Fifteen years ago, while a student at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, Ian Cutler and his home-brewing buddies became more intrigued with distilling liquor than crafting ales, and Cutler, now 35 years old, never really looked back. While the native of Oakdale, California, double-majored in chemistry and geology at UCSB, followed that up with a master’s in geochemistry, and dabbled in turning natural gas into gasoline and inventing artificial dog noses, Cutler’s fascination with booze only intensified as the years progressed.
“Always in the background, I kept my eye on distillation,” he explained one recent balmy Friday afternoon. “But now is the epitome of the intensity — I’m here 16 hours a day.”
“Here” is Cutler’s Artisan Spirits, a rather tight slot of the emerging Anacapa Street project in Santa Barbara’s bustling Funk Zone, where wine tasting rooms, art galleries, a brewery, and, now, the South Coast’s first liquor maker in who-knows-how-long attract increasing loads of locals and tourists alike. Through a chance encounter at a Kentucky whiskey conference in the spring of 2012 with the Anacapa project’s mastermind, Sherry Villanueva — “fate or happenstance, whatever you call it,” he surmised — Cutler was invited to take over one of the leases adjacent to The Lark, Villanueva’s much-awaited restaurant that’s expected to become the Funk Zone’s culinary center of gravity. The serendipitous meeting kicked his research into high gear, requiring eye-opening trips to Kentucky, Virginia, Oregon, Ireland, and Scotland, where he shoveled coal to power an ancient Glenlivet still. He explained, “I wanted to see the full spectrum of distilling.”
Since moving into his storefront on East Yanonali Street, Cutler has learned a little about everything else, too. “I’m the carpenter, I’m the janitor, I’m the distiller, you name it,” laughed Cutler while considering the hanging sign he was also working on, a few days before his official opening on July 7. Around him in the small distillery were a mash tun (for brewing the grains, water, and malted barley, whose enzymes break down the sugars into alcohol), American oak barrels of varying sizes (crafted mostly by a twentysomething woman in Minnesota), and, of course, the steam-powered still, which concentrates the fermented mash and separates it into whatever whisky, vodka, or gin Cutler has planned for the day. Each of these components are visible through the window in the adjacent tasting room, which is really just that, as California law prohibits Cutler from charging for tastes or selling anything other than merchandise.
In offering these handmade concoctions — including “Grandma Tommy’s Apple Pie” liqueur, based on his grandma’s apple pie recipe, and future batches made from “oddball things like quinoa and any other crazy grains that are out there” — Cutler carries on a nearly forgotten family tradition: His great-grandfather, Duke Cutler, once ran a bar in Oakdale and sold bootlegged moonshine to hunting friends from the Bay Area to Oregon during Prohibition. But Cutler’s Artisan Spirits is far from hurried hooch, and he sees craft distilling as having all of the complexity of beer and wine and then some, due to the extra steps involved. And like fine wine, each batch may be a little different. “I expect when people come to a craft distillery,” said Cutler, “they want variation.”
And, presumably, a little bit of moonshiner magic, too. “I see distilling as the confluence of science and art,” said Cutler of his new profession. “They are symbiotic. I don’t think you can separate the two.”
Cutler’s Artisan Spirits is now open in the Funk Zone at 137 Anacapa Street, Suite D (though fronting East Yanonali Street). See cutlersartisan.com.