“Would you like to join twenty local distilleries in a four-hour celebration of creative cocktails and artisanal spirits?” asked San Diego Distillers Guild.
“Absolutely!” exclaimed Ian. “Goodness, I’m ever so excited!”
“There is no God,” moaned Ian’s liver.
If we’re being totally honest, the modern craft distillery consumer experience is kind of a joke. Courtesy of the stringent Type-74 Craft Distillers License, tasting rooms are limited to serving 1.5 ounces of alcohol per person, per day. This represents one standard cocktail, a few miniscule splashes, or the garnish whiskey that chases the other eight ounces I’ve already put in my Irish coffee. It basically tastes like pour-over made with gasoline, but there’s no denying it will wake you up, albeit temporarily. But I digress.
The only salvation from this rule is the allowance for “private events” which waives the limitation. In those glorious circumstances, such as the San Diego Distillers Fest, you are untethered to enjoy an endless array of finely crafted distillations. The freedom is almost as intoxicating as the beverages themselves. Almost.
This festival from the San Diego Distillers Guild, an alliance founded in 2014 to promote local spirits, featured 20 craft distillers, live music, and multiple hors d’oeuvres stations on Saturday evening. It also provided about two pallets of bottled water, a move that reminded this may be the guild’s debut fest, but it was by no means their first rodeo.
My first impression upon entering the festival was that it felt like a scale model of the beer fests I’m more accustomed to. This was a far more concentrated (or dare I say…distilled) experience. In that frame of reference it initially felt underwhelming, but that was because I didn’t appreciate how it would unfold. Each station offered anywhere between two and 10 different spirit or cocktail samples, a density that encouraged you to set up camp momentarily, engage with the distiller, and really learn about what you were tasting. It was a far more personal and intimate festival, which was a nice change of pace. And far be it from me to complain about pairing less walking with more alcohol.
Most of the neat spirits were served in the sort of cups you’d typically dose your cold medicine with. It wasn’t the most satisfying way to experience them, but obviously that was a necessary evil if you hoped to drink your way through the fest. On the bright side, they made the small plate appetizers look massive.
Fun with forced perspective aside, the food samples were a delightful accompaniment to the occasion and welcomed buffer for all the incoming ethanol. My favorite pairing of the evening were the You & Yours Distilling Co. buttermilk biscuits. They were thoughtfully appointed with charred scallion butter and a gin-kissed mixed berry jam. Not only did it pair wonderfully with Into The Woods (a cocktail marrying London Dry Gin, rosemary simple syrup, lemon juice, Topo Chico, and maple spray), it introduced me to an entirely new gin-delivery system. No jam will be safe again if my liquor cabinet has anything to say about it.
In the sparse moments between wolfing down buttermilk biscuits, I also managed to try a good many spirits worth highlighting. If you are a fan of subtlety (which you can probably gather by the tone of this article I typically am not), the newly released Jasmine Tea Rum from Seven Caves Spirits is quite intriguing. It exists in a bizarre Netherworld between gin and rum, where the delicate floral character of jasmine is elevated by a subtle cane sugar sweetness. The spirit has the merest tannic nip to it, like a tea that was steeped about 15 nanoseconds too long, which is sufficient to add a bit of additional character to it.
Copper Collar Distillery likewise brought a novel infusion to the table with their limited release of star anise-flavored vodka. The star anise flowers express a potent, candied licorice flavor despite the fact there is no back-sweetening on this spirit. Think of it as sambuca’s less braggadocious cousin. It is the rare vodka that would also serve as a digestif, which is pretty cool.
One of the most unusual and notable samples of the night hailed from 117° West Spirits. Cherya is a spirit distilled from malted barley, cherrywood smoked malt, crystal malt, and rye, which is “vapor-infused” with opal and mosaic hops and aged in charred American oak barrels. It obviously reminds of the “craft beer whiskey” that San Diego Distillery has become recognized for, but the approach of exposing the hops to distilling vapors expresses a note that is more botanical and aromatic than bitter. It had a pleasant honeysuckle note that played well with the soft floral and earthy elements of the hops.
Another ancillary benefit of these festivals is the ability to reconnect with industry folks who I’ve been too oblivious to contact since I’d last written about them. I usually just assume that once my words have met the public eye that their path to superstardom is paved and they’re too busy swimming in their cash pools to chat. Thankfully, Misadventure Vodka spared me a few moments to share the recent migration to their own distillery and public tasting room. For reasons already detailed above, the new Vista location is best experienced by booking a tour experience on their website (misadventure.co) or contacting them to host a private event. If the rest of their cocktail program is as fantastic as their signature vodka tonic, it shouldn’t be missed.
While the current understanding of the space-time continuum negates the ability of most people from sharing in the 2019 San Diego Distillers Fest, I hope the recollections from this event have spurred your interest in seeking out one of the many local craft distilleries that the guild represents. San Diego is putting their creative (and often delicious) stamp on the industry and it’s worth bearing witness to.