On the Scottish island of Islay, the legend is that the local waters taste and smell of peat. In San Diego, the air may have more than just legend in it as beer seems to teem from every pore of the area. But there’s a burgeoning new scene in San Diego County boiling under this Craft Beer Mecca. Distilling.
Heading east on California Highway 94, it doesn’t take long to forget the yacht clubs, naval influence, zoo, Comic-Con, Gaslamp District and picturesque skyline of San Diego. The Pacific Ocean gives way to relatively green rolling hills in drought laden SoCal, bedroom communities cascading up hillsides, and the beginnings of the desert southwest. San Diego County is Beer Country boasting over 140 breweries depending whose count you believe. But a small (13 to date) and growing (20 more on the way) group of distilleries are making whiskey in San Diego, as well as gin, rum, vodka and who knows what else. It’s a collaborative community that shares information and product, and is going to grow larger says the owner of one of these “crafty” establishments in the east county, in Spring Valley, with the simple name of San Diego Distillery.
“You know you can’t have fire without the flame
You can’t keep the fortune without the pain
That’s how he makes it when he’s on his own.”
Ratt – Way Cool Jr.
Located in the end unit of an industrial warehouse complex, San Diego Distillery is doing what many would think is difficult, if not impossible: making whiskey from grain to glass in an area the size of a small office minus the office. The head honcho and seemingly only employee is Trent Tilton. Not so shockingly, he’s a beer guy. In San Diego, finding a beer guy is like finding sunshine. It ain’t hard. But Trent’s true love is whiskey.
I met Trent in Seattle at The Jewish Whisky Company’s inaugural Northwest Whisky Jewbilee event. His booth neatly displayed a bourbon, a rye and a peated whisky. Peated whisky from San Diego?! Intriguing, to say the least. By the time I tasted the peated dram late in the evening at Jewbilee, my taste buds were shot but my interest was piqued. Investigation was required.
About a month later while in San Diego for a weekend high school regatta, I contacted Trent to see if I could bring by a few other sailing parents who “needed” a dram or two while their kids were navigating the waters of San Diego Bay. He gladly invited us over and spent a wonderful time teaching the newbies the basics of distillation and running us through a delightful tasting while showing us around.
“And just like Butch and Sundance we’ll ride until the dawn
Sipping whiskey, singing cowboy songs
On the Right Side of Wrong”
Bon Jovi – Right Side of Wrong
Imagine a warehouse office space where you walk into a small reception area. There would be a desk with someone waiting for the phone to ring in a nondescript area. Old trade journals on a cheap table. A window looking into where your order is being filled. A “mezzanine” with junk piled high. Trent took that skeleton and put meat on it. Our kind of meat. The entry is stylishly inviting with curtains over the door hiding the parking lot, a chandelier and comfy seating. It’s dark, cool and a bit mysterious. And past where that would-be receptionist sits are racks of small barrels aging his distillate. The UPS driver must love stopping here.
Trent started home brewing almost twenty years ago like any good San Diegan. The craft apparently is taught in kindergartens throughout the county. He made IPAs, stouts and barley wines while experimenting with flavors like kiwi and hibiscus. But his “ah-ha” whisky moment came after trying Lagavulin 16. The sweet spot was found. And San Diego Distillery was born in 2014.
It’s a grain to glass operation says Tilton. We’ve talked plenty before about the fortitude and will it takes with other small distilleries. SDS is no different. “It’s a lot of work, but I love it. Wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Tilton whose has a full time job to boot. Glutton for punishment some would say. Starting San Diego Distillery from nothing but a dream meant working with a small budget, forcing Tilton to compromise on equipment. “I generally have problems with that more than anything else. Making stuff work that doesn’t always work. I am always repairing something”. The many hats of a small business means working with pennies to make dollars. It also means being creative. The local brewing community is all about creativity in flavors and processes. Tilton is no different. And that’s part of what makes it fun for him.
Trema and Mara, the distillery chihuahuas, help with the the fun too. They watch Trent make a varied roster of spirits. His single distillation new make is 75-80% ABV and the final product going into barrels is 55-78% depending on the product. Luckily, the Angel’s don’t get much in this dry inland desert climate. More water is lost than alcohol. And those neatly stacked barrels range in size from 5, 10, 15 and 30 gallon. The rack area isn’t much bigger than a really large walk-in closet, but I’d rather have his inventory than old suits that don’t fit and ties from long gone days.
The SDS single malt we tried that day was 100% Vienna malt, in new oak. It was a one-off recipe. Trent bottled me a cute glass 375ml vessel that is a deep rich brown with enough barrel char swimming about to make a few sailing parents gag a bit. Too bad! That’s how I like it. The nose has a mellow oak to it while the taste is licorice, cinnamon and a bit of oatmeal. It’s big at 62% and levels out with a little air whilst one thinks of the Pacific Ocean a few miles away and the screaming Navy jets over Mission Bay.
But Tilton’s own home brew Russian Imperial stout recipe will become 75% of production over the next year. “It’s a pretty amazing distillate,” he says adding that he has, “four barrels of this recipe that are all test barrels: one new oak, one ex-rye, one Oloroso/PX, and one ex-cold coffee barrel.” Uh, ex-coffee barrel…
Any coffee geeks out there? Trent is one too and had us try this wacky experiment with his single malt 7-grain recipe. “I work with a local cold brew coffee manufacturer who barrel ages cold brew coffee, then I get the barrel back and age whiskey in it.” Starbucks ain’t doing that.
His rye is in new and used oak with a big 75% rye content. “I have some rye sitting in ex-rye barrels. Very much a scotch style kind of maturation, light, big rye, delicate. Awesome.”
“I don’t want to drink my whiskey like you do
I don’t need to spend my money but still do
Well don’t stop now come on
Another drop now so come on
I want a lot now so come on”
Quiet Riot – Mama Weer All Crazee Now
The barley for the peated single malt comes from Scotland via a third party. It’s heavily peated from the UK’s Bairds Malt and most likely Port Ellen, says Tilton proudly as a picture of Ardbeg’s Mickey Heads looms in the stylish restroom. The bottle he labeled up for me clocked in at 65% ABV and smells of a young whisky with an earthy peatiness to it. There’s a bite to it and a slow growing smoke that takes over the mouth. It’s sweet like Kilchoman with a nice richness that will get better with a longer stay in a wooden home.
As we’ve noted, San Diego is noted for its creativity. Those beer folks are always jonesing for something crazy. Maybe that’s where Trent gets it from. He says that he’s distilled peanut butter beer then aged it an ex-rye barrel. Uh, ok. And there is a distilled red wine aging in ex-peat barrels. Plus, that Russian Imperial stout in ex-coffee. Slow down, Trent! I can’t keep up! “I have some fun barrels aging,” he says without giving much away.
And what about that aging for such a young company? Trent is a bit coy here too, “three months to…next question.” Though he plans to have barrels down for a number of years with plenty of “top secret” projects along the way.
He also makes a clear brandy from local wine going into 3rd fill barrels. With wine being yet another booze industry in the county, it’s reasonable to see a fair amount of sharing of barrels and product with the whisky and beer folks. There’s also a 100% cane sugar rum aged with the distillery’s used oak staves. “Sugar to Glass” with no added sweeteners or spices. At 45% ABV, it’s very approachable, light and filled with burnt flavors of orange and brown sugar.
Trent can’t pick a favorite in the San Diego Distillery. They’re all his babies. No Sophie’s Choice here. And outside his babies? “I am often found with craft product or peated whiskey. I drink a lot of Westland and Laphroaig. Sprinkle in a lot of other craft product, FEW, Kings County, Wigle, Corsair, Balcones… people always ask, that if I had to sit down with one dram, I often choose Hellyers Road 10 from Tasmania.”
“Baby, yeah, I think that you’re headed for some trouble
If you take your whiskey home”
Van Halen – Take Your Whiskey Home
And how does a full-time distiller with a full-time job spend his tons of free time? Until recently he shredded guitar in 3-hour sets covering 35-45 songs in a local ’80’s hair metal band aptly named Way Cool Jr.? Most people go to the gym. But this is San Diego. Now, Trent is pouring himself into more hours distilling.
Currently San Diego Distillery is working on a distribution plan to get into higher end retail outlets in California. Until then, you can only buy their spirits at the distillery. You may see Trent at the San Diego Spirits Festival in August too. Wherever you do see him, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll have something you’ve never tried before. Young, full of energy and plenty of guitar licks, Trent Tilton is making a mark in Beer Country, USA. As a creative distiller.