San Diego gets into the spirit with craft distillery tours

Fresh juice is fabulous and tonic is terrific, but at the new You & Yours Distilling Company in San Diego's East Village, the best cocktail mixer might be a jigger of knowledge.

In August, You & Yours became the latest local spirits maker to offer tours of its distillery. For $25, you can step into the back room for a close-up look at the custom-built hybrid still, a full tutorial on how the five-month old distiller whips up its vodka and gin and a generous tasting of the results.

And while you are sniffing and sipping, you will be tapping into the source of San Diego's newest buzz.

"I have seen the craft cocktail scene really opening up in San Diego," said Liz Edwards, founder of the nine-year-old San Diego Spirits Festival, which took place at the end of August at the Port Pavilion on the Broadway Pier. The first event brought in about 650 people. Attendance for this year's festival was around 4,000.

"These are people who want to go to a bar and watch a mixologist create a cocktail. People want to know, 'How did you make this? What ingredients are you using?' Education is so important."

From the potent powers of botanicals to the challenge of DIY bottling, here is a lesson in the craft behind your cocktails. There will not be a test later, and the homework is delicious.

Spirits 101

If you love the idea of drinking a local libation in a hometown distillery, you can raise a glass to the state of California.

When the Craft Distillers Act of 2015 went into effect last year, it created a new license giving small distilleries the same retailing options available to wineries and breweries, including having on-site restaurants and bars and selling their wares directly to customers.

Now that they can finally serve cocktails, some distillers are also giving customers a peek behind the production curtain.

At FruitCraft in Hillcrest, you can stop in for a mango lemon drop martini and a tour of the fermentorium. The California Spirits Company in San Marcos offers tours on Fridays and Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., and the Copper Collar Distillery in Santee and small San Diego Distillery in Spring Valley offer tours during business hours.

At the new Cutwater Spirits in Miramar, free tours of the 50,000-square-foot distillery depart on the hour from noon until 7 p.m. daily. The 35-minute jaunt guides visitors through the whole spirits journey, from fermenting and distilling through bottling and canning. You can even dip your finger in the mash itself.

Originally the spirits arm of Ballast Point Brewing, Cutwater has been in the distilling business since 2008. On the tour, cocktail fans can finally see the magic that transforms Cutwater's mash into vodka, gin, whiskey and rum.

And when they hit the tasting room, they can see what happens when mixology meets mad science.

Right now, visitors can try the tiki-inspired Bali Hai rum and the Horchata Cold Brew cocktail, which features horchata vodka and cold-brew coffee served through a nitro tap. Unlike the tour, the cocktails are not free. But the bragging rights could be priceless.

"The tasting room allows us to experiment with new spirits and new cocktails," said marketing manager Nicole Wood. "I think because of the craft brewing scene here, everyone is willing to try new things in their own backyard."

Drink and learn

It was the first day of spirits school at You & Yours Distilling, and Nea Muller and Daniel McCullough were more than ready.

"We walk by here all the time, and we finally decided to stop in," Muller said. "We needed a drink."

Owned and operated by University of San Diego graduate Laura Johnson and co-founder Luke Mahoney, You & Yours has been serving wildly inventive cocktails - the carrot-spiked Little Bunny Foo Foo and the blossom-bedecked Garden Party - since March. As East Village residents, Muller and McCullough were some of the initial tour guinea pigs.

Our guide was bar- and distillery-manager Trevor Bowles, who started things off with a bit of You & Yours history (Johnson became interested in making spirits in 2010, after touring a Cuba distillery with her father), followed by a gander at the hybrid still that Johnson and Mahoney designed.

As a hybrid, the still can produce the Y&Y Vodka and the Sunday Gin, along with experimental spirits like the rose-hips gin that was part of the tour tasting and a frightening-sounding shiitake-mushroom gin that Bowles insisted was incredible.

"We haven't named her yet," Bowles said of the gleaming still. "But we know she's a girl because she is beautiful and she can multitask."

After a crash course on how distilling works and how the addition of botanicals like juniper and citrus transform vodka into gin - "Gin is essentially flavored vodka," Bowles said - it was time to test our palates.

The tour includes tastings of Y&Y Vodka, Sunday Gin and whatever new concoction Y&Y has cooked up. It also includes some important words of tasting advice.

"You want to sniff it, but you don't want to get too close," Bowles said, holding his glass of vodka below his chin. "Otherwise, you get a lot of ethanol, which reminds me of college."

Made from a blend of California grapes instead of the more traditional corn or potato, the Y&Y Vodka tasted smooth and peppery to me, while Muller and McCullough caught hints of vanilla.

Instead of the medicinal tang you might associate with too many open-bar gin and tonics, the Sunday Gin (also made with grapes) tasted light and floral. Mid-tasting, Bowles had us smell some fresh mint, coriander and citrus peels, which brought out the kind of subtle flavor notes that you might not expect from something that comes out of a still.

Between tastings, Bowles had us try our hands at putting labels on Y&Y Vodka bottles, a task that usually falls on the small staff. Our labels went on crooked and creased, but as Muller and McCullough bellied up to the bar for post-tour drinks and Bowles turned vodka, green bell pepper juice and other surprise ingredients into a beautiful Side Salad cocktail, the enthusiasm was 100 proof.

"Seeing the hybrid still was crazy. I loved it," McCullough said. "But my label had about seven creases in it. I'm glad we weren't graded."

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