June 23 2015 09:00 PM

Micro-distilleries like Malahat, Old Harbor and Kill Devil want the artisanal liquor business to be just as booming as the beer

The Malahat Spirits Company tasting room

Tony Grillo knew he was taking a chance. The co-founder of Malahat Spirits and his partners (Tom Bleakley and Ken Lee) had decided to build a tasting room in their Miramar distillery to show off their line of artisanal, small-batch rums. They even hired a highly respected designer (Michael Soriano) to create the space. The problem was that Grillo didn't even know if they'd legally be allowed to serve their product.

"When we started this, there was no law that would allow us to have a presentation room like this, but we knew that the law was being voted on in Sacramento," says Grillo, speaking about Assembly Bill 933, which was passed and signed into law in September 2013, and allowed liquor artisans in California to serve tastings of their products much like wineries and breweries have been allowed to do for decades. "We took a gamble that the presentation room laws would change and they did just before we opened our tasting room at the beginning of 2014."

Malahat is just one of the local distilleries that has taken advantage of the passage of AB 933. Almost half a dozen spirit companies, serving a wide variety of booze, have added tasting rooms to their existing facilities. They're still not legally allowed to sell patrons a bottle of what they've just tasted (you could blame the liquor store lobby for that) and the samples are decidedly small (a quarter-ounce serving and limited to six samples; the equivalent of about a shot and a half per tasting). But it has brought some attention to a local artisan spirits scene that, for the most part, has remained under the radar.

"It's definitely a lot more difficult than the beer game," says Michael Skubic, founder and head distiller at the East Village-based Old Harbor Distilling Company, which specializes in limited batch gin, rum and coffee liquor. "Even the fire codes are more difficult than having a brewery."

Skubic knows a little something about the craft drink movement. The now 28-year-old helped found Mike Hess Brewing back when he was still a student at Point Loma Nazarene University. While he still has a soft spot for the beer trade, he admits that the local beer market seems a little "tighter" these days. He likens the spirits push to the early days of the craft beer movement, when there was a much more communal vibe and not as much competitiveness. 

"I think I sent the first email to help start the San Diego Distillers Guild and said something like, 'Hey, there's a decent amount of us now, let's band together to raise the tide instead of having a lobsters-in-a-bucket-type situation," says Skubic, who started Old Harbor in 2013. "If everybody is producing a good product, then we can all smile together."

Even so, breweries are also getting in on the action. Twisted Manzanita and Ballast Point are both brewing up more than beer in their respective Santee and Miramar locations. Both companies offer whiskies and "moonshine" (Writer's note: I put "moonshine" in quotes because I'm a southerner and, well, where I'm from we don't call something that's 98 proof "moonshine." We call it "diluted"). Ballast Point in particular is diving head first into the spirits game by also offering two brands of gin, three brands of rum, and an herbal liqueur that's similar to Fernet. Ballast even offers Bloody Mary and Mai Tai cocktail mixers, which are already starting to get premium shelf space in local liquor stores. 

Still, when it comes to marketing and branding, all these companies know that its getting people to taste their products that's key to getting customers to buy a bottle at retail. Most people aren't gong to spend $30 or more on a premium liquor, artisanal or not, if there's another premium brand that's cheaper and familiar. And while the new tasting rooms and festival appearances will certainly help, Skubic knows that bartenders and mixologists are the real key to people trying his product. 

"What I've started to see recently is bartenders actually caring a little more about using the local product," says Skubic. "I still think we're very early on in that game, but hopefully that will be something that'll shake out similar to the beer industry." 

Email editor@sdcitybeat.com or follow Seth on Twitter at @combsseth.


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