San Diego Distillery won't compete with Kentucky

Trent Tilton's whiskey kick includes the definitely different

From batch to batch, fans have good reason to return to Spring Valley.
  • From batch to batch, fans have good reason to return to Spring Valley.

Spring Valley doesn't boast any craft breweries, but it's playing a pivotal role in San Diego's burgeoning craft-distillery movement. Kill Devil Spirits Co. started out there back in 2011, Liberty Call Distilling Co. in 2014, and March 12th San Diego Distillery opened its doors stocked with a variety of locally produced whiskeys.

Trent Tilton started homebrewing beer in late 1999 and says he had considered trying to brew professionally until a few years ago.

"I was drinking a lot of local beer," he remembers, “then I was working for a guy and he introduced me to Lagavulin 16 [year], which is a traditional, smoked, Islay-style scotch. And my whole life changed. I said, ‘I’m going to make whiskey, and that's all I'm ever going to do,’ and that's all I ever want to do."

Most whiskey drinkers expect the spirit to be aged in oak barrels anywhere from 8 to 21 years. And while distilling clear liquors like rum or gin in San Diego won't raise any eyebrows, whiskey aficionados expect bourbon whiskey to come from Kentucky and Scotch whiskey to be made in Scotland. While Tilton bases some of his whiskeys on these styles (he even orders peat-smoked barley from Scotland), he acknowledges what he makes won't match those expectations.

"Kentucky makes the best bourbon in the world," he insists. "They always will. You really can't compete with them. What I try to do is something totally different."

Whiskey is basically 8 percent beer that's been distilled, so Tilton winds up taking a lot cues from his homebrewing days. One of his creations is his Russian imperial stout recipe run through a still. And where authentic bourbon distills from a mostly corn mash, Tilton's first batch of bourbon-style whiskey included 49 percent Vienna malt — usually only found in German-style beer.

As far as aging goes, it's all about the size of the barrel. Most traditional whiskeys take a decade to mature in oak barrels large enough to hold 50 to 70 gallons. Tilton started out with barrels in the 5-to-20 range. The reduced volume means the spirit comes into contact with more wood. So, in a 5-gallon barrel, Tilton estimates the whiskey absorbs as much oak coloring and flavor as it can stand in just three to six months.

"It's a little young, but it's still big and it's bold and it has a lot of nice flavor qualities to it. It's definitely different.”

In accepting this difference, Tilton has freed himself up to stay creative, with new releases planned throughout the year. "People become loyal to a brewery," he explains, "but they don't necessarily go back for the same beer — they go back to see what new beers that brewery is making."

One example of this is his rye whiskey — 75 percent of the grain is rye, the remaining 25 percent will change from batch to batch, so fans will have good reason to return to Spring Valley for next season's version.

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