By B.J. Coleman
In the classic Yuletide story, “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge had to be visited by frightening ghosts for the spirit of holiday generosity to overcome his customary selfish miserliness. Fortunately for San Diegans, local Christmas spirits that warm the heart are not such scary specters — they are available from area beer makers that have expanded from brewing into distilling.
Three local breweries tell the tale of adding liquors into the mix of craft brewing. Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits began distilling in 2008, the first such endeavor in Southern California since Prohibition. Santee’s BNS Brewing & Distilling Co. was intended from the enterprise’s 2013 beginning to handle both, and the owners are now laying final plans for the distilling side’s tasting room.
Jeff Trevaskis is president and founder of Twisted Manzanita Ales & Spirits, also in Santee, which is at the mid-range of distillery development. Brewers with his operation have been home distilling for a couple of years, moving through experimenting and expanding into making liquors for the business through 2013.
“This was just a natural thing, to go from one to the other,” Trevaskis said. “The washes in beer are similar to the washes in whiskey.”
He cautions, however, “This is a totally different animal.”
In his assessment, craft distilling today is at about the same level as craft distilling was in 1986. He expects distillery development to proceed at an accelerated pace, given the knowledge and experience brewers have grown and shared throughout their industry.
To further explain the “natural” business growth, Trevaskis notes the savings from already having much of the equipment necessary for distilling. The startup costs were less, building out from brewery operations. The only full-time employee added for the expansion was distiller Jake Pitman.
Twisted Manzanita’s group moved into distilling, in what Trevaskis describes as “a nontraditional way.” They designed and built their own still, a hybrid of the pot and column styles.
“We did the engineering up front, and the product we make has a different profile,” he explained.
The intent has been to use pure, quality ingredients to make liquors that have a “different mouth feel, to cut down on the burn.” And the distilling side of the business has adopted the tagline, “The Softer Side of Spirits.”
Manzanita’s SoCal Moonshine and Oaked Moonshine are in distribution now, and the Rebellious Rye Whiskey will be out and available after the first of the year. Twisted Manzanita has distribution agreements in California, Arizona and Maryland.
Trevaskis expresses consternation over the fact that current laws and regulations treat liquors, beers and wines each as a separate class of alcohol, with differing rules to follow. Only as of January 2014 could distillers offer on-site tastings under California law. And they are limited to a tasting of 1 1/2 oz. in total servings.
Wineries operate with the loosest restrictions and can sell directly to buyers. Brewers can fill customers’ growlers under rigid guidelines. By contrast, craft distillers must work in the “three-tier” system, selling liquors to distributors who sell to retailers, who in turn offer the products to customers.
Trevaskis shakes his head, saying, “And because brandy is based on distilling grapes, I can hand sell that.” But none of the other liquors from Twisted Manzanita can be freely dispensed or sold in bottles on premises, even to eager customers who want more. He estimates that a “small place” like his could sell around 100 bottles each month.
And that makes marketing strategies different.
“Beer is marketed to a person,” Trevaskis explained. “Even the tap handles behind a bar raise visibility to beer drinkers.”
With liquors, the distiller has to make bartenders “enthusiastic.”
Not that Trevaskis should be too concerned. On a recent December day, the small sampler set included an impressive, sweet limoncello (60 proof) made with fresh lemons, and a delicious orange vodka based solely on fresh oranges, no added flavor infusion (80 proof). This orange liquor was Bronze Medal Winner at the San Diego International Spirits Festival. At that competition, Manzanita’s Moonshine earned a silver medal. And the 95-proof Rebellious Rye Whiskey took a bronze medal at the 2014 International Wine and Spirits Competition.
Manzanita’s holiday beers include the fall-to-winter Witch’s Hair Pumpkin Ale, an excellently balanced drink to the bottom of the glass, based on over 30 pounds of pumpkin per barrel, matched with pie spices, with vanilla and raisin flavors, and the wintry Enlightenmint, a chocolate mint stout available from December through February. The heft of this flavorful and warming dark brew is wrapped in a creamy, delicate drinkability.
Trevaskis expressed sympathy toward nearby BNS Brewing & Distilling, saying, “Wes Richey is probably over there right now, concentrating on the beer side, to get ready for the distilling.”
Indeed, Richey, president and owner of BNS, was juggling oversight of deliveries into the brewery by forklift with scheduled supply pick-ups and beer deliveries. He gestures toward the area of the building facing Woodside Avenue.
“That is where the tasting room is going to be located,” he said.
BNS has received approval to offer six-spirits taster sets to the public, saying, “BNS vodka, gin, whiskey and bourbon are on the way.”
Seasonal beers being poured at BNS during December include The Jackyl Pumpkin Pale Ale, Model 1859 Märzen, and the peppery pair of Los Banditos (Serrano-Cilantro Golden Ale) and Pistoleros (Habanero-Papaya IPA). BNS also has some barrel-aged beers in the making. Expect Christmas specials as well. And BNS Gatling Gun Imperial Stout remains the brewery choice to leave out with cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve.
Ballast Point has the most distilled offerings and widest local availability, as would be expected of the brewing enterprise that made the first Southern California foray into liquors. For the second year in a row, Ballast Point won the “California Distillery of the Year” award at the New York International Spirits Competition. Lead brewer Yuseff Cherney, who also heads the distilling side of the business, has described distilling as the next logical step for quality brewers. Ballast Point Spirits kicked off formally about five years ago. Old Grove Gin was their first liquor, followed in quick order by rum, whiskey and bourbon. And Ballast Point brings the craft style into distilling, opting for virgin charred American oak barrels for all their liquors, not just the bourbons. Cherney traveled to Kentucky for distillation conferences, which ultimately pushed the “spirited” endeavor of business expansion beyond beers.
Johnny Seiber, a home brew advisor for Ballast Point, recently spent time working at the distilling facilities.
“We offer the whole board of liquors,” Seiber said.
The barrel-rested version of Ballast Point’s gin, for example, delivers flavors of pine and cinnamon, he said. Other spirits offered include three rums, moonshine, and a liqueur named Opah, which has robust flavors of cinnamon and anise. Ballast Point also produces four flavored vodkas in the “Taco Shop Series,” based around habanero peppers, horchata, hibiscus flowers and pineapple. Visitors to the distillery tasting room can also sample Ballast Point’s bourbon and single-malt whiskey.
Seiber explains that, by law, the brewery and the distillery must be separate business entities. Employees work for and are paid from one or the other.
Ballast Point has further expanded business lines with a pair of cocktail mixers. The bloody mary mix is delicious and spicy. Seiber advises that the mixed cocktail is best with Old Grove Gin, instead of any vodka. The Mai Tai mix is similarly satisfyingly fruit-juiced, awaiting a splash of rum.
“We bring our love of craft brewing into how we make the spirits,” Seiber said. “We use brewing yeast and brewing malt that is the Cadillac of malts. In our rum, we use only certified organic cane sugar.”
Big holiday beer events for Ballast Point revolve around the third annual Victory at Sea Day on Dec. 21. Specialty versions of the brewery’s tasty imperial porter are being poured throughout the month, leading up to the culmination on the Sunday before Christmas, when variations on Victory at Sea infused with peppermint, or flavored with rum, bourbon, chocolate cherry, peanut chocolate or orange fennel will be featured.
Twisted Manzanita Spirits is located at 10149 Prospect Ave. in Santee, next door to the companion brewery. For sampling spirits there, the tasting room is open on Fridays and Saturdays from 5 – 10 p.m. Six quarter-ounce shots go for $5. Bottles of Twisted Manzanita’s “softer side” spirits can be purchased from several retailers in East County. More information can be found at twistedmanzanita.com.
BNS Brewing & Distilling is at 10960 Wheatlands Ave., Suite 101. The holiday season tap list and updates on the distillery tasting room can be reviewed at bnsbrewinganddistilling.com.
Ballast Point’s beer tasting room can be found at the brewery’s San Diego River Valley location at 5401 Linda Vista Road. The location began as Home Brew Mart in 1992, and has been a Ballast Point Brewing outlet since 1996. Further to the north, Ballast Point’s Scripps Ranch site holds its distillery, where the venturesome may sample liquors. Visit it at 10051 Old Grove Road, off I-15 at the Carroll Canyon exit. Guided tours, limited to 15 people per group, set off every two hours during afternoons at 1, 3, 5, and 7 p.m. (Sunday’s last tour is at 5 p.m., with the facility closing at 7 p.m.) Details are at ballastpoint.com.
—Contact B.J. Coleman at firstname.lastname@example.org.