Meet the Distiller: Old Harbor’s Blake Heffernan
How plans to brew beer led to a gig at one of San Diego’s most respected distilleries
Photo: Nicole Magaudda
The Distillery: Old Harbor
Location: East Village
Spirits: San Miguel Southwestern Gin, Barrelflag Navy Strength Rum, Ampersand Cold Pressed Coffee Liqueur (a collaboration with Coffee & Tea Collective)
The Distiller: Blake Heffernan
Favorite Old Harbor spirit: Ampersand on the rocks
Favorite cocktail using an Old Harbor spirit: Herb & Wood’s Herb & Diego (San Miguel Gin, green chile liqueur, cucumber, egg white, lime, CBD oil)
Launched in 2014, San Diego’s Old Harbor Distilling Co. is known for its flagship San Miguel Southwestern Gin and its charismatic founder, Michael Skubic. Last year, Skubic decided to focus his attention on Old Harbor’s business side and brought in Blake Heffernan to run the distillery. Heffernan, who moved to San Diego five years ago to learn how to brew beer, has big plans to grow Old Harbor’s line of spirits. For this first installment in a series focusing on San Diego’s vibrant distillery scene, I sat down with him about how he ended up in distilling and what Old Harbor has lined up for 2019.
Heffernan, who grew up in Vermont, moved to San Diego in 2014 with the goal of making beer for a living. He got a job at Linda Vista’s Home Brew Mart, birthplace of Ballast Point. “It was kind of the perfect job to start,” he says. “I got to meet a lot of really talented guys who were working there at the time who have since gone on to important brewing positions in the community.”
From there, he moved to BNS Brewing in Santee, handling day-to-day tasks like washing kegs, weighing out hops, cleaning the fermentation tanks, and learning as much as he could from head brewer Dan Jensen. The plan was for BNS to be both a brewery and a distillery. When it came time to launch the distilling side, Heffernan volunteered because no one else at BNS wanted the job. From there, he was hooked. He made several barrels of whiskey, a small-batch vodka, and moonshine.
In 2017, Heffernan was offered a job at You & Yours Distilling Co., which was just then getting its start. He was working late one night when a couple of Australian guys stopped by for a tour. They hung around afterward, struck up a conversation with Heffernan, and asked if he wanted to help them start a distillery—in Australia. He said yes. Heffernan spent a few weeks in Queensland, helping get Granddad Jack’s Craft Distillery up and running, creating three gins and three whiskeys.
Heffernan met Skubic while hanging out at Counterpoint in Golden Hill. Since You & Yours and Old Harbor are just a few blocks apart, they’d bounce ideas off each other. When Ricky Warner, Skubic’s right-hand guy, got the opportunity to help start Scout, a craft beer and wine distribution company, Skubic asked Heffernan whether he was interested in taking over the production side of Old Harbor. “Michael decided to take more of a creative role,” he says. “He kind of points where he wants to go and then we just figure out how to make it happen.”
In the works is 1542, Old Harbor’s take on a London dry gin made with locally grown botanicals in collaboration with Nopalito Farm. There’s a tasty barrel-rested gin scheduled for a February release that’s begging to be used in a negroni. Also in the works is a barrel-aged rum, and a blended whiskey that’ll be sold under the name Aces High. “But craft whiskey is really what I'm excited about doing,” Heffernan says. “Just doing a ton of small one-off batches.”
When I visited the distillery, there were pallets of beer that Heffernan plans to use to make craft whiskey. For instance, he’ll take an Imperial Stout, age it in a whiskey barrel, distill it, and put it back in a whiskey barrel. He plans to do the same with some apricot and cherry sours. “We won’t be able to call it a straight whiskey,” he says. “It would just be, like, an alternative whiskey.”
The releases will be pretty small—maybe 50 bottles each, and either sold out of the distillery or produced in collaboration with local bars and restaurants. Heffernan also has plans to make more traditional whiskeys and age them in smaller barrels for faster turnaround.
“I like to have fun with weird stuff,” he says, “and the more small barrels we fill, the more things we’ll get released in the meantime while all that whiskey’s aging.”
Keep an eye out for future distiller profiles. Meanwhile, email me with pitches, tips, and recommendations.