“I never thought I would build a distillery in a space smaller than two thousand square feet,” Ian Cutler tells me with a noticeable twang in his voice that some people mistake for an accent from the South. The owner of Cutler’s Artisans Spirits in the Funk Zone is a fifth generation Californian — born and raised in Oakdale – a place which produces so many rodeo champions that Ian points out it is sometimes known as “the cowboy capital of the world.” His great-grandfather Duke was a prohibition bootlegger who eventually opened a legal bar called Duke’s in 1933 and Cutler’s Family Liquor Store, which sold quality spirits. Ian’s grandfather Bob, who served in WWII and flew a B-17, joined the family business, and Ian’s dad, Chuck, followed suit in 1970. “I remember going home with a fist full of beef jerky,” says Ian about his childhood visits to the family store. He grew up in a ranchette where his family raised cattle, almonds, and fruit. “My first job was working in a peach orchard when I was 14,” he recalls. Unfortunately, changes to California Liquor Laws coupled with a major recession forced the Cutlers to shut the store in 1985, thus snuffing young Ian’s hopes of continuing in the family tradition.
Ian came to Santa Barbara in 1999 to pursue bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and geology at UCSB. He then continued on to get a Masters in Geochemistry. While at UCSB he started working for a start-up called Gas Reaction Technologies and ended up running their safety laboratory for ten years. Ian also worked for another local tech company that developed an artificial dog’s nose known as an “ultra-trace chemical sensor.” Although neither of these startups made it, Ian honed his lab skills in those jobs and began traveling to Scotland, Ireland, Kentucky, and Tennessee to learn about distilling spirits. He visited distilleries big and small and met with master distillers with the hope of opening one of his own in the near future.
While attending the American Distillery Institute Conference he met Acme Hospitality manager Sherry Villanueva who was working on developing the Lark Complex. Sherry wanted a distillery there, and at first she was in disbelief to hear of Ian’s dream of opening one in Santa Barbara. The only caveat to their plan was that Villanueva only had 800 square feet to offer. In response to this logistical challenge, Ian redesigned his original concept and figured out a way to make it work. Today, Cutler’s shop is a good fit and enhances the appeal and variety of the Funk Zone. “We’re the other,” he tells me, laughing about the fact that he’s the only distillery/tasting room for spirits amidst a sea of wineries. He produces vodka, gin, whisky, bourbon, and an apple liquor. His tasting room is open to the public Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 6 and Friday and Saturday until 9pm. He takes pride in the fact that he produces his spirits in “a flavor profile that is fantastic.”
Cutler – who is wonderfully easy to talk to – is proud that he’s been able to carry on a family tradition, saying, “I enjoy, and I know spirits. I grew up around them.”
Ian Cutler answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I’ve heard people remark on my kindness, helpfulness, intelligence, and modesty. Considering this is a difficult question for me to answer for, perhaps modesty rises to the top of the list.
What is your current state of mind?
I would have to say complex. Trying to build a small business from scratch, with limited means, translates to wearing a lot of hats, frequently at the same time. If I imagine what my state of mind might look like, I think it would be pretty comical with a thousand hats stacked atop each other, everything from a ballcap, a green-shade visor, and a cowboy hat, to a hardhat, and the occasional dunce cap.
What do you like most about your job?
I enjoy the creativity of crafting new things, and seeing people enjoying the spirits we produce. I’ve always enjoyed creating and restoring things, from classic cars and woodworking to cooking, brewing, and distilling. I enjoy ending the day with something more than when you started it.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A glass of whiskey, good food, and the company of good friends and family, all in good health. Locate that in a perfect location, like Santa Barbara, Big Sur, the Sierra Nevada Moutains, or some other equally impressive setting, and I find that pretty hard to beat.
What is your greatest fear?
I tend to worry about a number of things. Namely the loss of the things that bring myself and those around me happiness: Good friends, family, health, and of course running out of whiskey.
Who do you most admire?
I admire anyone who works hard, and strives to better themselves and those around them. Couple that with natural creative talents, and I would hope everyone would admire that person.
What is your greatest extravagance?
As of right now, I can’t say that I have much extravagance outside of the distillery, but I do look forward to traveling a bit more in the near future.
What is the quality you most like in people?
I enjoy genuine people. The true salt of the earth type folks.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
I would have to say dishonesty, disrespectfulness, and self-centeredness to the detriment of others.
What do you most value in friends?
I value anyone who appreciates the time spent together, those who give without expectation of repayment, those who will stand by you through thick and thin, and those who offer criticisms, not to benefit their own egos, but because they genuinely want you to be a better person.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I doubt these would be phrases suitable for publication.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I think the “Gift of Gab” would be great.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Well shit! Maybe trying to cuss a lit bit less would be good.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I don’t know that I have a singular greatest achievement, I think all the small achievements I have made through the years, that have got me to where I am, would collectively be my greatest achievement.
Where would you most like to live?
Santa Barbara really is difficult to beat. We have great weather, views, people, etc… Not sure I’d like to live anywhere else right now.
What is your most treasured possession?
I’d say I treasure family memorabilia like the sign that hung above our Cutler’s Family Liquor for years, which now hangs in my distillery, or the few remaining bottles of Cutler’s spirits from the days of my Great Granddad.
What makes you laugh the most?
I’m a big fan of broad, sometimes inappropriate humor, the kind where the punchline comes out of left field and broadsides your funny bone. George Carlin was certainly one of my favorites; lately I been watching a fair amount of Rodney Carrington’s standup, and rewatching some of the great comedies from Monty Python, Mel Brooks, Harold Ramis, or the Farrelly Brothers.
What is your motto?
Motto? I’ve never really thought about a motto for myself. Maybe “Work Hard, and then think about playing hard, but pass out instead because you worked too hard” might be appropriate.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I’m not sure I have a particular person that I would identify with, but I do identify a bit with the scientists, creators, inventors, and problem solvers who labored to understand and document the world and environment around us.
On what occasion do you lie?
I think dealing with the occasional discomforts of the truth is easier than dealing with the longer term detriments of lies. I am extremely distressed at the prevalence of fake news stories and anti-scientific rhetoric that seems to be gaining in popularity. The only occasion I can think of that would make sense, is a lie for the benefit of someone else (e.g. someone could get hurt by telling the truth), but even then I would prefer to provide limited truth as opposed to outright lies.