Spread the love

Ingredients and Flavor Rule All for Three Friends Who Create Amazing Rum Together.

Written By: Kara Goldfarb The Drink Experts of Malahat Spirits Share Why this is the Craft Rum for Your Holidays
Photographed By: Jack Lungu

When you walk into the Malahat Spirits’ distillery and tasting room, you expect Duke Ellington to be playing in the background. That’s because the entire facility, down to the reclaimed lumber from naval shipyards used to make the sidebar, is reminiscent of a 1920s speakeasy. Fitting, considering the Malahat was the Vancouver ship that delivered the largest amount of contraband liquor to the Pacific coast during the prohibition era. It would feed all the rum runners who would hide the booze in San Diego caves and tunnels before eventually making their way to the speakeasies. Which is why owners Ken Lee, Tom Bleakley and Tony Grillo used things like actual 100-year-old maritime artifacts and real pieces from the Star of India to pay tribute to the Malahat.

It’s not just the décor that’s authentic. The trio makes every single drop by hand, whether it’s hand-splitting every vanilla bean and hand crushing every cinnamon stick for spiced rum, or hand peeling every ginger root that goes into the ginger rum. With words like “craft” and “artisan” constantly thrown around, it’s easy to be skeptical. But the motivation of these distillers to find the very best ingredients and then experiment vigorously with combinations is what sets them apart. It’s the difference between slapping a generic craft label on something and a genuine passion to create the finest possible craft product. It’s a difference you can taste. Everything from the classic white rum to the black tea rum to the rye goes down so incredibly smoothly. In fact, Malahat’s No. 1 comment from tasters has become, “This is dangerous.”

Q: So chicken or the egg question: did the name inspire you to create the speakeasy vibe, or was that authentic look your initial vision?
Ken Lee: We purposely wanted to tie the distillery to San Diego.
Tom Bleakley: We knew the name we were going to use and the history of it before we set out on the design. We definitely incorporated that into the look and feel of the distillery.

Q: You make everything from scratch to bottle. How long did it take to experiment before the final recipe?
Tony Grillo: We brought molasses in from Hawaii and the Caribbean. We have the ability because of the craft-brewing scene to get our hands on all sorts of yeast. So, it was really important for us to develop a process where we could test all this.
KL: We are completely driven by flavor and we have to be unanimous in it. The spiced rum took about five and a half months to develop. Every product took many months of testing every ingredient.

Q: Your approach matches the increased momentum of the craft beer and farm-to-table movements. Why do you think consumers want to feel connected to products? How do you do that with spirits?
TG: People want to look for complexity in the flavor of their products and with industrially produced spirits it’s hard to get distinct flavors. It’s like going to a nice dinner versus having something because you’re hungry.
TB: It’s been great for us that San Diego loves to support local craft oriented type businesses. That said, we don’t want anybody to buy our product simply because it’s local. We make an awesome product that would stand up in any geography.

Q: Your spiced rum won the gold medal at the San Francisco International Spirits Competition. How did that feel?
KL: The great thing about that San Francisco Spirit Award is that we actually won that before we even came to market. I mean, we were just doing high fives and backflips.

Q: How did the three of you decide to undertake such a big operation?
TG: Well I don’t think our first thoughts were that it was going to be this big. We have been longtime friends and we talked a lot, mostly at bars and restaurants, about doing something like this.
TB: We all had successful careers in other businesses before this and we really had a passion for this industry. That’s why we pursued it in the first place. And we built it with the idea that we’re going to make the best spirits that we can for ourselves, our friends and our family. And, hopefully, the rest of the world will like what we make as well.

Q: Please give us a basic 101 description of the distilling process.
KL: It’s actually very similar to beer in certain respects. You have sugars, which are either in grains or molasses for rum. You want to convert those sugars to alcohol using yeast. Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water so the alcohol vapor rises before the water. So you basically convert the alcohol to steam and then you re-condense it back to a liquid form by cooling it back down again. And the art of it is mixing and matching how much you can clean up a spirit while maintaining the flavors you want from the natural ingredients that you chose.

Q: Is there a product you’re most proud of?
TG: They’re all like children. It’s like you can’t pick one. There’s no favorite, it all depends on the mood you’re in.
KL: As Tony mentioned, it kind of depends on your mood. But I think it just speaks volumes that every product we make here you can actually sip neat.

Q: What’s a good cocktail for the holidays?
KL: For the holidays, the spiced rum, people say, makes the best eggnog you’ll ever have—all your traditional fall and winter drinks, because it already has natural herbs and spices so you’re not adding anything else.
TB: One of our favorite fall-type drinks is taking the old fashioned a step further. So a spiced rum old fashioned with cranberries and maple syrup instead of muddling a cherry and sugar cube. It’s phenomenal. It’s got a great kind of holiday feel to it. It looks great in a glass too.

Q: Any personal favorite San Diego bars? There are a lot that carry your product.
KL: There are. We appreciate every single one of them.
TB: San Diego’s been great to us. Fantastic supporters the whole way.
TG: The cool thing for us is we go to all the bars. We try to go often and visit the bartenders and touch base with all the distributors. What I will say is that there’s a really fine line between masking the flavor of the spirit with too much stuff. So the really great bartenders are able to maintain the flavor profile of the original spirit and enhance it with other items.

Q: Going back to the holidays, you have a tendency to create seasonal specialties. Anything in the works you can share?
TG: There’s always something, we just haven’t come up with what we’re going to do this holiday. You’ll have to come back.
TB: We did a tasting room-only candy cane rum last year. We’ll probably bring that back.

Q: What’s your ultimate dream for the distillery?
TG: I would love to see us running at full capacity within the next 12 to 18 months.
KL: Just building a long-term reputation with good quality spirits.
TB: I think we’d all like our grandchildren to be in a conversation with someone and say, “Oh, yeah, my grandfather started Malahat.”

Q: If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?
KL: Hm… working for a distillery?
TB: In a bar, drinking.
KL: I can’t picture doing anything else. We really have something special.

Q: You get to hang out with each other, experiment with all these ingredients, make the rum and then drink it. Is there anything not fun about your job?
TB: The floor doesn’t sweep itself.

Malahat Distillery
8706 Production Ave
San Diego, CA 92121
858.999.2326 | www.malahatspirits.com