Feb. 26 2014 06:26 PM

Brewing titan invites San Diego to see its harder side

Pharmacies used to be so much cooler
Photo by Ian Cheesman

Just because I'm best known as a beer writer doesn't mean that's all I have to offer. With my expansive literary pedigree, I'm capable of delivering witty and biting commentary on virtually any fluid. That's why I was the logical understudy to cover Ballast Point's new speakeasy in Scripps Ranch (10051 Old Grove Road) when Cocktail Tales columnist Kelly Davis discovered that the brake lines on her car had somehow all spontaneously severed.

With the passing of Assembly Bill 933, California distillers are now allowed to serve tastes of their wares. That legislative hurdle, while just an extension of the same courtesy extended to beer, realizes a dream more than seven years in the making for Ballast Point. Craft spirits can now be explored with (nearly) the same accessibility as their brews, giving them a new foothold in San Diego and us a new way to get a smidge drunker. Win-win.

It should be mentioned that brewing skills don't immediately translate into distilling prowess. While the magic of fermentation is common to both, the techniques and ingredients available to distilled spirits is comparatively limiting. That said, Ballast Point co-founder Yuseff Cherney is able to put his stamp on distilled spirits in part by leveraging his brewing past. For example, his recipe for Devil's Share bourbon whiskey not only uses the same house yeast as many of Ballast Point's beers; it also favors barley in a large percentage of the mash (where corn would typically reside) to elicit different flavors. 

"We're not confined by tradition. We're stepping out and doing different stuff that the big guys haven't or don't want to," he shares.

Referring to the spirits tasting room as a "speakeasy" isn't entirely a gimmick. While Ballast Point was able to situate it in its existing Old Grove Road facility, it was legally required to sequester it from the beer-tasting area (likely in an effort to keep tensions from flaring up between rival gangs of drink snobs).  However, the demand to keep them distinct really only heightens the allure, making the snug, apothecary-style room feel worlds apart from the casual revelry of beer enjoyment just around the corner. The jars and beakers lining the walls remind you that this is no soda shop; it's home to potent concoctions that demand your full attention.

Visits to the speakeasy are coordinated as public tours every couple of hours at a cost of $10. That fee includes a walk-through of the distilling facilities and six quarter-ounce samples of various spirits. You can drink less if you so choose, but the law mandates you will not have more. The sampling menu is fixed but will vary throughout the year to highlight different products from the continually growing stable of award-winning spirits. 

Those distinctions are important to bear in mind before heading over, as the experience is hardly akin to the casual beer sampling available just outside the tasting room's doors. This is more like a Disneyland ride that whisks you away to a different world with new spectacles to behold but is unmistakably on rails. Think of it as a fun diversion or a chance to get more intimate with the San Diego craft-spirits scene at minimal expense, and you won't be disappointed.  

Write to ianc@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com, or follow @iancheesman on Twitter or read his blog, iancheesman.wordpress.com.


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