Cheers!: Hey Ken, thanks for chatting with me about Malahat Spirits Company. I want to start with the most important thing, the spirits. The distillery is known for its award-winning rum, and you also produce whiskey. What inspired you to focus on those spirits?
Ken Lee: This really started as a passion project, so it really boils down to what we love to drink. And most importantly, create something that I would rather drink than something on the shelf. Everything is created to personal preference, and it’s great that so many enjoy them and that our spirits have received so many accolades for the hard work that was put into each drop.
Cheers!: How did you settle on the name Malahat (which I think is also the name of a ship), and for someone who hasn’t visited your tasting room, what is the style or theme of the tasting room experience?
Ken: The key was to tie the distillery to San Diego. After spending time researching online, visiting the archives of the public library and then the archives of the San Diego Historical Society, we found that there wasn’t a lot of history of distilling in San Diego, but there were many articles about how the Coast Guard was having so much trouble with rum running ships supplying booze into San Diego.
The largest rum runner that carried more contraband liquor than any other was the Malahat. She was known as the Queen of Rum Row and used to supply liquor to San Diego during prohibition. What an appropriate name to carry the torch and supply spirits to San Diego and beyond.
Cheers!: We’ve been working through various stages of the pandemic for over two years. What have the pandemic years been like for you and your team. How has your business changed or been challenged?
Ken: The pandemic was really tough in so many ways. The toughest was dealing with the supply chain. It was one thing to hear about it, but to experience firsthand and maneuver through it was a daily and sometimes an hourly challenge. You realize how fragile our system can be and how dependent we are on each other.
On the positive side, it was great to see how the hospitality industry really rallied together through it. It was tough on all of us, and I really wanted to see my friends in the industry survive. We have an amazing culture of hospitality in San Diego, and it was great to see the unselfishness and giving nature of so many.
Cheers!: If my math is right, Malahat has been producing spirits for more than nine years (please correct me if that is wrong.). That makes you part of the old guard when it comes to local distillery operations. What inspired you to start the company, and how did you get into distilling in the first place?
Ken: It really was a passion project. Like so many great ideas, it started over drinks at our local hangout. Already making beer and wine at home, the obvious next step was to experiment with distilling.
The San Diego beer culture was actually a big inspiration, and [we] wanted to bring that same innovation to spirits. I’ve been a spirits enthusiast for years, so I wanted to bring a level of quality that you could sip neat if you wanted.
Cheers!: What is on the horizon for Malahat Spirits? What’s next?
Ken: Innovating is my favorite part. Whether working on collaborations or creating something new. I like to bring personal experience into the spirits and take a culinary approach to each recipe. The next release will be a line of gins. I have had ideas for this for years, but there are so many ways to approach this. The first two releases will be the Coastal Gin, inspired by citrus notes.
The secret sauce is bringing in the citrus aroma and flavors without using citrus, which gives more acidity to the gin and reduces the mouthfeel I was looking for. The approach allowed for a richness to the gin while still providing the citrus notes.
The other is the Mekong River Gin. This was inspired by a trip to Southeast Asia. I have been fascinated by the botanicals in that region and wanted to translate that into a gin. It is so unique. I didn’t know if the public would feel as passionately about it, but the early response has been amazing.
Cheers!: Finally, you have some pretty good-looking cocktails on your menu. If you were to recommend one drink or a cocktail for someone who had never tried your spirits? What would it be and why?
Ken: My go-to drink is usually a Rye Old fashioned when I’m not drinking something neat. That being said, I love seeing what our staff has produced for our cocktail menu. Their innovation and mix of flavors are amazing, and I truly appreciate their talents.
All the syrups are made in-house, and the juices are pressed right here. I love being surprised by the culmination of flavors. One stand out was the Tom Kha-cktial we had a few months back with our ginger rum. It was one of the most innovative cocktails I’ve ever had.
Cheers!: Besides visiting the tasting room directly, what is the best way for readers to get their hands on Malahat Spirits?
Ken: We are proudly in many of the local bottle shops and many local restaurants. We are also in many chains such as Bevmo, Total Wine, and many Von/Albertsons/Pavillions, as well as many others out of state.
Cheers!: What did we miss? Anything else you want readers to know about Malahat Spirits right now?
Ken: The quality of our spirits and innovation are our pride and joy. There are many things that you can only get at the tasting room, so please come by. When you walk in, it’s been compared to Pirates of the Caribbean.
A friend of mine had ties to the Star of India and San Diego Maritime Museum, so a lot of the pieces that decorate the tasting room are actually over 100 years old. It’s a great place to see a working distillery and learn about the craft or just enjoy a tasting or a cocktail.
Malahat Spirits Company is located at 8706 Production Avenue. in San Diego, California. The tasting room is open Thursday-Friday 4-9 p.m., Saturday Noon-9 p.m., and Sunday Noon-4 p.m. Be sure to follow and share your drinking adventures with Cheers! North County on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.