San Diego is seemingly synonymous with craft beer. With big brewery births such as Karl Strauss Brewing (1989), Pizza Port (1987), Stone Brewing (1996), and Ballast Point (1996), it’s no surprise these beer producers are considered the Mount Rushmore of California craft. Now at more than 150 breweries in San Diego County alone, certain areas are drowning in beer saturation, paving the way for something different: spirits, sake, wine, cider, and even mead.
On a recent day trip, my goal was to experience this San Diego non-beer renaissance, have a few tasters, and pack the car with a proper booze haul. Within a five-mile radius in the Miramar (aka Beeramar)-Scripps Ranch area, I discovered world-class spirits, sake, and cider. Who knew?
Stop one: Cutwater Spirits. Aside from the nautically-themed name, the only reminder of its not-so-distant past remains on tap in their restaurant: Ballast Point Sculpin IPA. After selling off the beer brand to Constellation Brands, the owners rebranded Ballast Point Spirits as Cutwater. After enjoying lunch or dinner and a cocktail in their modern open-air restaurant and bar, be sure to get a tour, “for educational purposes,” which is actually required by the state to purchase bottles to go. If you’re in a hurry, you can download the Cutwater Spirits app and “educate yourself” while sipping a drink. I recommend: The Cutwater Burger, ground fresh and super juicy with pillowy buns. The salads are piled high and desserts are worthy of a split. Cocktails: If you’re an old fashioned fan, get the Noon Patrol. If you’re craving something more tropical, look no further than their mai tai made with Cutwater’s Bali Hai Tiki Gold Rum, which is also my pick for a bottle to take home. The bar also offers flights, but for a more educational experience, definitely, book a tour. A rainbow of canned cocktails is also available, though widely available in Orange County
Just a few lights away in a business park lies the Miralani Makers District which is sort of like an international food court of booze. Nano breweries, a winery, cidery, meadery, and even a salsa bar exist here, but you should totally try Setting Sun Sake. Once the roll-up doors open, you might be surprised to see skateboard decks on the walls, dudes comparing Japanese-style irezumi tattoos, and an utter lack of a stainless-steel brewing equipment (it’s all in the walk-in cooler). Grab a flight of unpasteurized sake in several styles, including clear, cloudy, fruited, and dry-hopped. Most versions sit around 14% ABV, so definitely grab some bottles to go. My favorite, the Ronin Clear Sake, “is made with California-grown rice that has been polished by massive stone wheels to remove the outer layers of the kernel, which eliminates the proteins and lipids from the rice kernel while polishing the rice to Ginjo grade as a statement of quality,” says Setting Sun president Josh Hembree.
You wouldn’t know the third stop, Newtopia Cyder, has only been open a year. On my visit, every table on the patio and inside the spacious facility was filled with people sipping bright and dry “cyders.” Co-founder and cyderist Rick Moreno got his start in the industry as co-owner of the famed beer bar Toronado in Seattle and also attended the University of Washington. His apples and other fruits are sourced locally in nearby Julian and Temecula and as far away as Santa Cruz, Hood River, and Yakima. Some of his ciders use a custom five-apple blend, but I find the single apple varietals are a great way to see what each are capable of. Take home a crowler of your favorite! Look out for releases in cans and bottles of their four “core” medal-winning cyders.