As more local breweries have partnered with local roasters, coffee beers have become something of a regional specialty, racking up national awards left and right. Now, as San Diego’s craft-spirit scene has grown past its early stages, three local distilleries have gotten into the collaborative spirit.
East Village–based Old Harbor Distilling Co. recently announced it would release Ampersand coffee liqueur, featuring rum, cane juice, and a coffee blend provided by Coffee & Tea Collective (which uses an ampersand logo). Old Harbor owner Michael Skubic says he spent over two years developing the recipe with the roasting shop’s founder, Daniel Holcomb, a former classmate at Point Loma Nazarene University.
“We tried every different method of infusing coffee,” Skubic says, “We tried distilling coffee beans.” He won’t divulge the simpler blending process they settled on and notes that, while the first batch will feature a cold-brewed blend of Ethiopian and Mexican beans, that will change. “Our plan is for every batch to have a different blend,” he explains, adding, “Coffee’s so seasonal.”
619 Vodka expects bottles of its “fine coffee” vodka to be on bar and store shelves by early March. The coffee in question is a Colombian blend courtesy of Bird Rock Coffee Roasters. “We are doing a pretty strong infusion,” says 619 owner Nick Apostolopoulos, “so I really wanted to make sure that it’s not too bitter, etc.”
Bird Rock sales liaison Nick Berardi says the beans represent the Roasters United Competition Bird Rock cosponsored to spur economic development among Colombian coffee growers. “We chose this for the vodka because it has a soft acidity that was initially a little tropical, with a lot of creaminess and milk chocolate.” Not too creamy, he adds, “We wanted a medium roast so that some of this acidity would be present without being harsh, because coffee without acidity is like PB&J with no jelly.”
Meanwhile, Encanto-based Kill Devil Spirits Co. released an altogether different sort of coffee collaboration last summer, working with Dark Horse Coffee Roasters. Kill Devil founder Ray Digilio describes Rise & Shine as a coffee-aged version of the brand’s flagship Ugly California Moonshine.
“We were really shooting for something that hasn’t been done,” Digilio says. “What we’re trying to achieve is kind of like whiskey.” He explains that Dark Horse provided Dominican beans with chocolate and caramel notes, but roasted them so dark they were “Too smoky and roasty to drink as coffee.”
Whereas whiskey ages in charred-oak barrels, Digilio ages his moonshine for three or four days on unground charred coffee beans, just enough for the booze to adopt the dark-roasted flavors without actually tasting like coffee. “To keep it a real spirit, a drinker’s spirit,” he adds.
Digilio hasn’t heard of coffee being similarly used to flavor liquor, and neither have government regulatory agencies, apparently. He says it took nearly a year for Rise & Shine to go through the permitting process. “It’s so unique, they didn’t know how to label it.”