on the patio. From there we venture in town (Rosarito) for tacos at Tacos El Yaqui. This is my happy place. There are two options – carne asada or carne asada (see what I did there), so don’t bring your unfortunate vegan friends. Also, prepare to wait in line for a decent 20-25 minutes. Don’t worry, it’s worth it. Side note: I’d love to be able to tell you there’s a whole slew of fabulous places for a nice dinner in Rosarito but unfortunately I haven’t found one yet that I’d ever dream of recommending, let alone mentioning here. They seem to be keeping all the good food in the Valle these days. If I’m missing out on a diamond in the rough, please tell me!

If your crew is game, keep it going at one of the spring break-esque bars on the main strip. A certain someone in my circle (you know who you are) is partial to a semi-sketchy spot called Papas & Beer. The time I’ve spent at this establishment is very fuzzy in retrospect, so take this morsel of advice at your own risk.

Grapes{ Baby grapes at El Mogor }

Sunday: My favorite part of the weekend. We wake up early, pack our bags, eat a quick breakfast and get picked up by a friend of ours who lives and works in Tijuana. She knows her way around the Valle and by ten AM we’re well on our way to a blissful day full of incredible food, stellar wines and the inevitable shot (or two) of mezcal. P.S. This is my current fave.

Las Nubes{ Incredible views from Las Nubes‘ outdoor patio }

Another great thing about the Valle is that it’s increasing popularity means most locals – cab drivers in particular – know exactly how to get there and get around. You can haggle a seriously affordable deal the day of if you lead the conversation with exactly where you want to go and how many hours you want to spend. Walk up to a taxi line and give the driver the names of the wineries you want to visit, how many people you have and at what time you want to get dropped back off at your hotel/rental. With any luck, you’ll score a van for up to 6 people, for the whole day, for no more than $200 total. If you’re not feeling that aggressive, these people do great tours of the Valle you can book in advance.

deckmans floating flowers baja{ Cozy barn setting at Deckman’s en El Mogor }

food table baja{ Just a few of the incredible dishes by Chef Drew Deckman }

Deckman's el mogor{ Al fresco kitchen & dining | Deckman’s }

Lunch at Deckmans{ A sweet private table overlooking the vineyards | Deckman’s }

Flowers Glasses Mezcal{ Sunflowers, empty glasses and a Mezcal shot for the road }

Our girl switches up the wineries we visit each trip, but here’s a list of my favorites.

  • La Lomita. Beautiful tasting room with great atmosphere. It’s worth pointing out, however, that you can somehow buy their wines for cheaper at any Southern California Whole Foods.
  • Mogor Badan. Gorgeous setting and the chef in residence at the moment, Drew Deckman, is legendary. Plan to hit this place around lunch time.
  • El Cielo. Picturesque vineyards with a luxury B&B on property. 
  • Tres Mujeres. The wines here are super affordable and over-deliver on quality. Like the name suggests, three women act as co-winemakers.
  • Adobe Guadalupe. Also features an Inn on property.
  • Sol de Media Noche. This place is a MUST. You get to try a whole tray of different cheeses from their creamery, as well as several wines. Also be sure to pick up one of their spicy tapenades or salad dressings!
  • Las Nubes. Incredible views of the Valle. Grab a bottle of their white blend and spend some time on the patio. 
  • Finca Altozano. Another lunch spot and a must for any first-timers. Baja’s current darling, Chef Javier Plascencia, heads up this al fresco establishment. Make sure to try the pulpo!

We head back toward the border, sleepy and satisfied, around 5:30 PM. Make sure someone in your party plans to stay sober to drive back that evening. The last thing you want topping off the perfect weekend is a border patrol officer on a power trip sending you to secondary for smelling like white wine. Not that that’s ever happened or anything.

Have any other Baja travel tips for me? Please share in the comments!

Big Batch Bourbon Cocktail

{Anthropologie Glassware | BB&B Mason Jar Drink Dispenser}

This cocktail is a special one, as it’s a bit famous (or should I say infamous?) amongst my family and friends. It’s been a catalyst for many a late/questionable night, as well as the signature drink for countless get-togethers and celebrations. This mix of citrusy, maple-y goodness coupled with sweet bourbon and a bit of spice makes this a great choice anytime of year, day or night (seriously, we may or may not have finished a carafe by noon before). Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… Luke’s Whiskey Cocktail.

Whiskey Cocktail IngredientsMakes roughly 10-12 Bourbon cocktails.

Ingredients:

  • 1 QT {or roughly half a 2 QT bottle} Spiced apple or pear cider (I’m partial to Trader Joe’s versions)
  • 1 750 mL Bottle good-but-not-too-good Straight Bourbon (We like using Bulleit for this)
  • Juice of 10 or so lemons
  • 2 16.9 Oz Bottles of something bubbly… I like to use a mix of sparkling water and Ginger Ale to keep the sweetness down, but lemon lime and/or club soda would work equally as well

Directions:

  1. In a large drink dispenser or punch bowl carefully pour in your cider and Bourbon.
  2. Squeeze the lemons into the mixture, careful not to get any seeds in the drink. We recommend deseeding the leftover juiced lemons and dropping them into the bowl/dispenser for color, aesthetic and extra lemon flavor.
  3. 10 minutes before guests arrive, add lots of ice and your desired effervescence.
  4. Give it a quick stir with a long wooden spoon, pour and enjoy!

Tray of CocktailsExtras:

  • I love an autumnal riff on this where we sub a quarter to half of the cider for rosemary maple simple syrup.
  • Leave a small bottle of bitters beside the cocktail so guests can add a dash or two for extra depth!
  • Sub half the lemons for grapefruits for a tart & summery, less-sweet version.

Cider Whiskey CocktailWhiskey Cocktail LemonDrink Dispenser Whiskey TablescapeTray of Whiskey Cocktails

[Special thanks to Megan Burgess of Shortography for the gorgeous photos!]

Introducing Distillerista

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Hi there! I’m Laura, your friendly neighborhood Distillerista. A Texas native, California transplant, and lover of all things food and drink. I’ve worked in publishing, finance, tech, fashion and wine, but what I’m most excited about these days is the ever-expanding popularity of American-made craft spirits and – more importantly – the distillers and stories behind those spirits.

In creating Distillerista I aim to help thoughtful drinkers – such as yourself! – better understand the art and craft of distilling so that they can make better informed purchases and enjoy elevated imbibing experiences.

The journey that led me to create Distillerista has been an absolute joy. I’ve taken the last year to learn from and work under some of the best distillers and industry leaders America has to offer. Now, I’m back home in Southern California and thrilled to share the next phase of this ride.

In addition to serving as a one-stop resource for all things craft distilling, Distillerista will be your window into my day-to-day as my team and I embark on the incredibly exciting, albeit lengthy road to opening my first distillery! Set in San Diego, CA and slated for a 2016 grand opening. More delicious details to come.

As mentioned, expect to find a wealth of information and education pertaining to craft distilling and spirits here at Distillerista. Including – but not limited to – drilled-down distilling know-how, industry trends, easy cocktail recipes, fun entertaining ideas, and a peek behind the (sometimes smoky) curtain of America’s modern day liquor business.

I hope you’ll find something you enjoy. ‘Til then, sign up for the Distillerista Newsletter on the side bar to the right. I’m thrilled to have you here. Cheers!