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How Pacific Coast Spirits, one of San Diego’s largest distilleries, found a home in Oceanside

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Nicholas Hammond, founder and head distiller at Pacific Coast Spirits in Oceanside, in front of his copper German-made Arnold Holstein still.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Engineer-turned-distiller Nicholas Hammond is making and serving whiskeys, bourbons, gins and more

After a two-year delay, one of the largest craft distilleries to call San Diego County home has opened in a former furniture store on South Coast Highway in Oceanside.

Pacific Coast Spirits, run by founder and head distiller Nicholas Hammond of Carlsbad, is both a liquor distillery and a restaurant/ bar where customers can sip flights of house-made bourbons, gins and agave spirits and nosh on fish brined in the house brandy and waffles made from spent corn used in the rye whiskey.

Hammond said Oceanside residents have enthusiastically embraced Pacific Coast Spirits since it opened in December, but it wasn’t an easy path getting there.

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Nicholas Hammond, founder and head distiller at Pacific Coast Spirits prepares the German built still that will make red corn whiskey, January 29, 2020 in Oceanside, California.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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In July 2017, the city of Carlsbad rejected his proposal to open in a Barrio neighborhood warehouse on Tyler Street. He started his search over in three surrounding cities and eventually found the shuttered 12,000-square-foot store at 404 S. Coast Highway in Oceanside. With five friends, he spent 20 months renovating the building by hand and working with city, fire, zoning and planning officials to bring the project to fruition.

Pacific Coast Spirits opened symbolically on Dec. 5, the day that Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Yet even though the law banning U.S. liquor production and sales ended more than 86 years ago, some Prohibition-era laws were still on the books until September 2018. That’s when Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1164, nicknamed the” Craft Distillers Op-pour-tunity Act,” into law. It loosened the restrictions on how spirits can be consumed and sold at small distilleries.

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James Busch, production assistant at Pacific Coast Spirits, watches and controls the speed of the transfer of American Brandy into a blending tank before it is then transferred to a barrel where it will be aged, January 29, 2020 in Oceanside, California.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Since then, craft distillers like Pacific Coast have been opening their doors all over the state. Hammond said there are now about 17 distilleries in San Diego County, and another seven or eight set to open this year. Most are making small-batch liquors and distributing them commercially. But Hammond’s Pacific Coast is one of the few distilleries that includes an on-site restaurant and bar, a concept he calls a “grain-to-glass/farm-to-table” operation.

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“That’s our business model,” said Hammond, 40. “This way we can serve what we make here and learn from our customers. It’s the best testing ground you can have.”

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Samples used for testing are in a cabinet at Pacific Coast Spirits, January 29, 2020 in Oceanside, California.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The restaurant/bar, which seats 180 to 200, occupies just under a third of the warehouse-like building, parts of which were first built in the 1930s as brick-walled stores. The rest of the space is devoted to the distillery and barrel room, with plans for the construction of a grain-malting room in the near future.

Monday and Wednesday are distilling days. Hammond and his team work with German-made Arnold Holstein copper stills, which he calls the “Lamborghini of stills.” A small one built in the 1960s is used only for gin-making. The new and much larger Scottish-style still is used for making all the other spirits products.

Pacific Coast is now producing about 10 barrels — or 530 gallons — of spirits each month, with plans to double production by the end of the year. Its premium spirits are California grain bourbons and American single malt whiskeys that Hammond first started aging in California new oak barrels in 2015. There are heirloom blue and red corn whiskeys, as well as vodka and immature brandy made from a base of California wine grapes. There’s also an affordably priced white rye whiskey that has been rested for 24 hours in a barrel, and a dry gin made with California-grown botanicals.

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James Busch, production assistant at Pacific Coast Spirits mixes 100% blue corn whiskey mash in a fermenting tank, that when distilled, will become their California Blue Corn Whiskey. Photographed, January 29, 2020 in Oceanside, California.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

There are also agave spirits, made with blue agave nectar imported from Mexico’s tequila capital of Jalisco. Mexican tequila is made in stainless-steel stills, and Hammond said his agave spirits taste different because his copper still extracts the pungent sulfur flavor often associated with tequila. In the future, he plans to make amaro, schnapps and other small-batch liqueurs as well as new gins flavored with California citrus and seaweed.

Customers can sample the spirits in pours ranging from a half-ounce to two ounces, ranging in price from $6 to $25. They’re also available in 17 cocktails made with house bitters, syrups and mixers; and four draft cocktails on tap, like a sweet tea whiskey and a gin and tonic. Customers can purchase up to 3 take-away bottles of spirits. And come summer, the draft cocktails will also be available in cans, both in-house and at other regional restaurants and bars. Visitors can also taste the spirits in the food on the restaurant’s California-style small plates menu. Food items range in price from $8 to $18.

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Hammond’s fascination with spirits stretches back to his college days as a mechanical engineering undergrad at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

“I had a passion for tequila and l liked to get my hands dirty so I traveled to Chile and Mexico and realized I wanted to bring a tequila brand to the United States,” said Hammond, who grew up in the Bay Area cities of Fairfield, Walnut Creek and Concord.

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Once a furniture store, the building is now the home to Pacific Coast Spirits. Photographed January 29, 2020 in Oceanside, California.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

When he realized how prohibitively expensive it would be to import spirits from Mexico, he decided to educate himself on distilling his own while pursuing a career in engineering. Between consulting on business technology systems for companies like Raytheon and Levi Strauss, he earned a wine-making certificate from Napa Valley College and spent a year as an assistant winemaker at Bialla Vineyards in Napa. In 2008, he became head winemaker at his family’s now-shuttered Climbing Monkeys Winery in Martinez. Then in 2013, he and his wife, Nicole, moved to Carlsbad so they could live closer to her family.

Seeing the potential passage of SB 1164 on the horizon, he started training seriously in the distilling arts in 2015 under a number of mentors, including master distiller Hubert Germain-Robin. He also began work on a distance-learning master’s degree in distilling through a college in Edinburgh, Scotland. Despite all of his training, Hammond said he’s still learning every day and he wants to pass that education along to others. He is setting up bar and cocktail training programs for bartenders. He would also like to launch a distilling certificate program at a North County community college campus. He also offers free public tours of the distillery.

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Once a furniture store, the building is now the home to Pacific Coast Spirits. Photographed January 29, 2020 in Oceanside, California.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Hammond said San Diego’s distilling industry is at the point where the local craft beer industry was 10 years ago. Clearly there’s enormous potential, but also potential pitfalls, as evidenced by the collapse of many local craft breweries in the past three years. Hammond said the ones that will survive, both distillers and beermakers, are the ones who make a good product and he aims to make Pacific Coast Spirits a national brand someday.

“You’re going to see a lot of distillers popping up around town,” he said. “I hope the ones that do will excel in the quality of what they produce. All boats rise when someone is doing something right.”

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Pacific Coast Spirits

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Where: 404 S. Coast Highway, Oceanside

Phone: (760) 453-7150

Online: paccoastspirits.com

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Wooden barrels line the path to the Barrel Room at Pacific Coast Spirits, January 29, 2020 in Oceanside, California.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)


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