I remember the first time I heard the term “localvore.” More specifically, I remember how I laughed at it. Not that I have any specific bias against those that wish to support a regional economy or minimize the carbon footprint of their food — that’s all good stuff. I just happen to love etymology more than progressive dining principles, and that portmanteau just as reliably translates as “to devour locals.” I appreciate an ecologically-minded cannibal as much as the next guy, but I probably wouldn’t trumpet allegiance to it.
Usage of the term has mercifully diminished since then, but the sensibility remains. People understandably gravitate to goods and services that feel personalized and connected to their community. Few encourage that sentiment more transparently than 619 Spirits, who have been repping the OG area code in their name since 2012. But fear not, denizens of 858 and 760, I’ve personally confirmed outlanders can enter the premises without any sort of initiation process or surcharge.
Those accustomed to the typical craft distillery experience will find 619 Spirits somewhat befuddling. The bar not only offers their own product line, but presents them adjacent to spirits from other producers as well as beer taps. There is nary a whisper of the stringent 1.5 oz serving cap that their distilling brethren are beholden to. These unsubtle shifts are owed to an increasingly embraced dimension of the ABC Type 74 license, which waives most of the serving limitations on a craft distiller if they supply consumers with a “bona fide eating place.” Were it not for the industrial stills tucked into the adjoining production space, it would feel every bit as much a bar as those found on the neighboring 30th Street.
While many distilleries populate their tasting menu with personal spins on multiple spirits, owner and head distiller Nick Apostolopoulos has focused on refining a single vodka recipe. Variety is borne through the many fruit, spice, and botanical infusions he subjects it to, and the cocktail menu that coalesces around them. It’s a little unusual for craft beer-oriented sorts that are accustomed to an experience of sampling multiple archetypical styles, but for Apostolopoulos building flavors off the neutral spirit is more interesting. “It’s a blank palette that we can do a lot of stuff with,” he shared.
Despite the allure of pairing a spicy Bloody Mary with my Fork and Knife Grilled Cheese (a savory and hearty sandwich rendered all the more decadent with a runny fried egg and chive crema atop it), I adhered to column policy and relegated myself to the offerings of the 619 Spirits Flight. Obviously this is something of a misnomer, since it’s technically one spirit delivered five times, which is exactly the sort of pedantic outlook that makes me so much fun to talk with at parties.
The truth is that the unfettered 619 Vodka doesn’t need much gussying up. It may be a fool’s errand trying to excavate overly specific traits in a clean spirit, but I can’t help but notice hints of rice pudding in the flavor with the merest complementary sweetness. There’s startlingly little alcohol burn or astringency to the finish, making for a surprisingly pleasant sipper on its own.
The suite of infused vodkas are as varied in flavor as they are capable of being a standalone offering. Inasmuch as one can use the words “intense” and “cucumber” in the same breath, the Cucumber Vodka is intensely so. The cucumber is unmistakable aromatically, and even more resonant on the palate. Unless you’re a cuke superfan, this infusion will live its Best Life in a cocktail (hardly the cruelest fate for vodka). It’s much the same story for the Pickle Vodka, which leads with a nose of dry erase marker, followed by vinegar and a green, herbal tone. The intensely briny flavor is no less jarring than the aroma. It reminds more of a distilled pickle than an infusion and isn’t one I’d recommend a la carte.
I’ve seen enough hot sauce-based follies on YouTube to have an instinctual fear of the Scorpion Pepper Vodka, which was further reinforced by the heavy-handed flavors of its predecessors. However, my fears were a hindrance here, because nothing about this spirit demands to be cocktail-bound. It noses with a vague fruitiness and hint of heat, but nothing that would sear the average nostril. It also produced pleasant flavors of light pear and citrus sweetness before delivering a moderate spice payload. Of course, calling something “spicy” is wildly subjective, but I feel confident in saying it was manageable relative to the pepper flavor you reap from it. And it still paired beautifully with my grilled cheese absent the Bloody Mary accoutrements.
I finished with the Coffee Vodka, the nose of which evoked a blunt, drip coffee along with a soft earthiness. It doesn’t have quite the richness of a cold brew coffee on the palate, but the sparing sweetness of the vodka actually elevates the flavors somewhat. Its flavors blended harmoniously with the balsamic dressing on my salad, which would make for the ultimate in low-carb business lunch options. If anything, it tastes less boozy than how I normally make my coffee, which is less a tasting note and more a red flag for my life decisions.
Speaking of pairings, historically I’ve found little pairs better with vodka than more vodka. Given that, I succumbed to my baser instincts and perused the cocktail menu in search of dessert. It was there I was introduced to the 619 Boozy Slushie, a placeholder for whatever Slushie du jour is tumbling about in the machine at the rear of the bar. The iteration I tried was a blend of Scorpion Pepper Vodka, Cucumber Vodka, mango purée, and simple syrup. It wasn’t an ideal selection for a breezy 60-degree evening, but it was a surprisingly layered and refreshing confection to cap my meal.
I may not be a vodkavore in the ordinary run of things, but the 619 Spirits experience is far more than that. You can not only explore their offerings, but sample some great craft beers and spirits from all around San Diego, all under one roof. I would happily drag my most chronically indecisive friends here as either a stopover or destination. And if no one was watching… I’d probably order another Slushie.