10960 Wheatlands Avenue #101, Santee
Making liquor, in addition to beer, has been a part of the business plan since the beginning for Santee's BNS Brewing & Distilling Co. — it's right there in the name. Despite an early change in ownership, that has remained the case, and at the beginning of March, the "est. 2012" company finally launched its distilling component, offering bottles of vodka and moonshine for sale.
The bottles will quickly be followed by a dedicated tasting room, where visitors may sample small quantities of spirits, sectioned off from the rest of the brewery. "The distillery is a completely different license from the beer side," points out owner Gene Chaffin. "Part of the remodel was to get it dressed up."
While its brewery remained active, the BNS tasting room closed for a few months last year for some upgrades, including a makeshift red barn façade that delineates the distillery side. By law, brewing and distilling licenses must remain distinct — and while the two components at BNS are under the same roof, they technically have different addresses, with boundaries constructed to keep them distinct. Guests may not bring beer to the distillery side, and spirits drinkers may not bring cocktails to the beer tasting side.
Chaffin explains part of the need to update the space was to redefine those boundaries. BNS often hosts live music, with bands performing on a stage set up on what was technically the distillery side. But performing musicians kept trying to bring their beer on stage, which would have created a violation for BNS.
The stage area is no longer part of the distillery location, and the barn doors distinguishing the boundary have locks. "When we have bands here on Fridays and Saturdays," laughs Chaffin, "we'll lock the doors."
The distillery plan preceded Chaffin's ownership of BNS, but he's embraced it. "I decided just to go ahead an activate the distilled spirits side," he says, "because everybody is pretty interested in that out in East County. And it's kind of fun, man, it gets in your blood!"
In the past few months, BNS assistant brewer Blake Heffernan has increasingly crossed over from the beer side of the building to spend the bulk of his time ramping up spirits production. "I've absolutely fallen in love with distilling," says Heffernan, "and I'm very excited to share with the public what we've secretly been working on!"
What they've literally been working on is a 50 gallon pot still made by Hillbilly Stills, a small manufacturer out of western Kentucky.
With the help of input from fellow east county craft spirit producers including Liberty Call, Copper Collar, and San Diego Distillery, the BNS team has worked up an 80 proof barley mash vodka and a 150 proof moonshine. More efforts are in the works, including a brandy collaboration with La Mesa's San Pasqual Winery, gin, rum, and of course, a bourbon mash. "We already plan on putting some whiskey in barrels for aging," Chaffin says, "and away we go!"