Navy vets dive into spirits biz

Copper collar workers start a distillery in Santee

The copper collar connects the diving helmet to the diving suit in these old Navy diver rigs.
  • The copper collar connects the diving helmet to the diving suit in these old Navy diver rigs.

"Our focus right now is to make great spirits," says Scott Nixon, general manager of Copper Collar Distillery, the craft spirit company he cofounded with head distiller Jason Pelle earlier this year.

Copper Collar Distillery

8733 N. Magnolia Avenue #126, Santee

Pelle and Nixon met as divers in the U.S. Navy, and the Copper Collar name is a nod to the copper diving helmets used by divers dating back to the 19th Century. As the company's website explains, "These divers were not blue collar nor were they white collar —" rather, they were "copper collar workers."

"We were stationed together on our last tour before we both decided to get out," Pelle recounts, "We used to talk about different entrepreneurial stuff, just as ideal chit-chat." When they moved on from the Navy, each applied their GI Bill benefits to become full-time students. However, both wanted to start a business and decided devote Friday and Saturday afternoons to developing a spirit brand.

"We weren't really expecting how difficult and how expensive it would be," concedes Nixon. However, they quickly realized they were entering a growing community of spirit producers in the county. They joined the San Diego Distillers Guild, and Pelle honed his distilling skills by apprenticing with Ray Digilio of Kill Devil Spirits Co., while Nixon got help navigating state and federal regulations from Casey Miles of California Spirits Company.

Pelle likens the community to the one that's helped craft beer become a nearly billion-dollar industry in San Diego. "A lot of the guys were willing to help out because, like beer, everybody's making something different. We're not in competition with each other." He adds, "My vodka doesn't taste like Ray's, our rum isn't going to taste like Casey's."

Pelle and Nixon both believe the spirits market will catch on as drinkers discover the value in small-batch production and differing flavor profiles. "It'll grow," Pelle suggests. "It's just not there yet." So, for the moment, they aim to nurture the brand slowly and with low overhead, without taking on loans or outside investors.

"That's why we're so small," Nixon explains. "We want to have full control over everything, so we're completely happy with it." They found a small, affordable industrial space in Santee, where they began distilling in June. They describe sitting on lawn chairs in an empty warehouse space watching their first batch of vodka bubble through the column of their 50-gallon still.

They've since built out a small tasting-room component to serve tasters and sell bottles. While that's the only product they've bottled thus far, they're working on a second vodka, several recipes of spiced rum, and eventually plan to pursue gin and whiskey.

But for now, they're neither marketing heavily nor aggressively pursuing retail distribution. "We're just selling out of here," Nixon says. "We can promote it here, people can come in and we can explain the product to them…they can know us, know how we make the product. I think that holds a lot of value for today's consumer."

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