This summer, I attended the San Diego Spirits Festival and I have been meaning to write about it for some time. I think I needed some time to mull it over. After going to several spirits events around the same time, I was worried that my perspective might have been a bit skewed. There were some very good things about the SDSF: I met some cool local producers, the event was held at a beautiful location and the staff seem to genuinely want to put on a great event. I was very happy to make a local connection with the people at Manzanita Brewing and Distilling. These guys are making some really exceptional beer and we should all be on the lookout for fantastic distilled products from their beautiful hybrid still in the near future – their cane-based So Cal Moonshine is hitting the market now and other impressive spirits are in the works.
So you might ask yourself, why I was conflicted about the event, and why did it take me so long to write this review? The first glaring issue was the price. The tickets were ninety dollars for each of the four-hour days. This is more expensive than Comic Con, Tales of the Cocktail, Miami Rum Fest and any other similar event I have ever been to. If I had not been given a press pass I would not have attended. I wish I could say that the event was so amazing that it was a bargain at that price, but sadly it wasn’t. The event was small compared to other spirits festivals, and though some of the products had credibility, most were gimmicky and some even a little scary. There were the little pods and shots that adorn liquor store counters, right next to the lighters. There was tequila with gold flakes, tequila with bubbles, and tequila that was dirty. There were countless artificially flavored vodkas, rums, whiskeys, and, yes, more tequilas. Of the seventy or so announced liquors in attendance, great brands were sparse: Diplomatico, Hudson, Woodford, Blue Coat, Hendrick’s, Angels Envy, Milagro, and I am sure a few others that were lost in the mix. Their claim to be San Diego Cocktail Week is also a bit weak, as I could find no associated events or anything else that would support that name other that their eight hours spread over two days.
And that may be the real flag of what is the heart of my problem with San Diego Spirits Festival. Although San Diego has truly started developing some world-class cocktail bars, the cocktail scene in this town is still young. Drinking culture in San Diego is still more tuned to shots and vodka-red bulls than high-end spirits and carefully crafted mixed drinks. Rather than leading the way, San Diego Spirits Festival caters to the immature face of the San Diego drinking scene: sweet, artificially flavored vodkas and single-serving Buzz Ballz, spirits whose selling points are flashing shot glasses, beads, and Vince Neil on the label, rather than taste, age, or distilling technique. Instead of featuring icons and academics of the cocktail community, the festival trumpeted the attendance of past-their-prime musicians and porn stars. While a festival has to cater to its market, I believe it should also have a role in expanding the palette and the horizons of those who attend, particularly if it wants to serve as an anchoring weekend for a destination Spirits Week in the future.
The San Diego cocktail scene still has some maturing to do, but I take the sign that we can support a two-day spirits event as a hopeful sign for the future. San Diego Spirits Festival is still a young event that I hope will grow in time to take on a more dynamic role in making this transformation take place.
Photos from San Diego Spirits Festival 2013