Rum running in California

It all started with a couple of friends and a mutual love of rum.

Warren native Michael Machuzak and his pal Joe Freas could not find a premium rum on the market that suited their taste. So, they thought they’d try to make their own.

Machuzak and Freas gave it a try and then let some others try it.

“They really liked it,” Machuzak said. “Next thing you know word is getting around and more and more people are wanting to try it, and they like it.”

It was two years ago, when Machuzak and Freas set out to become what they describe as “modern-day legal bootleggers” – distilling artisan spirits.

They became business partners and set up shop in an area of Ventura, Calif., known as rum row where bootleggers made booze to sell across the country during Prohibition.

“There was a lot of rum running in Ventura County,” Machuzak explained. “Rum runners would land on the coast and unload their cargo. It seemed like the perfect place.”

Inspired by the rum running ship that crashed into the Channel Islands in 1926, they named their business Channel Islands Distillery. The boat, suspected of carrying contraband, ran aground after the Coast Guard spotted it and opened fired, hitting the vessel multiple times. Machuzak and Freas named their rum Grey Ghost after the ship.

Machuzak said distilling added another layer to the process. But it’s illegal to distill alcohol as a hobby, he said.

“When we really started talking and getting interested in doing this, we knew it wasn’t going to be a chemistry experiment anymore,” Machuzak said. “We realized we’d need to get the permits and the licenses. But we didn’t realize how much was involved. There’s a lot of paperwork that goes with it. But it’s been worth it.”

Channel Islands Distillery, in fact, became the first licensed artisan distillery in Ventura County – specializing a variety of spirits such as rum, vodka, brandy, corn whiskey and moonshine.

“We did a lot of ice-breaking to get here,” Machuzak said. “We weren’t going to give up. It’s something we both really wanted to do.”

Machuzak, a 1977 graduate of Warren G. Harding High School, moved to California after graduating from Eastern Kentucky University. He has spent much of his time working in environmental sciences. He and Freas are aquatic toxicologists testing municipal water supplies and performing other environmental analyses.

The duo recently started a business expansion. They purchased a 100-gallon still capable of producing three times more output. At this point, everything they sell has to go through a wholesaler that distributes them at various sites in California. But Machuzak said he’s hoping distribution will eventually reach beyond the distillery’s local area, including his hometown. The products are also available online at thebrobasket.com.

“This has been a great experience for us and it’s really taken off, and it’s been fun,” he said. “We basically turned a hobby into a business we both enjoy and are very proud of. Eventually, we’d like to be able to ship our stuff anywhere, including Warren.”