Posted In: Gastronomy
PHOTOS: Max Houtzager and Nate Garcia
LOCATION: Ventura, California

Brothers Scott and Kurtis Major, founders of Birdview Distillery, are on a quest to capture the Californian experience in a glass with a unique spirit they call El Castor.We sat down with the two to talk about their inspiration, process and goals making El Castor, the final product, and what’s new with Birdview.

What motivated the decision to incorporate cactus into the El Castor’s recipe? 

For us, the cactus represents the purest essence of Californian aesthetic. Born and raised in the arid coastal environment, we came to ask ourselves the following questions: What is the “flavor” of California? How has this state and its endless beauty shaped our lives? What energizes California’s subconscious draw, making it so desirable and sexy in the popular imagination?

Looking on a fundamental level at what comprises the Californian ethos, we notice its rugged yet beautiful climate. Southern California is a desert, which inspired us to use ingredients that are drought tolerant, sustainable and, most of all, emblematic of our home. The Californian environment spans endless visual pleasures, where succulents dominate native terrain and culture. Amongst the abundant varieties within this diverse family, there is one particular species of cactus that we saw fit to represent California in making El Castor: the beavertail cactus, which grew semi wild in our childhood backyard.

Why don’t we see more spirits with prickly pear?

It’s hard to say, but we think that people are more focused on products and flavors with an established market — products that have proven popularity, mass appeal, broad familiarity with how they taste and how well they sell. We chart our own path, and don’t intend to start following in the steps of others. Our goal is to push our own personal conceptions of what is possible to create something that’s maybe obscure, definitely unique and undeniably Californian.   

How does El Castor bring one closer to Californian history and experience? 

A unique hands-on manufacturing process, traditional equipment and techniques, and a passion for quality connects those who sample El Castor to the land where the prickly pears are grown, its longstanding passion for superior distillation, and the experience that these factors converge to produce in a unique artisan spirit.

El Castor is handmade in the most traditional, mindful and historically authentic fashion. We have spent 8 years developing our process, called Fruit to Glass. It starts in the fields of central California, where our growers tend to 120-year-old prickly pear plants. Each prickly pear is harvested by hand and transferred into 500lb totes, which are taken to our distillery, where they undergo a transformation process unique to our company; prickly pears have never before been processed in such a quantity for the purpose of fermentation, so we designed and built our own processing line. The crushing of the whole fruit into mash  is where the prickly pears begin to make their transformation. The fruit is loaded manually into a machine that removes the spines, helps clean large debris from the fruit’s surface and caramelizes the sugars. The fruit is then rinsed to remove any extra dirt and spines before the prickly pears are crushed into open top tanks, where our house yeast culture is added and the fermentation process begins, converting naturally occurring fruit sugars into alcohol. Fermentation is arguably the most important part of the process

Distillation concentrates the flavors and aromas by about 10x, therefore it is imperative to maintain clean, high quality fermentation facilities. In 10-12 days, when fermentation is complete, the largest and final transformation of wine to spirit occurs: distillation, where the alcohol in the fermented fruit is separated by heat from the wine. We use the most traditional double distillation process, borrowing our techniques and alembic still design from early Egypt and Arabia, where those cultures long ago perfected an alembic distillation method for grapes and honey. With respect to this process, little has changed over the few thousand that have since passed. I suppose this is the ultimate form of tried and true methodology, and it’s what makes Birdview Distillery and El Castor one of a kind. The Fruit to Glass process is complete when the spirit is transferred into glass bottles, corked, labeled and ready for the public to enjoy.

What inspires you to distill unorthodox spirits?

Curiosity, and a passion to make something different inspires us to distill our unconventional spirits. There are so many amazing fruits, vegetables and herbs in the world. Distilled spirits as we know them are only scratching the surface of the endless flavors that nature makes available to us: that’s why Birdview has dedicated itself to focusing on exotic and obscure fruits and plants. There are plenty of fruits out there which have most likely never been distilled before, so we feel it’s our responsibility to make new flavors and aromas accessible for people, opening their noses, taste buds, and minds to new experiences.

What else inspires you?

Kurtis: “Surfing, cooking, jewelry making, art, traveling, and stepping outside of my comfort zone. I enjoy the awkward moments in life that make me question things.”

Scott: “Nature, and a desire to understand the intricacies that make it so perfect, inspire me to think about new flavors and aromas that could be developed into a product.”

What’s next?

That is something we ask ourselves every day: for Birdview Distillery, “what’s next” is only a matter of our limits, which we constantly seek to push, and what nature provides. We have been exploring some new fruits that are uniquely dense and molasses-like, resulting in a spirit like no other, with the nose and notes of fine rum, spiciness of Bourbon and an indescribable musty-sweet undertone. Coming soon — look for it under the Birdview Distillery label.