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Justin McCabe, head distiller and co-founder at 117° West Spirits in Vista. Photo via Facebook/117° West Spirits
Justin McCabe, head distiller and co-founder of 117° West Spirits in Vista. Photo via Facebook/117° West Spirits
Cheers! North County Columns Food & Wine

Cheers! North County: Small, tasty batches at Vista’s 117° West Spirits distillery

San Diego is known for its beer scene, for hopped-up IPA monsters, hop highway and beer innovation, but we’re a community of diverse tastes. I recently went looking for a locally distilled whiskey and was shocked to see how many distilleries now call San Diego County their home.

Welcome to the Cheers! In The Moment Distiller’s Series, and my first guest Justin McCabe, head distiller and co-founder of 117° West Spirits in Vista.

Cheers: Hey Justin, thanks for getting me caught up with what’s going on at 117° West. We’ve been in a pandemic for…seemingly forever. What has the past 16 months been like for you, (and your partners), and what are you envisioning for the rest of 2021 and beyond?

Justin, 117° West: It’s been a real challenge, but we have had a few opportunities to utilize regulatory changes to benefit our business. Most importantly, the ability to ship direct to consumers throughout California has been crucial to our existence.

Once our tasting room closed what looked like a possible ending turned into a new beginning. The support of our small group of customers throughout the state really allowed us to continue production and stock up on product even though we were selling less.

A couple of great reviews of our products by guys at the Whiskey Tribe even gained us a few new customers. We also did our own YouTube cocktail tutorials trying to bring the tasting room into the homes of our customers who couldn’t visit us.

Of course, we also made hand sanitizer for a short time at the beginning of the pandemic but that was more about supporting the needs of the community than anything else. Most of our production was donated to local food banks, first responders, senior living centers and homeless shelters.

Now that the tasting room is open again, the ability to use outdoor spaces has been a tremendous benefit, especially in our small Vista tasting room. And looking ahead we are focusing on trying to make ourselves known in the community – so thank you for this opportunity – and bring more delicious craft spirits to the people beyond our tasting room.

A variety of liquors by 117° West Spirits, including, rye, bourbon and "cherya," which is short for cherry-wood smoked rye IPA and distilled from malted barley, cherry-wood smoked malt, crystal malt and rye. Photo via Facebook/117° West Spirits
A variety of spirits by 117° West Spirits, including rye, bourbon and “cherya,” which is short for cherry-wood smoked rye IPA and distilled from malted barley, cherry-wood smoked malt, crystal malt and rye. Photo via Facebook/117° West Spirits

Cheers: For someone who isn’t familiar with 117° West, will you explain the theme or vibe, and what inspired you to start distilling whiskey?

Justin: 117 West Spirits is inspired by creating big ideas in small batches. Really it boils down to a passion for the value of craft. Nothing is more important to us than producing innovative and flavorful, high-quality spirits. We do this by producing everything from scratch by hand using only quality ingredients on-site in our distillery.

The products include rum, gin and whiskey, and are produced on a one-of-a-kind Alexandria Still with a Gatling Column built by hand in Coleville, Washington. This is our secret weapon in the fight for more flavorful spirits.

Cheers: I can’t forget to ask about the spirits. You have some interesting bottles. I was drawn to the “cherya.” Is there anything exciting or interesting coming out of R&D right now?

Justin: Yes, “cherya” is probably our craziest product but super tasty. I like to say it has a cult following because nobody really knows what it is until they try it, and we have a small group of loyal followers. Basically, it is a hopped whiskey. The name is short for Cherrywood smoked Rye IPA. We add hops using a gin basket during distillation to extract the flavor compounds and oils with the hot ethanol vapor.

Our latest new release was a port cask finish rye, where we took [distilled] rye that was aged at least one year in small new American oak barrels and aged for an additional two months in a port cask we obtained from a local winery, Grafted Cellars.

According to my Dad, it makes the best old-fashioned he’s ever tasted, but it’s great neat too. Rich fruit on the nose and finish with subtle spiciness and hazelnut.

Alexandria copper still, nicknamed "Carl," at 117° West Spirits in Vista. Photo via Facebook/117° West Spirits
Alexandria copper still, nicknamed “Carl,” at 117° West Spirits in Vista. Photo via Facebook/117° West Spirits

As far as R&D, we are considering alternative whiskey grains. [The] typical grains for distillation include barley, wheat, rye and corn, and could be malted or raw.  Alternative grains are things like oats, spelt, triticale or other ancient grains.

We haven’t settled on a recipe for that, but we did also release our own bitters and are excited about the re-release of our Yolo Gold Wheat Whiskey produced using malted wheat from Yolo County in Northern California and malted by Admiral Maltings in Alameda, CA.

Cheers: If you could only drink one of your own spirits for the rest of your life, which one do you choose, and why?

Justin: When you have twelve products, it’s hard to decide but my personal favorite is our California Single Malt. It’s our concept of a California Whiskey. Produced by grain grown and malted entirely within our home state of California.

The inspiration is Scotch Whiskey where the terroir influences the flavor of the product. To feature the flavors of the fresh and ridiculously high-quality malt from Admiral Maltings, we age this spirit in used American Oak barrels that previously housed some of our other whiskies.

This way the new oak tannins are not as prominent, and the beautiful fruit and nut tones can be featured. I could definitely drink this and only this the rest of my life. That’s why I make it.

Cheers: What is the best way for North County residents to get their hands on some 117° West if they can’t make it to the tasting room?

Justin: Go to our online shop www.117westspirits.com/shop. We have very limited distribution right now, but we’re working on that, and if any retailers out there are interested in having some of the best local whiskey on their shelves or in the bars and restaurants, please contact us on our website.

Cheers: What did we miss? Anything else you want readers to know about 117 West Spirits right now?

Our tasting room in Vista is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday or by appointment on Sunday, and really the best way to learn about who we are and what we do is to stop by for a visit. But thank you, Ryan, for your interest in our company and for sharing this with our community.

We are excited to get the word out, and if people want to learn more about the amazing craft spirits in San Diego they should check out the San Diego Distillers’ Guild Fest on Oct. 30 in downtown San Diego.

As a specialty distillery, 117° West Spirits has limited hours so be sure to check their website before you go. They currently have whiskey, bourbon, brandy, rum, gin and specialty bitters available in the tasting room and online, and if you go to the tasting room, you can try a flight or a cocktail before taking a bottle home. Follow their story on Instagram or Facebook, @117westspirits

If you want to see what I’m drinking (or know what I’m thinking) be sure to follow Cheers! North County on Instagram and Twitter.

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