By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Jason Swinford is banking on the day consumers will demand locally made spirits, much like they do craft beer.
The trend has actually begun in niche circles around the globe, which is why he made the leap from food truck operator to budding distiller three years ago.
More recently, he added a 400-square-foot tasting room to his Grantville-based business, Swinford Spirits, which produces artisan gin, plus vodka contained in self-infuser bottles, and Canadian whiskey he imports and enhances with toasted quinoa and organic ginger.
A resident of South Park, Swinford took an interest in making spirits through a course at Downslope Distilling near Denver and started experimenting with techniques when returning home. He previously owned Recess, a food truck from which he sold salads, burgers and sandwiches.
“I probably made about 100 gallons of gin at first that was absolute garbage. I had to throw it away,” he said. “Regardless what you’re taught in the courses, you have to get right in and start doing it.”
After persistent honing, he launched the distillery at 5980 Fairmount Ave., across the parking lot from Home Depot, and introduced a trio of branded spirits to the local market. His crisp Foxlore Gin (90 proof) is crafted with orange and lemon peel, as well as a touch of licorice root. As with his other two products, no sugar is added.
“Gin is the fastest growing spirit category in the world — up 14 percent globally,” he notes. “People who normally hate it are blown away when drinking this straight.”
Consumers become the flavor drivers when it comes to his 80-proof Lingo Vodka, which is made with organic wheat from northern Italy and distilled six times. It’s sold in BPA-free Tritan bottles with “infuser baskets” affixed to their wide screw caps.
Swinford has a patent pending on the bottle design, which allows drinkers to infuse the vodka with everything from cinnamon and jalapenos to citrus, berries, roasted garlic or even bacon for making deluxe Bloody Marys. But there are limits.
“I screwed around once with Skittles and it was gross,” he quipped.
Swinford’s Lumberjack Lily Whiskey (84 proof) is nutty and intriguingly spicy while maintaining the classic, light body of its Canadian pedigree. The quinoa and ginger in the recipe tamps down the masculine, smoky overtones inherent to the whiskey. Hence, he named it with the hopes of captivating the reported one-third of whiskey drinkers who are women.
“Whiskey is always marketed to men, and often with misogynistic messages. So with the words ‘Lumberjack’ and ‘Lily’ in the name, it makes people stop and think.”
When purchased from the tasting room, which doubles as a retail shop, both the whiskey and gin sell for $29 per bottle. The vodka, with its built-in infuser, is $22.
By state law, customers can purchase up to three bottles (to go) per day. Those dropping in for tastings are served a maximum of 1.5 ounces per person, per day. They can be sampled in $6 flights or in crafty cocktails for $8 each.
Slowly but surely, the Swinford label is gaining traction offsite. The products are currently distributed to 30 retailers throughout San Diego County — in liquor stores, restaurants, bars and markets. They include Bully’s East in Mission Valley, Pardon My French in Hillcrest, Spike Africa’s Fresh Fish Grill & Bar downtown, and Stump’s Family Marketplace in Ocean Beach.
Swinford has relied partly on social media to increase his branding. He also participates in events held by the San Diego Distillers Guild and offers his modernly appointed tasting room free of charge to local businesses seeking a space to hold private events and parties.
“What’s really exciting about the local distilling scene is that there’s a lot of camaraderie within it, just like there is in the craft beer scene,” he said. “We’re a niche group and people are still learning the differences between a distillery and a brewery. It’s important to make something that is both craft and accessible at a reasonable price point. I’m creating spirits because this is where the market is headed.”
Swinford Spirits is open from noon to 7 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. For more information, call 844-933-7465, or visit swinfordspirits.com.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press) and began his local writing career as a staff writer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.