That’s the Spirit
The Mad Scientist of San Diego
Written By: Marissa Wright
Photographed By: Natalie Guzy
The Expert: Michael Skubic
Credentials: Owner of Old Harbor Distilling Co.
Favorite After-Work Drink: Negroni
The term “spirit” when referring to alcohol is said to stem from Middle Eastern alchemy—the vapor given off and collected during distillation was called a spirit of its original material. While it sounds vaguely religious, the production of distilled beverages is closer to the intersection of artistic creativity and scientific precision. It was during the 19th century that alcohol makers in France and England began making large-scale stills to be able to mass produce and unintentionally created the industry we know today. However, bigger doesn’t always mean better when it comes to quality, and San Diego is no stranger to supporting the little guys. San Diego has been a champion of craft beers and boasts over 100 breweries—it was only a matter of time before the county brought home-grown, craft spirits to market too.
A self-proclaimed foodie and a bit of a history buff, Michael Skubic is the captain of the Old Harbor Distilling Co. that just opened this past September with the release of its Southwestern Gin, aptly named after San Diego’s first port—San Miguel. Michael is no stranger to the craft market and had his start with Mike Hess Brewing Co. after first studying biochemistry and business in college. When you hear Michael talk about his spirits and all that went and goes into each batch, a scientist’s perfectionism is at the base, but a well-trained palate and almost romantic appreciation for alcohol floats to the top, much like the process of distillation itself.
Q: I saw that you studied biochemistry in college. What was the original plan?
Michael Skubic: Yeah, I originally wanted to be an orthodontist.
Q: Why did you leave Hess Brewing when you did?
MS: I felt it was safe to leave the brewing industry because when I started in it, there were about 30 breweries, but there are over 100 now, which is crazy. There are over three times the amount of breweries in 6 years or so which is impressive growth, and it’s not unsustainable. I think a lot of those breweries will stick around. I just saw that for craft spirits, at that time, there was only one distillery in San Diego. I thought, “Oh, well this is a more open market, and I really dig craft cocktails.”
Q: What made you decide to start with gin?
MS: I’ve always been a gin drinker. It was my dad’s favorite spirit other than scotch. I just always enjoyed it, and it’s a quicker spirit to get to market. It doesn’t take the 2 or 3 years that whiskey is going to take. In terms of developing the recipe, I was able to do that on a smaller scale. That’s why I did about 18 months of research with the gin and dialed in the recipe over time.
Q: Why not start with a vodka?
MS: It’s an industrial process instead of an artistic process. To make vodka, it’s really more about the equipment. If you have the right equipment, you can make a good vodka. I like flavor, so I’m sticking to doing flavorful spirits.
Q: How long does it take from start to finish?
MS: It takes approximately 5 days or so. It’s a quick turnaround. The rum takes about 8 to 14 days depending on how long fermentation takes. Gin is the quickest. Any white spirit doesn’t take that long. It’s the dark spirits—the aged spirits—that take a long time.
Q: Are you using a direct distillation or a re-distillation method?
MS: We are doing what you could call Plymouth style, where we are macerating botanicals and redistilling it. I think that brings forward the most flavors because it’s a very flavorful gin. It’s super aromatic. Once you open the bottle, you can smell it from across the room. With our second gin (1542), we are using the vapor extraction because we want it to be lighter and drier so that they’re distinct even though they will have very different botanical bills. Even the juniper will be different. It will be local juniper instead of the juniper we use now that we import from Italy.
Q: How else have locally grown ingredients played a part in San Miguel Southwestern Gin?
MS: The fun thing about this gin is that since we are a San Diego company, we are using things that are inherently southwestern—things you would see in southwestern cuisine like cucumber, lime and cilantro. You get a lot of cilantro and lime on the nose and then cucumber sweetens up the palate a little bit. It’s actually really cool because we are using locally grown botanicals from Suzie’s Farm, so it comes out this awesome emerald green right before we distill it. You can really taste the freshness in it. We literally drive down to the farm the day we want to macerate it, pick the botanicals, and drive back up to throw it in the still.
Q: What would you say the major difference is between a craft gin, like San Miguel, versus a well gin?
MS: Cheaper. Well gins are typically compound gins, which means that they’re just taking vodka and adding juniper flavor to it, and maybe some coriander if you’re lucky. That’s why a cheap gin smells like bad vodka with some juniper overtones. It’s not even distilled most times. There really isn’t any craft involved. It’s made in a huge factory.
Q: What’s the reception been like?
MS: It’s been well-received. Bartenders have been digging on it, and at 47 percent, it’s still pretty easy drinking. The first thing people say is, “This smells green.” It smells fresh and alive.
Q: How have the tours of the distillery been going?
MS: Good! We get about 20 to 30 people a weekend and that’s without advertising. Everyone gets really excited about it. I had a master distiller from Mexico come last Friday. That was the most nerve-wracking thing ever. He’s been distilling since 1994, and I’ve technically only been doing this for 4 months now. But he said it was one of the best spirits he’s ever had, so that’s a good sign.
Q: What is your biggest obstacle?
MS: It can still be a tough sell. I feel like craft spirits are where beer was in the early `90s. Most bars are using gins that are about half the price of ours, so sometimes they feel like, “Why would I pay that much?” It really is in the hands of the consumers, just like it was with craft beer. People will have to be asking for it, but they just don’t know to ask for it yet. Fortunately, there’s a lot of places that are about supporting local business, so that helps a lot.
Q: How are you trying to overcome these obstacles?
MS: We are trying to get people aware. We have formed the San Diego Distillers Guild, and there’s the California Spirit Producers Guild, so we are trying to get more awareness programs going. We want to get people educated.
Q: What are your plans for the immediate future?
MS: We are taking it slow. I want to create deep roots in San Diego, and then the goal is to be self-sufficient in San Diego to the point where we don’t have to care about other markets and then expand from there. I don’t know if it will be possible, but we’ll see. I’ll probably stick to down here for a little while. We’ve only been open since September, so pretty soon we will start bringing it to Orange County, LA and up the coast.
Q: What spirits can we be expecting to see from Old Harbor in the coming year?
MS: Barrelflag is a Navy Strength white rum that will stand up to even the sweetest mixed drink. The 1542, like I mentioned, is a drier gin with native botanicals — juniper, sagebrush and lemon verbena. And Ampersand, the coffee liqueur. It’s going to be a fun one with cold pressed coffee. The guy I’m doing it with is one of my best friends. We were dorm buddies. He’s doing well for himself and just opened a second location in East Village, too.
Q: What’s the big plan for Old Harbor?
MS: I love whiskey, so that’s the big plan. That will take about 2 or maybe 3 years before we can release our first whiskey.
Old Harbor Distilling Co.
270 17th St
San Diego, CA 92101