Gin-Grinning at the San Diego Spirits Fest

Myself and judge Rich Manning cheer after sampling more than 50 spirits.

While judging the 9th Annual San Diego Spirits fest, director George Manska delivers our third flight of the morning in his trademark NEAT glassware, covered with numbered paper lids. I waste no time sniffing a few, only to get two nostrils full of juniper bursting from the small vase-like glasses. “Hooray! We got gin!” I say to the other judges’ delight, my voice echoing across the vast open hall normally meant for boarding cruise ships. This morning, the space only has three tables, twelve chairs, and the Broadway Pier window separating us from the view of perma-sunny downtown San Diego.

As our table experts silently work their way through the gin flight, we each jot down notes, put stars next to the ones we want to talk about, then open with discussion. “I thought No. 5 was phenomenal, definite double-gold territory for me,” I say. To my surprise, we unanimously agree. My notes are something to the effect of “spring in a glass, spruce tips, jasmine, citrus…mouthfeel ++, finish ++.” There aren’t too many gins one could possibly want to drink neat, but this is one that sent goosebumps riding down my arms.

Queensborough Small Batch Gin: photo courtesy their facebook

After five hours of judging, I’m dying to see what that gin No. 5 was and to possibly get another taste. Was it something ubiquitous like Hendricks, or something local from Cutwater Spirits in San Diego? Neither! We were all shocked to see we blind-picked last year’s gold winner and the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition double-gold winner: from Canada, Queensborough Small Batch Gin. Nothing is more gratifying to a judge than agreeing blindly with other well-respected sip-smiths, proving the sheer quality and deliciousness of a particular spirit. Being that it’s small batch, locating a bottle may take some finagling, however.

During the festival, I came across two other non-American gins worthy of locating; the first from Portugal, a gin with 13 botanicals including hops, appropriately called Gin 13. I’ve infused my own hops and juniper berries in vodka to great success in the past, but this expression is so clean and fresh, it’s a must find. Available at Cost Plus World Market.

A flight of four NEAT glassware for the judges

From Italy, Malfy’s citrus-forward gin nearly drinks like a super-dry limoncello, where coastal Italian lemon dominates the aromatics. Their quick and easy cocktail served at the festival mixed a canned Italian soda called Lemoncocco for a vibrant, tropical, and simple drink. Seek out the pairing at Bevmo! or Total Wine & More.

The San Diego Spirits Fest happens annually in August and is full of entertainment: Bollywood dancers, a burlesque show, a fashion show, as well as a great local band. Visit for more info.


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