Sustainability & Small Batch Spirits in San Diego
We get it: San Diego has perfect weather. It’s almost obnoxiously perfect to those who yearn for autumn leaves and spring rain, but it’s anything but obnoxious to the over 5,000 farmers who call it home. With a growing season that lasts all year round, an abundance of local produce consistently makes its way to local farmers markets, restaurants, and yes—bars.
Although San Diego’s craft beer scene has reigned supreme for a decade, artisanal distilleries are quietly—and quickly— catching up in popularity. Palate fatigue over ultra-hoppy brews may account for some of the switch, but innovative cocktail techniques and an emphasis on sustainability also contribute to the local shift.
Some distilleries—like 619 Vodka and You & Yours Distilling Company—pride themselves at sourcing organic and local ingredients to make their spirits. Many restaurants specifically stock their bar and kitchen with as many sustainable ingredients as they can—like Café 21, which works with Los Angeles-based organic spirits maker Greenbar Distillery, or One Door North, which partners with the Surfrider Foundation and follows their “Ocean Friendly Restaurant Policy.”
A number of bar and restaurant cocktail programs, like Royale, actually spun off from farms. Jordan Brownwood, co-owner of Royale and Nopalito Farms, an eight-acre certified organic farm in northern San Diego, explains. “During the early stages of opening Royale, we started thinking about how to incorporate our produce into the cocktail program. We had the freshest possible ingredients right at our fingertips, so it wasn't really ever a question of if we should use our own organic fruit, just how to use it.”
Although San Diego does enjoy a non-stop growing season, that doesn’t mean chefs or bartenders have unlimited access to the same ingredients all the time. Chef Leyla Javadov of Café 21 describes the challenge of a having a rotating supply: “One of the most important concepts that we stick to every day is sustainability, which can be tricky during months when certain things are not in season. But having one of the best fruit and vegetable purveyors in San Diego really helps us out. We use whatever is in season, and everything is organic. All of the fruit is utilized to develop unique and balanced cocktails.”
This seasonality forces creativity, which continues to set the bar high when it comes to San Diego’s cocktail industry. Of course, the State of California’s Craft Distillers Act of 2015 (AB 1295), which eased restrictions on small-scale distillers, helped cultivate a more conducive environment for sustainable spirits to flourish. Still, the alternating produce grown locally means cocktail menus are in constant flux. Brownwood takes it in stride. “A patron might initially be upset when we can't pour them a daiquiri in April, but when we put a kumquat rum smash in front of them instead, that feeling is usually quickly forgotten.”
Distilleries aren’t exempt from the seasonal sourcing challenges either. Laura Johnson, owner and head distiller at You & Yours, uses blood oranges to make their popular Winter Gin. A bad crop in 2017 limited their ability to mass produce the specific spirit, which meant she had to focus her attention elsewhere. And once her supply of blood oranges runs out, that’s it. “We'll stop making that gin until next year, regardless of demand.” Even with those challenges, distilleries like You & Yours remain steadfast in their commitment to sustainability, following a “zero waste” approach in their cocktail programs.
“Because we use so much fresh citrus in our gins, we have a lot of peeled citrus leftover that gets juiced for the menu,” says Johnson. “Anything else we have left—herb stems or other scraps, garnish, etc.—also gets juiced or similarly broken down into syrups or cordials that can either be used for Dealer's Choices or frozen for later use. Anything we can't put to good use gets composted.” Customers seem to notice and appreciate this attention to detail and commitment to sustainability, even in small amounts. While 100% local, sustainable, organic sourcing isn’t always possible, many San Diego bars, restaurants, and distilleries do what they can without restricting themselves into an inability to produce. For example, 619 Vodka uses mostly locally farmed ingredients — specifically for their fruit-forward Limoncellos — but for non-regional items like vanilla, owner Nick Apostolopoulos is comfortable looking beyond Southern California.
With the idea that even a little bit helps, it’s no wonder San Diego’s cocktail scene continues to push the envelope of sustainability and responsible sourcing. And to those who haven’t yet embraced the movement, Chef Layla has some advice.
“I would tell them to get on the train fast.”
Beth Demmon is a San Diego-based freelance writer and journalist who specializes in food + drink. Follow her on Instagram at @thedelightedbite or view her work at San Diego CityBeat, Thrillist, Hipcamp, or bethdemmon.com.