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Old Harbor Distilling Co. founder Michael Skubic. Photo courtesy Old Harbor Distilling Co.
Old Harbor Distilling Co. founder Michael Skubic. Photo courtesy Old Harbor Distilling Co.
Cheers! North County Columns

In the moment with Old Harbor Distilling Co.

Cheers! Hey Michael, thanks for getting me up to speed with what’s going on at Old Harbor Distilling Co. We’ve been working through various stages of the pandemic for over two years. Things are looking a bit more optimistic right now. What have the pandemic years been like for you and your team, and how are you as an owner feeling now?

Michael Skubic: We had to make a big shift from 75% on-premise pre-pandemic to about 75% off-premise during the lockdown. One benefit is that people started to make cocktails at home. I believe that online sales of cocktail shakers went up something around 500% in 2020.

Cheers! OHD has been operating since 2013, which makes you part of the old guard in terms of local distillers. What inspired you to start the company, and how did you get into distilling in the first place?

Michael: I got into the alcohol industry by helping open Mike Hess Brewing as the first nano-brewery in San Diego. About three years into that, I realized that I was more of a whiskey and gin drinker.

Old Harbor Distilling's members-only speakeasy is now open in the East Village downtown. Photo courtesy Old Harbor Distilling Co.
Old Harbor Distilling’s members-only speakeasy is now open in the East Village downtown. Photo courtesy Old Harbor Distilling Co.

So, I started to do research into what it would take to start a distillery. I visited some craft distilleries around the country in Oregon, Washington and Colorado and found that it was pretty similar to making beer, just taking it to the next level.

Whiskey is what beer wants to be when it grows up! I started developing the recipe for San Miguel Southwestern Gin in my backyard on homemade still. When I located our East Village warehouse, I dove in headfirst and here we are nine years later.

Cheers! For someone who isn’t familiar with the OHD brand, explain the theme or vibe and what inspired you to pursue that style?

Old Harbor Distilling Co., founded in 2013, is located in downtown San Diego. Photo courtesy Old Harbor Distilling Co.
Old Harbor Distilling Co., founded in 2013, is located in downtown San Diego. Photo courtesy Old Harbor Distilling Co.

Michael: Old Harbor Distilling Co. has a respect for history and place. Our first spirit was named after the original designation of San Diego, which Cabrillo called “San Miguel” when he landed here in 1542. Hence the name “Old Harbor” since San Diego is the oldest harbor on the West Coast.

In keeping with that, we make a 100% native California botanical gin called “1542,” since everything in it could have been sourced when Cabrillo landed in Point Loma.

Our Barrelflag Rum is Navy Strength, which obviously has some strong ties to San Diego culture and history, being (as this is a) Navy town.

The still is called the Belafonte, a reference to the boat in the movie "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" Photo courtesy Old Harbor Distilling Co.
The still is called the Belafonte, a reference to the boat in the movie “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” Photo courtesy Old Harbor Distilling Co.

We launched the Adventure Series, which uses artwork that showcases California’s amazing terrains from hanging at the beach, hiking at the mountains or hitting the slopes.

Cheers! You have a new speakeasy location on the way. What is the status and what are your goals for the new space?

Michael: It’s now open! The prop shop is a “members-only” speakeasy, The Commodores Club (is) located within our East Village warehouse. We offer three tiers of membership.

  • Level 1: Skipper— You can make reservations or get on the waitlist if it’s fully booked.
  • Level 2: Captain— You have access to first bookings and we always keep a limited number of seats for these members open for last-minute bookings. Additionally, (you have) first dibs on our latest spirit release. Lots of whiskey in the pipeline!
  • Level 3: Commodore— This one is special. You get to “rent” one of our 5-gallon barrels and put either bourbon, rye, single malt or rum into your barrel! There are about 25 750ML bottles per barrel at cask strength. You can pull out up to three bottles per day (California law prohibits more than that) until the barrel is dry. You can then refill it if you choose. You also get Captain’s level benefits plus 10% off all purchases.

The space is very intimate and seats about 20 people. It was hand-built by myself and my good friend Mikey Eastman at our in-house carpentry shop. (It has) a truly nautical-vibe, turn-of-the-century feel with a cast-iron fire stove, gimbaled sconces, vintage Tiffany lights. It’s a beautiful space to have a few cocktails.

Photo courtesy Old Harbor Distilling Co.
Photo courtesy Old Harbor Distilling Co.

Cheers! I can’t forget to ask about the spirits. What do I need to know, and what inspired the newer Voyager and Adventure series of spirits?

Michael: We launched San Miguel Southwestern Gin on Sept. 28, 2014. … Since then, we have created many fun spirits — Ampersand Cold Press Coffee Liqueur, Barrelflag Navy Strength Rum and 1542 California Native Botanical Gin.

Voyager is our barrel-aged spirits series. Blake, our master distiller, has released our mezcal cask-rested San Miguel and a cabernet sauvignon barrel-aged cask strength rum, so far.

The Adventure Series was our way of creating an affordable entry into craft spirits; they typically MSRP for around $12-$18.

Cheers! Finally, if you were to make a drink or a cocktail for someone who had never tried your spirits, what would it be and why?

Michael: My go-to is a classic gin rickey with our San Miguel Southwestern Gin. Just 2 ounces gin and ¾ ounce lime juice over ice then topped off with soda water.

It was known to be Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite cocktail and I think it is perfect for a hot summer day. It really lets the Southwestern botanicals shine: cucumber, lime, cilantro, sage, coriander and juniper.

Cheers! What did we miss? Anything else you want readers to know about OHD right now?

Michael: We are also in the process of opening a distillery pub in Seaport Village. Extremely excited for that! Old Harbor on the harbor in downtown San Diego.

Old Harbor Distilling Co. is located at 270 17th St. in downtown San Diego. Reservations for The Commodores Club are required.

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