We Have Spirits, Yes We Do


By Frank Sabatini Jr.

A new state law that went into effect January 1 has local distillers raising their glasses to the fact that consumers can now purchase up to six quarter-ounce pours of their liquid gold within the facilities in which they are made. Prior restrictions meant distilleries had to give samples away for free, in teenier sips. Regulations still abound, but tasting rooms for whiskeys, rums, vodkas and other craft spirits are emerging at a rapid clip. America’s beer capital may soon have another reason to cheer, and the proof won’t only be in the pudding.

Bartelmo Limoncello
18011 Bluegrass Rd., Ramona
No phone number yet,

When the proprietors of Hacienda de las Rosas Winery imbibed Dennis Bartelmo’s homemade limoncello, they offered him an invitation to make the lip-smacking lemon liqueur commercially on their property.

“I’m ready to rock and roll,” says Bartelmo as he awaits licensing, which will enable him to crank out small batches of the product using lemons sourced from San Diego and Mexico.

Bartelmo introduces a modified family recipe that involves peeling the fruit by hand and making the simple syrup in Old World style. He describes his popular Italian digestive, which rings in at 80 proof and comes in 375-milliliter bottles, as “Lemonhead candy on steroids.”

Kill Devil Spirit
2766 Via Orange Way, Ste. O, Spring Valley

An intimate, onsite tasting room is in the works and due to open late- February at this East County spirits facility, where unfiltered RX Vodka is redistilled 12 times for an ultra-smooth outcome. Owner and distiller Ray Digilio, who served on the California Artisanal Distillers Guild to help ensure freer industry growth, also flaunts Ugly California Moonshine, a hybrid moonshine whiskey that won a bronze medal at last year’s World Spirits Competition in San Francisco.

“It’s 90 proof, yet it isn’t too punchy. In terms of taste, it falls between tequila and rum,” says Digilio, adding that he’ll start barreling traditional whiskey in the next quarter before encroaching on gin and rum.

Both RX Vodka and Ugly California Moonshine can be found locally at The Tipsy Crow, Southpaw Social Club, The Blind Burro and Stingaree, among other popular venues.

Malahat Spirits
8706 Production Ave., Miramar

In a symbolic nod to the dark days of Prohibition, Ken Lee and his two business partners named their upcoming distillery after The Malahat, a West Coast schooner that traveled south from British Columbia, making illegal deliveries of spirits to cities along the way, including San Diego. According to historical records, the vessel carried up to 60,000 cases of booze at a time.

At the 5,000-square-foot Malahat facility designed by Michael Soriano (Vin de Syrah, Queenstown Public House, The Pearl Hotel and more), rums are in the making, with whiskeys scheduled to follow.

“One of the key aspects to our facility is that we’re using a smaller still in addition to our main one; the smaller still allows us to experiment more with different recipes,” says Lee, referring in part to the alchemy his team applied to making white rum. “We went through 24 different combinations of ingredients and techniques before we had the perfect flavor, adjusting sugar levels and using different yeasts and molasses in the process.”

The distillery opens in March to the tune of a slick tasting room and facility tours.

Henebery Celebrated Whiskey
6929 Fairway Rd., La Jolla (office and storage facility)

Organic orange peel, cardamom and vanilla are among the key components in this youthful, namesake whiskey that’s currently distilled at a facility in Los Angeles. Soon, founders Jesse Fanning and Wesley Burkart are moving their production to Little Italy or downtown San Diego. The relocation reflects the brand’s success in the local market, where Henebery, a 90-proof rye, is already fêted at Saltbox, Sycamore Den, Prohibition, Coin-op Game Room and Ciro’s Pizzeria & Beerhouse.

“We use all-organic infusables and we paid a lot of attention to the aging process, although we don’t dwell on the amount of time it’s aged,” says Fanning, adding that the whiskey is “very palatable straight up” while maintaining its flavor integrity in the face of ice and mixers.

Old Harbor Distilling
270 17th St., East Village
No phone number yet,

A rollout of “Navy-strength” rum and coffee liqueur made in collaboration with North Park’s Coffee and Tea Collective is planned for March at this East Village distillery. The venture is being launched by former Hess Brewing Company employee Michael Skubic, who promises a tasting room stamped with an early 20th-Century feel and weekend tours of the 7,500-square-foot production facility.

“About a year down the road, we’ll introduce four different types of whiskeys: blue corn bourbon, rye, single malt and a smoked single malt.” Skubic says. He’ll employ micro barrels to accelerate the aging and to infuse the spirits with sturdy oak flavor.

Ballast Point
10051 Old Grove Rd., Scripps Ranch

Considered the first distillery in San Diego since Prohibition, Ballast Point began producing rum and gin in 2008 before testing the vapors on single-malt whiskey, bourbon and vodka. The distillery comprises only a fraction of the building, although it has recently given way to a designated tasting room.

“Our biggest productions are gin and vodka, because the barrel spirits take longer to age and don’t come out as rapidly,” says head brewer/head distiller Yuseff Cherney.

The booze menu includes Three Sheets White Rum, made with sugar cane instead of molasses, which explains its pineapple-caramel notes. Old Grove Gin is lauded for its dry, London-style subtleties, while Devil’s Share single-malt whiskey boasts a heavy vanilla finish because of its four-year, new-barrel aging.

For those seeking something more ferocious, Cherney recommends the Devil’s Share Moonshine, an un-aged, 98.6 proof (49.3 percent alcohol) whiskey.