It doesn't make moonshine, but no distillery in the county better reflects the history of the backyard still than San Diego Sunshine Craft Spirits.
432 Maple Street #6, Ramona
Sunshine opened to the public two years ago this week, in a 2000-square-foot warehouse space about a half mile north of Main Street, in Ramona. Paul Markham started the business with his wife Amanda, and the couple essentially built the business from scratch, from constructing a bar to hand-labeling bottles for sale in the Sunshine tasting room.
"We brew, distill, bottle, label everything, right here," says Paul Markham in a country accent. "We're not making rocket parts."
Spoken like a man who used to make rocket parts. The Pine Valley native grew up working with metal, and prior to starting Sunshine he operated a machine shop in El Cajon, which manufactured components for clients including SpaceX.
So when he decided to produce liquor, Markham didn't need to buy a still; he could build one himself. More than one, actually. A 400-gallon still is used for the stripping run, pulling alcohol from fermented grains. That product feeds into a 55-gallon still he designed for a refining spirit run.
Markham started out planning to distill spirits from a boozy homebrew recipe. "I always liked the hefeweizen," he recalls, "but we used to add honey to it to kick up the ABV a little bit."
He and Amanda live not far from the distillery, and honey for that homebrew came from their own small apiary. Though they don't produce enough honey to supply Sunshine's spirits, they make a point to source local honey and to otherwise run a sustainable operation. "We try and do the whole circle-of-life thing," says Paul, who even added a few other animals to their property to make use of Sunshine's spent grain. "I'll load up the grain after brewing, he says, "and feed our pigs with it."
Initially, Sunshine's products were uncategorized specialty spirits — neither vodka nor whiskey — distilled from that honey hef recipe, and infused with fruit. For example, Apple Pie Sunshine features apples and spice, and Blueberry Honey even finds a few blueberries sitting at the bottom of each bottle. Markham also produces lemoncello, seasonally, and distills local wine into brandy.
But his customers have been demanding more. "Everybody kept on asking for whiskey," he says, smiling. "You gotta give the people what they want."
This month, Sunshine released its first whiskey, a 90-proof rye that Markham's been aging for a year and a half in barrels that perfectly illustrate his do-it-yourself approach.
"We use Ramona wine barrels for our aging," he says. "We'll take the heads off and bands off, get a propane torch, and re-char them a little bit, then put them back together and fill them full of whiskey."
Next up, Markham plans to add bourbon to the menu. That and the rye will become flagship products, distributed to Sunshine's accounts throughout the county. As that territory expands, Markham is ready to grow. "I've been building a bigger still," he says.
For now, Markham concedes Sunshine isn't ready to produce on the thousand-gallon still being assembled in his workroom at home. "But when we do start selling enough," he concludes, "I'm ready to friggin' turn and burn."