It’s been a tough few years, especially for distilleries, and even more so for smaller distilleries. California might have it the worst of all though — their local distilling scene only really kicked into gear in 2018, so shops like Pacific Coast Spirits only had a few precious months of operating revenue before the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down cold. Despite those challenges, though, they’ve been able to put out an impressive array of spirits, including a 4 year aged bourbon that we’re reviewing today.
California hasn’t always been the most welcoming place for the spirits industry. Despite the repeal of prohibition in 1933, California maintained a set of regulations that made it prohibitively expensive for small distilleries to open up shop and get into business. That remained the case until 2018, when California passed the Craft Distillers Op-pour-tunity Act, which finally paved the way for the surfers to start sour mashing.
Nicholas Hammond says that his love of spirits came from his college days studying mechanical engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he acquired a taste for tequila. But while most college students simply enjoy their spirits recreationally, Hammond wanted to get into the business and traveled to Mexico and Chile to learn about the local distilleries and see about becoming an importer. He quickly learned that the importation path was prohibitively expensive and said the words most good distillers say at some point — “screw it, I’ll do it myself”.
While working a full time day job, Hammond earned a certificate in winemaking and spent a year as an assistant winemaker in Napa Valley. With the looming passage of the pro-distillery legislation in California, he started focusing on learning about distilling, and started looking for a location to put his knowledge of the theory of distilling into practice.
In 2017, Hammond thought he had found a location for his new distillery… only to be turned down by the city of Carlsbad. He finally found a spot in nearby Oceanside in a former furniture store, and together with a group of five friends, converted the location into a proper distillery, bar, and restaurant. They formally opened the doors on December 5th, 2019 (the anniversary of the end of prohibition).
Shortly after turning on the lights, though, the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered in-person activities and put a severe kink in Hammond’s plans. The distillery shifted to production of hand sanitizer for the community to meet the booming need and weathered the pandemic, emerging on the other side with an improved food menu and a set of aged spirits ready to go.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
The details on this spirit are a little cagey, but after doing a little investigative work (and with some appreciated corrections from the distillery themselves), I think I’ve figured out the broad strokes.
First things first: you might have done the math and realized that a 4+ year aged spirit coming from a facility that’s only been open less than two years is a little suspicious. But while the facility has been open only a short period of time, the people behind the distillery have been busy behind the scenes making sure that there’s an aged whiskey on the shelves for opening day.
Even before they had their own still and facility the folks behind Pacific Coast Spirits worked with other distilleries in San Marcos and Los Angeles, trading their time and expertise working on those distilleries’ products in exchange for being able to run their stills and make their own product in the off hours. That’s how this spirit came to exist — it’s PCS’s recipe, run by PCS employees, just on someone else’s still.
As a bourbon, we know that at least 51% of the grain bill for this spirit comes from corn. In fact, the typical grain bill for the Pacific Coast Spirits bourbon is 75% non-GMO California corn paired with 10% California two-row barley and 15% specialty grains. In this case, that last 15% is triticale, which is a lab-designed hybrid plant made from wheat and rye from Scotland.
Once the grains are cooked and fermented, they are then batch distilled twice in pot stills before being placed into charred new oak barrels. In this specific batch, the whiskey has been dormant for 4 years and 3 months before it is processed and bottled for sale.
The bottle is a pretty typical design for a spirits bottle, especially a newer craft distillery. There’s a cylindrical body, rounded shoulder, and medium length straight walled neck that seems to take a minimalist approach to shape and structure. The bottle is capped off with a wood and cork stopper.
The primary label here is a large blue rectangle with shapes on it that look like either the elevation lines on a topographical map or the depth markings on a nautical chart. It’s a deep blue color with lighter blue lines and silver lettering, and the visual effect is nifty.
Wrapped around the bottle, almost like a strip of paper, is a beige label with all of the product information. Things like which expression it is, the lot number, age statement, and the government required labeling items. It’s a good design element that I see a lot of distilleries use, and I think it fits well here.
The label does hit one of my pet peeves, specifically that it is massive and the majority of the space isn’t really necessary. It obscures the beautifully dark color of the spirit inside the bottle, which really should be the star of the show, but there’s enough peeking around the sides that I won’t complain much.
Another pet peeve: the superfluous labeling. “Small batch” has no definition and is practically useless as a differentiator — I’m pretty sure the massive MGP prints that on some of their stuff. “Handmade” is similarly and annoyingly useless, as even mega brand Tito’s Vodka claims to be handmade. Even the “Distilled from 100% grains” at the bottom is just a waste of ink, since 27 CFR § 5.22 requires all bourbon to be made from only grains.
I get that I’m not the intended audience for those specific markings, but as a crotchety old man at heart, I’m still going to gripe about it.
It’s got a great first impression with a medium intensity amber color in the glass and a light to medium intensity aroma. In that aroma are a bunch of things that you’d expect from a bourbon: brown sugar, vanilla, some baking spices like nutmeg and cinnamon — but there’s also a bit of orange zest and a touch of dark chocolate making it more interesting.
That orange zest is also one of the predominant flavors you get as soon as you take a sip, complete with a touch of bitterness up front. It’s followed immediately by a good bit of brown sugar which starts to tone things down, some vanilla, and the chocolate bringing up the rear.
On the finish, it’s primarily the orange zest and the dark chocolate that persists for half a minute or so, with a touch of black peppery spice.
Sometimes, with the addition of a bit of ice, the whiskey can take a nose dive. The more delicate flavors tend to drop out of the running and what you’re left with is just a downgraded version of where you started. Thankfully, though, that doesn’t seem to have happened here.
What we’re getting seems to be an enhanced orange flavor, with the brown sugar taking a slight charred note to it. That charred brown sugar transforms into the dark chocolate as the flavor progresses, and the finish remains the same but without the added peppery spice.
Honestly, add a bit of simple syrup as-is and it’s pretty close to an old fashioned already.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
I like a darker and richer bourbon base for my old fashioned cocktails specifically because I feel like the balance is better once you add the bitters.
Some of the flavors in this spirit meet that description and absolutely balance the herbal notes nicely, but what really makes this something interesting and worthwhile to try is the added orange citrus flavor. It’s a splash of life and brightness in an otherwise dark yet herbal cocktail that adds some new complexity and is absolutely delicious.
This is a pretty good mule, but I don’t think that you’re really seeing all the benefits of the spirit here.
Up front, there’s absolutely some good balance in the flavors. The bright and cheerful ginger beer has been toned down by the sweetness and the depth of the bourbon and it’s all a good thing. But there’s nothing else really coming through. That orange citrus note seems to have been lost in the mix, and the peppery spice that showed up at first is similarly gone. Instead, there’s almost a malty texture on the end as opposed to the crisp and clean finish I’m used to.
Usually, distilleries take a little bit of time to find their way and get things right, but in this case I think their bourbon is already on-point.
I want to applaud the Pacific Coast Spirits folks for finding an authentic way to make a whiskey that truly is their own even before they had their own facility — most distillers would simply order in a bunch of pre-aged stuff from MGP and call it a day, but here they went above and beyond to hustle and make something truly their own. Just on someone else’s still until theirs gets up and running.
There are some great things going on in here, and some well-executed bourbon flavors that can make for some really nice cocktails. Or even sipping on the rocks. But there’s a slight bitterness up front that I think comes from the heads of the distilling run not quite being filtered out by the barrels as well as expected, and for the price and age on this I’d expect it to be a little bit tighter. Something that I feel like they’ll get dialed in for future runs now that they have their own still and time to perfect the process.
Overall though, a great first start for a new distillery.
|Pacific Coast Spirits California Triticale Bourbon|
Produced By: Pacific Coast SpiritsProduction Location: California, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: 4.25 Years
Proof: 47% ABV
Price: $70 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4/5
A big, bold bourbon with some great flavors that just needs a touch of refinement.
This review was updated 10/10/2021 with additional details provided by the distillery. This information did not change the overall rating.