In Navy parlance a “Liberty Call” is an invitation to step away from daily duties and seek amusements off ship for a few precious hours. Were I in the military that would represent an opportunity to cut loose and do some big-time antiquing, but for most it signals the arrival of something a tad more frenzied. And what embodies the potential for concentrated merriment better than hard liquor? It was exactly that sentiment that gave Liberty Call Distilling its name.
Though Liberty Call Distilling products first found their way to the public in 2015, it was essentially born two years prior over a couple of glasses of moonshine between now Head Distiller Steve Grella and President Bill Rogers. Sipping on the spirit handcrafted by Grella’s grandfather fostered conversation on shifting liquor laws and the still nascent spirits scene in San Diego. It is unclear if the inspiration to open their own concern was driven by a recognition of an emergent market or the moonshine making everything seem like a kick-ass idea, but proceed they did. Shortly thereafter they secured licensing, a capable Head Brewer in Addison Poth, a production space in Spring Valley, and Roger’s mantra to guide their efforts.
“We make what we like to drink and then we hope other people like it as well,” said Rogers.
Today that vision is made manifest by a 105-gallon reflux column still that serves double-duty as a mash tun. It’s a snug operation, but Liberty Call Distilling is nothing if not practical. At present, nearly 50-percent of their business is derived from contract distilling for other private labels. This provides a considerable cash infusion beyond their own sales, relieving much of the pressure to prematurely mobilize their own products out of barrels or release spirits whose recipe may still be in flux. In either scenario, it’s a system that helps favor quality over quantity.
The square footage for their tasting room is similarly concentrated. Given that they are constrained to serve no more than 1.5 ounces of alcohol per person (as legally stipulated for all distillery tasting rooms in California), it’s not as if patrons would opt to carouse there all afternoon anyway, but it wouldn’t take more than a few bodies to make the space feel cramped.
The tasting room may not be party bus-capable so to speak, but Liberty Call Distilling has aspirations beyond its confines. Expansion plans are already in the works, not only for distilling capacity, but their business model in general. While the lease was still being finalized at print time, they project a new Liberty Call Distilling facility will be open in the Barrio Logan Mercado by mid-2018. The new space will include a kitchen featuring a cocktail-focused menu along with a full bar. And in order to deliver on the promises inherent in a full bar, they will also be introducing their first vodka, mezcal, and agave spirit to the market.
By becoming a bonafide eating establishment, they’ll no longer be limited by the rules governing stand-alone spirit tasting rooms. This is important not only from a sales perspective, but for consumer education. It turns out that San Diego’s well established love affair with craft beer hasn’t carried over to the world of craft spirits as much as one might expect.
“If you put this on the bar and don’t promote it, it’s not going to sell,” said Rogers.
In addition to this space cementing their distillery as a San Diego institution, much in the way Cutwater Spirits has, Rogers’ hope is that sharing their product in a more conventional cocktail format will go a long way to build awareness and excitement around local artisanal spirits in general.
“I think we’re going to hit a tipping point just like craft beer,” he said.
While the Navy theme might suggest these spirits are likewise military-grade, the opposite is actually true. Every item I tried had a unique character and surprising accessibility…though some options may be more polarizing than others.
The Liberty Call Distilling gin is by far the oddest duck of the bunch. That’s hardly surprising for a distillery crew whose website loudly proclaims their collective disdain for most gins as “like licking a pine tree”. Accordingly, they used botanicals to shift the palate away from juniper to a balance that favors floral and citrus notes. Their gin basket (essentially a giant tea bag resting in the column) includes chamomile, lavender, Egyptian marigold, and raspberry leaves, along with peels from lemons, limes, and oranges. It is undeniably the least ginny gin I’ve had, but don’t be surprised if you appreciate it regardless.
My favorite, by far, was the four-grain Blue Ridge whiskey. The recipe of equal parts corn, wheat, rye, and barley is a little unconventional, but it was a recipe built out of Poth’s brewing savvy. A corn and rye-forward grain bill is typical in the whiskey world, but to brewers this formulation represents a sticky nightmare to contend with at mashing temperatures. The Blue Ridge whiskey recipe addressed that as well as summoning a highly desirable sensory experience. Its familiar aromas of cola, chocolate, and cheerio dust encourage rookie sippers to venture forward, further rewarding them with big flavors of milk chocolate, soft chai spices, toasted grain, and vanilla. This whiskey is lush, full-bodied, and undeniably easy drinking.
By comparison, their Old Ironsides American Single Malt Whiskey, built exclusively on a barley grain bill, offers a narrower impression. Big aromas of cake donut and caramel dominate up front, while a massive French vanilla character consumes the prominent flavor. It lacks the complexity of the Blue Ridge, but is still enjoyable relative to its intent as a single grain whiskey.
Of all their available options, I believe their white rum is most likely to turn heads and convert disciples. It is a Caribbean-style rum leveraging dunder, a substance composed of the leftover mash and various distillery wastes. Traditionally this substrate is collected to ferment in pits in the jungle floor, but Liberty Call thankfully opts for a more sanitary 55-gallon drum. Once settled, that goop is subjected to the whims of various bacteria and left to fester, resulting in abundance of foul smelling carboxylic acids. In the ordinary run of things, that undeniably rotten mire would serve little other purpose than to mask your human scent during a zombie apocalypse. However, through the magic of organic chemistry, combining it with ethanol creates fruit-forward ester compounds that can enrich the spirit. It makes for a rum whose nose is funky and fruity, favoring dominant notes of apricot, white peach, and fruit cocktail syrup. This is complimented by flavors of strong fruit preserves and guava with unmistakable sugar cane sweetness in the finish. It may drink a little hot (it is “Navy Strength” at 123 proof), but isn’t punishing.
Their spiced rum seems like a perfect accompaniment to the Christmas season, favoring mulling spices in it aromatic payload. The flavor is a bit more dynamic, introducing black pepper, citrus rind, nutmeg, and cane sugar into the mix. It’s not nearly as hot as the white rum at 45% ABV, but the spice gives it a similar tonality.
While Spring Valley isn’t likely to be a destination for most when their own personal liberty call is sounded, the quality of offerings at Liberty Call Distilling is reason enough to add it to the agenda.