I’ve been to bars concealed behind false phone booths, inside ersatz law offices, and underneath fake fortune-tellers, but no location has felt quite as hidden or as unlikely as the interior corridor of a manufacturing research facility set deep within industrial Goleta. It’s there where you’ll find Goleta Red Distilling Company, the city’s first and only distillery, where owner Michael Craig is single-handedly crafting batches of exquisite spirits and providing tastings to curious customers.
Craig, who spent years working as a chef, educator, and ceramicist, speaks about his new role with the giddy zeal of a man self-actualized. “Distilling is a cooking process; it’s chemistry; it’s a little bit of physics,” Craig explained, sounding like a morally centered Walter White. “It’s just all the things I’ve ever done in my life that I loved.”
Craig initially began distilling as a weekend hobby, building a backyard still and producing his own corn whiskey and bourbon. His wife, Laura Craig, witnessing the satisfaction Craig was deriving from the experience, urged him to pursue the work full-time with a few minor stipulations: “No selling until you’re legal, no fire, no explosions,” Laura recounted. “I’m not going to bail your ass out of jail either.”
Craig proceeded to design and build his own distilling operation over the course of a year, struggling against architectural challenges, municipal permitting restrictions, and the state’s antiquated liquor laws. The process inspired the company’s logo: a pileated woodpecker.
“It’s sort of indicative of what it took to open up this place,” Craig said. “I mean, really constantly bonking my head but knowing there’s that nugget there if I hit it hard enough and long enough.”
Goleta Red Distilling Company opened in April 2018 and has already garnered industry accolades for its spirits, including a bronze medal from the American Distilling Institute for the Fiesta Agave Spirit and a silver medal for the Goodland Gin.
For those of us haunted by bad college experiences and who generally think of gin as the devil’s saliva, the Goodland Gin is a revelation. Nowhere to be found is the Pine Sol–esque juniper intensity that characterizes so many old-world-style gins. Instead, the Goodland features a citrus-forward blend of 14 botanicals (including locally grown avocado leaves) and a surprisingly easy drinkability. “It’s going to keep getting refined,” Craig claimed. “Got silver this year. I’m getting double gold next year.”
Similarly smooth and even more dangerous is the Orange Java Overproof, a delicious rum liqueur distilled from turbinado sugar and molasses and flavored with oranges and coffee beans. At 57 percent alcohol by volume, it’s as potent as it is sweet.
The distillery’s charming tasting room features a bar decorated with authentic pre-Prohibition liquor bottles and enough seating to accommodate small groups. In addition to tastings of straight liquor, Craig pours imaginative cocktails composed solely of his own spirits and locally sourced ingredients. He also offers monthly hands-on tours of the facility, in which visitors are able to load up a still, run some gin, proof it down, and take a bottle of their creation home.
Goleta Red Distillery’s products can currently be sampled at The Imperial, The Hilton Garden Inn, and Break Time. Or at the distillery itself — if you’re able to find it.
93 Castilian Dr., Goleta; (805) 335-1740; goletared.com