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Copper Collar Distillery in Santee derives its name from the naval term for old copper diving helmets with glass portholes, pictured above
Copper Collar Distillery in Santee derives its name from the naval term for old copper diving helmets with glass portholes, pictured above. Photo via Facebook/Copper Collar Distillery
Cheers! North County Columns Food & Wine

In the moment with Scott Nixon of Copper Collar Distillery

Copper Collar Distillery in Santee is a very small batch operation focused on producing batches of vodka, gin and rum. Scott Nixon, co-owner and general manager of Copper Collar, tells us more about the distillery and what is next for the brand in a post-COVID landscape.

Cheers!: Hi Scott, thanks for getting me up to speed with what’s going on at Copper Collar Distillery right now. Earlier this spring, you dropped some big news that you are closing your current Santee location in September and working on moving to a new location. Why the change, and what is in the works for the distillery?

Scott: Hi Ryan…Yes, we do really need to find a new location for our distillery, but moving a distillery is very challenging for a multitude of reasons. The challenges we face are that state and federal licensing processes can make moving a huge challenge for small distilleries. Many landlords do not want to lease to us because they expect the same crowd as a bar, and lease rates are through the roof right now.

We selected our current location back in 2015 because it had dirt-cheap rent, and we were just messing around when we started this whole distillery idea. We have really picked up a lot of knowledge on the spirits industry, and it is past time for us to break out and make this our full-time gig, but that is easier said than done in San Diego due to the cost of living here.

Copper Collar Distillery in Santee produces small batches of craft rum, vodka and gin
Copper Collar Distillery in Santee produces small batches of craft spirits. Photo via Facebook/Copper Collar Distillery

What’s happening with our current location is the rent for our space is going to nearly double from our original amount once we renew our lease in September of 2022, but that isn’t the real problem. We could make things work in our current location if it were suitable for our growth needs, but our current location doesn’t have the electrical capacity for our business to function as a full-time distillery. Having a suitable energy supply for the distillery is key to sustaining our growth.

We currently have 110 power going through aluminum wires, and this is just not ideal for our equipment which should be receiving three-phase power to function as designed.

Our plan is to move to a location that has the electrical supply we need, but we may need to put this on hold for maybe another year. I had the idea to close us down and avoid the coming rent increase. This would allow us to focus all our efforts on the move, and it also adds a certain pucker factor to keep moving forward as efficiently as possible.

My concerns are that if the economy continues to take a tumble, we could lose track of the distillery while the economy is in flux. As difficult as it will be to try to cover this rent increase, staying put until the world settles down is quite possibly the best plan for us right now. We have a lot of time and money invested into this business, so the risk of losing it is far worse than accepting a year of increased expenses. We have something good going on here, and I am willing to risk a lot in the short term to keep us going in the long term.

Cheers!: I think Copper Collar is a naval term. What does it mean, and what inspired you to make it the name of your distillery?

Scott: Yes, copper collar refers to the round diving helmets with the small port glass we see in old sepia-tone photos, Looney Tunes cartoons, and almost any other photo of an old-timey diver. These old-style helmets were used from the time of Moses up until the mid-1980s. They were beautiful, highly technological creations of their day.

Now, [they are] mostly treated as novelty items for an eccentric art collection. Early divers wore these heavy helmets on their shoulders to keep them alive in an environment where humans were not designed to live. The actual copper collar term comes from the breastplate that rests over the shoulders of the diver. The dome which covers the diver’s head connects to the breastplate just before the diver is ready to enter the water.

So, what we would see, as the diver is preparing to dive, would be a white canvas-looking suit with a fancy copper collar, hence the name, “Copper Collar Worker.” We like to say we are not white-collar workers because white-collar workers don’t get dirty when they work, and their hands are soft. We are not blue-collar workers because we still go ballroom dancing, race Ferraris, and play pickleball.

I’m actually not sure if blue-collar workers do any of this, but I expect you get the point. Navy divers are often a special breed of people.

The reason we went by this name is that Jason and I first met in the Navy, where we were serving as Navy divers. We threw around a lot of ideas for names, but we ultimately landed on Copper Collar because copper played a huge role in distilling and diving throughout history. It seemed like a flattering juxtaposition between an element, two different industries, and two navy divers.

I will also say we were well involved in the spirits industry during our time as active-duty Navy divers, just in a different way. Mostly consumption, to be honest.

Cheers!: What inspired you to take on the challenge of starting a distillery in the first place?

Scott: I am glad you asked. This is my favorite part of our story. I completed my Navy service in December 2013. I was going to complete my business degree and become an upstanding member of society, but then Jason called me in January 2014 and proposed the idea of starting a distillery.

With absolutely zero research, no plan, and no knowledge of what is required to start a distillery, I naturally responded to Jason with an affirmative. Anyone who really knows me knows that I really only function under a constant state of crisis.

I’m not big on busy work or excessive planning. I’m the ideas guy. My philosophy is that things tend to work themselves out naturally if you ignore them long enough. Otherwise, they turn into a problem, and I enjoy solving problems.

Copper Collar also makes limited edition batches for its "Friday Diver" spirit line. The spirit pictured above is made of brown sugar and molasses silver rum and flavored with French oak wood chips.
Copper Collar also makes limited edition batches for its “Friday Diver” spirit line. The spirit pictured above is made of brown sugar and molasses silver rum and flavored with French oak wood chips. Photo via Facebook/Copper Collar Distillery

I can also say with a high degree of certainty that had we done the research, we would have never gotten off the ground.

It was so robotic in how we started. In three months, we had an LLC. In six months, we had our lease and started applying for our licenses. We were just shooting in the dark the whole way through.

The other members of the San Diego Distiller’s Guild were a huge help as well. They would give us pointers on what to do next, but really, we were all so very new at the time that we were all just sharing stories of our experiences so we could get this industry off the ground.

We realized early on that we were not going to succeed without each other. The alcohol industry is not structured in a way that is friendly to new entrants. The laws and regulations are typically about 80 to 100 years old, and the interpretation of the law differs from one agent to the next. So, the best practice is to stay out of what we call the gray area unless you like to fight with the government.

Cheers!: Copper Collar Distillery has been in business for coming up on six years, but the last two have been under the cloud of the pandemic. What have the pandemic years been like for you and your co-founder Jason Pelle, and has the experience changed how you do business?

Scott: Wow, yeah, over seven years, if we count from the time we were founded. What many folks don’t know is that it takes around a-year-and-a-half for initial state and federal licensing for a craft distillery. We were paying rent in an unused space while our licensing applications were in-progress.

Since this whole COVID thing happened, we have been cut off at the knees for growth potential since community events were canceled. Festivals and community events where we pour samples are our life’s blood.

The widespread canceling of events caused our growth to almost flatline in 2021, and 2022 has not yet shown a real significant boost since events and festivals are just now coming back online. I expect this to change by summer as folks are getting out and about and events are coming back.

Cheers!: If you were to make a drink or a cocktail for someone who had never tried your spirits? What would it be and why?

Scott: That is a great question because we craft our spirits with two major considerations. I don’t drink cocktails because I am prone to near out-of-body experiences when I mix sugar and liquor. I like to keep my wits about me, and cocktails blur that line. Jason does not normally drink spirits neat.

This polarization in our preferences forces us to create spirits that can be enjoyed neat or in a cocktail. If either of us does not agree on the usefulness of a particular spirit, it is scrapped or reimagined until we have a consensus. However, I do love to tweak tiki cocktail recipes to work with our spirits.

My favorite, my absolute favorite, is my version of a Demerara Dry Float. I will allow myself one of these every now and again just because it is so flavorful. Jason might tell you to mix our silver rum with a good root beer for a hard root beer. I will say that it is quite tasty, but I am not fond of soda at all. I stick to my three main liquids, coffee, water, and liquor.

Copper Collar Distillery's barrel-aged rum with notes of toffee, caramel and dried apricot. Photo via Facebook/Copper Collar distillery
Copper Collar’s barrel-aged rum with notes of toffee, caramel and dried apricot. Photo via Facebook/Copper Collar distillery

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

Scott: At the moment, we have three barrels of brandy that we need to get bottled at some point. We will have a five-year-old brandy in September of this year and a four-year-old brandy in November of this year. I think we are going to bottle at least one of these.

We have more barrels of rum aging, and I have plans to make a dark rum in the near future. We might also bring back our batch one vodka under a different name since it wasn’t really a vodka. Folks loved it because of the banana candy flavor that carried over from fermentation.

And, I am very determined to buy a new kettle for our still so we can start dabbling in whiskey. The kettle we currently have is not ideal for distilling whiskey. This upgrade needs to happen soon.

I also have a feeling there are going to be changes to our plan by the time September 2022 rolls around, but one thing is for sure, we are not going to quit on the distillery. This business is our retirement plan, and I want to retire in the next few years. When I say, retire, I mean work 100 hours a week doing what I love.

I’m the type of person who will still be working when I am old and senile. Hopefully, when that day comes, I will have a brilliant team who can nod their heads at my incoherent ideas and then do the right thing once I go take a nap.

Cheers!: What is the best way for SoCal residents to try or buy Copper Collar Distilling spirits?

Scott: In our current condition, we are not focusing hardly any attention on distribution. If anyone wants to try our products, they can see our most up-to-date list of retailers on our website, but not all of our products are at each of the retailers we work with.

Right now, the best bet is to reach out to our retailers to ask them to get more of our products or stop by the distillery when we are open. We post updates about new releases and new partnerships with retailers on our social media and our website.

The tasting room at Copper Collar Distillery is opening Saturdays from 1:00-7:00 PM or Friday-Sunday by Appointment. Be sure to follow them on Instagram and Facebook, @coppercollardistillery, for regular updates and special events.

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