New Distillery Drifts Into South County

Stepping into Drift Distillery’s new tasting room in San Clemente, it’s easy to feel like you stepped into rural Kansas, where owners Ryan and Lesli Winter hail from. Reclaimed wood and rustic tin siding from their hundred-year-old barn line the interior, and the smell of Hard Red Winter Wheat from their parent’s farm sits in big white sacks ready to be mashed. A few feet behind their Alabama-made Artisan copper-pot still, an open fermentation vat is bubbling their next creation: Whiskey made in San Clemente by smiling people with Midwest accents.

Ryan and Lesli Winter, photos Greg Nagel

Where are you guys from?
Ryan: I was born in Monterey, California and lived in the L.A. area until my parents divorced in the early ’80’s. I moved to Kansas when my mom remarried a farmer from there.  I grew up in Kansas mostly, but still made trips out here to visit family and friends every year. I went to the University of Kansas where I met my wife Lesli.

What did you do before the booze biz?
Lesli and I owned a small creative agency since 2008 and a few years ago we had the pleasure of working on a project with Ole Smoky Moonshine. It was probably the most fun I had working on a campaign and pitch since I started my design career almost 18 years ago. Since that moment, Lesli and I talked about creating our own spirits brand. As we researched spirits and our area, we noticed that Orange County had no distilleries. We worked on our business plan and started the process almost three years ago. I actually learned the craft from the guys up at Dry Fly Distilling in Spokane Washington. They offer a private distilling school for those wanting to enter the industry.

So, in the last couple years, we’ve been setting up the distillery and filling out a ton of paperwork.  We were told by the ABC that we were the first in Orange County to apply for the craft distillery license, but the good people over at Blinking Owl beat us to the punch on opening! Lesli and I are so stoked to be apart of something that is really rare in the O.C. and Southern California.

Be still, my heart.

Why San Clemente?
Firstly, San Clemente is our home. I had been to San Clemente as a kid and fell in love with the town…which was very different over 30 years ago. After Lesli and I got married, we moved here and our first little apartment was a converted garage by the pier. We love this town and the people here are very passionate about the community. This is where we wanted to plant our roots.

Working with the city was a challenge as we were the first distillery in town. I would say that the people at the city were excited to see us open and seemed helpful.  On the other hand, I was frustrated … It’s definitely not an easy task and took about seven more months longer than we anticipated to get here. That in itself can kill a business even before it gets started!

What’s the story with Drift?
There are a few different meanings behind the name. First, Water has a big influence in the name. From the great Pacific Ocean to the mountains and snow. Like most people here, we love our water. Whether we surf or fish in the ocean or hit the slopes in the winter time. The word Drift also means a continuous slow movement from one place to another. We want to keep moving in life and experience the most we can but do it with a purpose, not without thought.

Made in Alabama, Artisan Still.

What are you making in the short term? How about long term projects?
In the short term: vodka, unaged wheat whiskey, rum, and gin. Long-term, we’ll do rye whiskey, bourbon, and maybe an agave product. Our folks just got more land and may plant some rye.

California booze laws are janky concerning spirits tasting rooms. What are you able to serve?
With our license, we’ll be able to serve up to 1.5 ounces per person per visit. We’ll be able to serve that up in a couple small craft cocktails or a flight of spirits. A customer will also be able to purchase up to three bottles per day. We’re still working on pricing at this moment. But we’re thinking around $8 to $12 for cocktails or a flight of spirits. (Note: the tasting room isn’t open yet…stay tuned. Bottles are for sale this Saturday, June 24, from 2 to 8 p.m.)

I hear you soft open on Saturday, June 24 at 2 pm…
Yes! We will have bottles of our Vodka available for $35 plus tax, although the tasting room isn’t completely open, guests will be able to try a small sample (21 and over only) and purchase bottles from 2-8pm.

Drift Distilling batch-one vodka tasting notes: Take one sip and click your ruby slippers three times, you’re not in Kansas anymore! This vodka has a slick and airy mouthfeel, with first impressions of white cake, pleasant rain-like minerality, and an uplifting, fruity finish. Who says vodka should taste like nothing, my pretty? Drift’s family Hard Red Winter Wheat is the perfect fermentable for this velvety-frictionless clear spirit, good enough to grease the Tinman’s frozen joints. If I only had a brain!

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