San Clemente has long reigned as one of the capitals of craft brewing in Orange County, so it's perfect that OC's second-ever distillery since Prohibition just opened in the Spanish Village by the Sea. Drift Distillery is snug inside an office park in the city's interior, just across a hilly street from Artifex Brewing. The outside, with its black windows and sans serif font, hints at the design background of owner-distiller Ryan Winter.
But if you think the lobby and bar of Drift looks like a barn, you're right: the tin siding and reclaimed wood in the front comes from the Kansas farm where Winter grew up. And so does the wheat Winter buys from his stepfather to make vodka and other spirits to come, and the corn Winter plans to buy in the future.
Rock Chalk, Jayhawk, fam! Winter is Kansas to the core, down to his University of Kansas psychology degree to his wife, Lesli, who also runs Drift and whom Ryan brought to San Clemente on one of their first trips to Southern California about 20 years ago. "We were having lunch on the pier," Ryan says. "And I remember thinking, 'We've got to move here."
The couple did last decade, and Ryan opened up a creative agency that eventually got to do a bit of work for a moonshine company. Ryan's agency mostly worked in the tech world, but the experience so inspired him that he ended up going to a distillery school in Spokane, Washington, to learn everything possible about how to make booze. That led to Drift, which took three years to complete from the initial application to the first, beautiful bottles of vodka you can buy at the distillery (only three bottles and 1.5 ounces total tastings per day, lushes).
Drift is still in its early phases, but shows much promise. It's a fully family affair at the moment—"My kids help carry buckets on the weekend," Ryan says with a laugh. Vodka is the only available spirit right now, although Ryan says the gin will be ready in a month and rum in about two months. He just finished two barrels of wheat whiskey that should be ready in two years.
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Current hours are Monday-Friday, 2 p.m.-7 p.m, and Saturdays 11 a.m.-5 p.m. There are plans to make a full-fledged tasting room, eventual distribution (you'll only be able to buy Drift product at the distillery for the foreseeable future) and more formal tours—right now, just ask for one, and Ryan or Lesli will take you to the back and explain the distillation process, from the grain to the big vats where wheat is fermenting to the steampunk still that he bought from a company in Alabama.
And how is that vodka? Full review tomorrow!
Drift Distillery, 940 Calle Amanecer, Ste. K, San Clemente, (949) 337-2318. Instagram: @driftdistillery