Raising a Glass to the San Diego Spirits Festival

There’s a rhythm to San Diego Spirits Festival. You pick up on the rhythm rather quickly, even if you haven’t been to the annual August fete before. It starts with a leisurely stroll through the city, either down its bustling Embarcadero or through its downtown depending on where you’re staying. Doing so gives you the proper seasoning needed before you enter the the hangar-like Port Pavilion on Broadway Pier where the event’s always held. This is important. San Diego is a unapologetically chill town during the day, and its municipal salt puts you in the right mindframe by the time your ticket gets taken. You’re not here for the amateur hour sloppiness you saw on various corners of the Gaslamp District the night before. You’re here for a fun, relaxed time.

After you walk through a corridor of sports memorabilia oddly yet appropriately devoid of San Diego Chargers ephemera, the Pavilion opens up to a cavalcade of liquor kiosks and displays. After you grab a cocktail – you will likely have the opportunity to do so straightaway – take the time to walk through the space as you sip. You’ll see brands you recognize, and you’ll see others completely new to your consciousness. Take note of the spirit categories you like, but don’t discount the ones you’re not into – now’s not the time to have your opinion on a category colored by the demons of collegiate misadventure. Once this circle is complete, discover as many as you want as often as you’d like, as long as you do so at a judicious, deliberate pace. Snap phone photos of what you enjoy. Engage in discussion with the pourers, who in some cases may also be the brand ambassadors or even the distillers. At some time during the shindig, step outside to the back of the pier and wrangle up some food. Check out the event’s live music as you take advantage of the grub’s absorption properties, or simply indulge in the bright, maritime scenery. If you’re feeling cheeky, stick around and wait for the burlesque show. Yep, they have a burlesque show.

This rhythm partially exists because SDSF has been around for a while. 2018 marked the 10th anniversary of the two-day gathering. It also exists because nobody comes here with the express mission to get wasted, which is why the event can get away with rolling out sexy dance numbers from women and men in the midst of the proceedings. Sure, you may see a few patrons that are a little happier than normal by the event’s end – such behavior would be impossible to fully rule out at an event offering unlimited pours. But that’s the extent of the raucousness. Spectacles of embarrassment and danger have no quarter here. Doing so would defeat the core purpose of attending the festival, anyway. A huge part of the good time to be had at SDSF is to get turned on to new or new-to-them product. This loses its pop if the room is spinning.

You will discover something new at the San Diego Spirits Festival, no matter the esoteric nature of your home liquor cabinet.. There are always a few recognizable brands scattered about the place to ease you into things, but they serve as a prelude for the great unknowns. This year is no exception. We kick things off with a visit to the Tito’s Handmade Vodka kiosk, who are serving cocktails from a booth designed to look like a VW Bus. It takes us a while to return to a brand we’re familiar with, simply because of the sheer volume of newness. There are mind-bending finds. We discover a bourbon whose smoky essence evokes camping in the California woodlands. We imbibe in a vodka more neutral than Switzerland. Another vodka is infused with a smooch of desert sage, creating an equally good yet totally different experience than the clean vodka. We indulge in a show-stopping extra anejo tequila that’s just starting to hit select U.S. shelves. All seem destined for our liquor cabinet in the near future, probably as soon as we find them available for purchase.

These are our highlights. Yours may have been different if you were here. They probably would have, and that’s fine. There are no right or wrong answers at the San Diego Spirits Festival. Just lots of great potent product paired with a great deal of tremendous fun. There’s also a rhythm, one that will be pulsing strongly next year. You should follow its beat.

All Photos Courtesy San Diego Spirits Festival.