Inspired by the ocean, influenced by art, infused with sunshine, that’s the way they do it at Surf City Still Works
Sit back. Relax. And pour yourself something delicious. It’s going to be a good day. Because it always is at Huntington Beach’s first independent craft distillery, Surf City Still Works.
From Chicago to California, tell us about your distilling journey. How did you end up in the spirits industry and work your way up to becoming a Master Distiller?
I grew up outside of Chicago and left to earn my degree in Chemical Engineering. I got really interested in fermentation science and started brewing beer while still in college. After finishing school I went back to Chicago and found distilling to be the intersection of my education and my enjoyment of cooking, brewing, and enjoying beers. I’ve been at it for over a decade now and just keep trying to hone my skills.
From the spirits, you produce at Surf City Still Works, which is your favorite child?
I think Whiskey will always remain my favorite. There’s nothing wrong with the other spirits but whiskey has more nuance and variety within the same category that is always just exciting to me. It feels the closest to beer and cooking by balancing the grains with the barrel and all the small changes that can happen along the way. It also has the most reward - despite having done this for a while, there’s always a small fear and a lot of excitement when opening a barrel that was laid down many months or years ago!
Can you describe a typical day at the distillery?
I’m not sure I truly have a typical day yet but it ranges from everything you can imagine. As construction comes to a close I’m not doing too much of that anymore but often a lot of planning and execution. A full day can be bottling or canning but also might be a full day of mashing or distilling. There are also tours and tastings that happen for clients. I also get to do the thing no one looks forward to taxes. But it’s all worth it in the end as a piece of the puzzle to keep the wheels moving.
Image: Bill Auxier
How do you bring together the artist and the scientist in you when distilling?
I’ve always had a passion for cooking and I think distilling really is just that - the science is just different. I also believe cooking is very much an artistic expression - some people are good at putting paint on canvas or notes together in sequence, I believe a brewery, winery, and distillery and chefs all express their creativity and artistic aspects of their personality through their creations. Building out a flavor profile of a dish or beverage needs to entice the consumer, no different than a painter and I think that’s the artistic side of distilling.
What factors do you look at when sourcing NGS?
I think sourcing NGS has a few factors. Price is always at play in a manufacturing environment but also the grain and flavor matter just as much. It doesn’t matter how cheap something is if it isn’t good but also doesn’t matter how good something is if no one can afford it. Usually looking for something neutral and if there is a small flavor component, we want it to be slightly sweet or approachable. It comes down to the senses at the end.
How do you experiment with casks to capture the perfect sweet point? Have you tried different kinds of wood and casks?
The best way to navigate casks is to have an infinite amount of them. Unfortunately, we don’t really get that option so there’s a lot of educated guessing for lack of a better phrase. Typically the wood behaves similarly within the same species but the same type of barrel laid down at the same time with the same spirit does not always make the same end product in the same timeline. It comes down to testing and blending to produce a consistent quality product. The first rule for ageing though is that if you don’t start with something good, it’s hard to expect something good to come out in the end.
Image Source: Surf City Still Works
Take us through your process of blending.
Blending is both exciting and a lot of work. When trying a number of casks to see if you want to blend them, you hope they all open up and come out to be great products but that’s not always the case. Sometimes you use different percentages of each cask, or one cask from a lot ends up with a completely different profile - often tasting younger despite the same age. When blending, I usually sit down with all of the options and smell then taste each offering. If it’s too overwhelming though as the senses get dulled, we’ll often come back the next day or a few hours later to make sure we aren’t missing something.
What is your ideal mash bill for the whiskeys you produce?
I love experimenting with whiskey but am also a big fan of bourbon. We currently run a sweet mash of 70% corn, 21% rye, and 9% malt bourbon at Surf City that’s available. We’ve got a few others in the works, different profiles and even different whiskey styles but we’ll save those for when they’re ready to harvest. The American single malt whiskey is coming up in popularity and really excited to see the evolution of that category.
What is your fermentation regime? How do you create complexity in the fermentation stage?
Fermentation is where you can first lose your whiskey so to speak so we try to keep it pretty tight. We run a clean fermentation with proper nutrition, maintaining good yeast health to avoid any off flavors. The type of yeast we use provides the nuance in the flavor we’re looking for but we also want to make sure we don’t stress the yeast for the off flavors.
What are some new things you’ve been trying recently?
I’ve been experimenting with some different malts for a single malt whiskey program and that’s been pretty fun and different. Hopefully, those whiskeys can speak for themselves a few years down the road!
Image Source: Surf City Still Works
What are the biggest challenges you face right now?
I think supply lines and costs will always remain to be some of the biggest challenges. We strive to make an accessible product and don’t want to price ourselves out of reach for our customers but have to balance that with the availability of items and the logistics of how to get ahold of some of those things.
What steps do you take to become more sustainable?
Sustainability is always a big question and some of that starts with our mashing process - running higher abv fermentations to reduce our water consumption is probably the first step. That alongside using cooling loops instead of sending water down the drain helps reduce our water usage. We’ve been taking a look at packaging in a few ways as well to try to help reduce some of our waste with some of those realities hopefully coming to fruition soon enough.
If you had to give a quick elevator pitch on why an account should bring in your product for its consumers, what would it be?
I’ve never been a salesperson but I think something along the lines of: We’re a Huntington Beach-based distillery that incorporates the local community in everything we can, including the art that decorates the bottle. The product is all made locally and at a price point that won’t break the bank. The bottles are a fine showpiece on the back bar as well as a nice spirit in the glass to enjoy with friends and family alike.
What do you do when you are not distilling?
I’m a game person so I’m always happy to play games with friends, whether it’s cards or board games. I also enjoy spending time outside at the beach or doing something active, such as biking or kicking a soccer ball around. I also enjoy cooking and recently got into making cheese at home so when I can find the time I’ll take on a project making some cheese to let age!
What is your favorite music and what drink goes with it?
I probably listen to classic rock a bit more than anything else but still enjoy just about any genre. In any case, I’m pretty sure I can argue that with its range of flavors and styles, whiskey goes with any type of music!
Image Source: Surf City Still Works