Meet First Light Coffee Whiskey Founder Ryan Espi

We were recently fortunate to get a few minutes with the founder of San Diego’s own First Light Coffee Whiskey, Ryan Espi, to learn more about the story and mission driving the brand.

Part of our mission here at ThereSanDiego.com is to tell the stories of the innovative people that are making an impact on the things we eat, drink, see, and do here in San Diego – and Ryan clearly fits the bill!

As you can quickly tell from spending a few minutes on the First Light Instagram account and website, the business is about much more than just selling whiskey. Ryan is building a business committed to community, sustainability, a love for adventure, and giving back – exactly the kind of businesses we want more of here in San Diego!

The interview took place in a back corner of Moe’s Steakhouse in Mission Beach (highly recommended!) – one of the first locations to carry First Light products. There has been very little editing to keep the casual, conversational tone that we had.

ThereSanDiego: It’s nice to meet you, Ryan. Tell me, how long have you been in San Diego? Are you a native?

Ryan, First Light Whiskey: I came down to go to SDSU. That was 2010. So, 13 years minus I lived in Argentina for about a year after school. Just for fun.

ThereSanDiego: Oh that sounds like a story…tell me about that.

Ryan, First Light Whiskey: I stayed there for a year and got into entrepreneurial stuff. I started with freelance photography and building websites, and eventually got into wine.

My mom wanted me to come home and walk at graduation to get the classic cap and gown photo. So I came back to graduate, not with my class but the next year, and got my diploma.

Once I came back, I worked in wine, which, I think, kind of really kicked off my whole flavor pallet. From there, I bartended, did some web development jobs, started a digital agency, went into marketing, then went into marketing consulting.

That was my path leading up to First Light.

ThereSanDiego: So you’re entrepreneurial roots, was there any inspiration to that? Any family history? How did entrepreneurship happen?

Ryan, First Light Whiskey: I think because both my parents were the opposite of entrepreneurs. They were both second generation immigrants. My dad was in the Marines and then he was a tradesman for many years until he retired.

My mom was a teacher. She taught first grade in elementary school for 30 years until she retired. I think in that sense I was almost afforded the luxury of stability, that empowered me with the opportunity to explore a little bit more. I actually went to school to be an engineer. I ended up minoring in engineering and then swerved at the last minute. I felt like it was a very predictable path and at that time I craved the unknown.

I did a lot of businesses as a kid, like mowed lawns. I was the first person with a CD burner and computer in my neighborhood. I would download songs for kids and burn them on CDs and stuff. I used to do these things as a kid, you know, just hustling. It wasn’t even about money. It was just about creating stuff that people wanted and having fun. Everything always stemmed from that kind of idea.

I always hated working for people. I remember one of my first couple of jobs, basic jobs as a teenager. I brought to the boss an idea. I was like, “Hey, we can get the same results or better if we do things in an alternate way.” You know, just improve the efficiency of things. My boss would be like, “No, do it this way.” I just hated that. The lack of discussion and the complacency of the status quo.

Starting First Light

ThereSanDiego: So from a digital agency to the whiskey business – how did that happen?

Ryan, First Light Whiskey: My cousin kind of pitched me on the concept. He got this idea from one of his MBA classes at SDSU. We’re both alums.

He came to me and, basically, just pitched me a spirits brand concept with giving back to the community and sustainability in mind. For me, that was really important.

I served as an executive vice chairman for Surfrider in San Diego for three or four years, so I was drawn to the vision of having the brand tied to sustainability.

ThereSanDiego: Executive vice chairman for Surfrider…that’s sounds like a cool role.

Ryan, First Light Whiskey: Yeah. It was an elected position – beach cleanups, fundraising, all that kind of stuff.

So, when my cousin came with that concept, I thought it was awesome. We kind of just brainstormed, worked in the lab for a long time, and tried to figure out what we were going to create.

Then by the end of 2019 to 2020, we had the product and just started going from there.

ThereSanDiego: So, it wasn’t your first entrepreneurial venture then.

Ryan, First Light Whiskey: No, not by a long shot. I did just independent web development for a while. Then I had a boutique agency with a couple friends. We started with mobile apps, we did web designs, and then from there I really got into marketing. I just like started media buying, got into Facebook ads, and launched some companies with partners that did really well. I probably spent like upwards of $1 million personally running ads myself…which was an awesome experience.

After that, I kind of just did private consulting. Marketing, branding, sales funnels… all that kind of stuff.

ThereSanDiego: That’s awesome. How has that experience in marketing paid off for you, do you think?

Ryan, First Light Whiskey: I feel like my whole journey led me to this business. You fail a lot in businesses at certain points. Even with the agency, we did a lot of good work for our clients, but our agency didn’t necessarily make money. We were just passionate about the creation and marketing of the products.

So, all of those lessons – lessons about hiring, marketing, media buying – I think all the experiences led me to be prepared really for First Light. I don’t think our success would’ve been possible without having all those other experiences.

ThereSanDiego: It sounds like this is the first business, though, where you’re actually creating a tangible product. You’ve got inventory, you’ve got some sort of manufacturing. Everything else prior was digital and services. What have been the new challenges in figuring that out?

agave, distillate, coffee extract, glass etc… all these materials we have to track, manage and then produce.

When we started, we were just hand labeling. We were literally mixing the whiskey by hand. We did that for the first few hundred cases.

Building an authentic brand

ThereSanDiego: Talk about values, purpose, authenticity…I can see those things are definitely a part of what you’re creating and it feels like that’s important to you. Can you talk about that brand and what that means to you and what it is that you’re trying to do with it beyond just making a product that makes money?

First Light Whiskey is a community brand first, and a whiskey and craft spirits brand second. I tell our sales reps that we’re not selling whiskey; we’re building a community.

We’re connecting people to identify their own “first light” moment – that moment that makes you feel the most alive, chase after it and celebrate it.

We’ve created the most unique and high quality flavored whiskey on the market, using only organic agave, whiskey, and coffee extract.

We’re building a spirits brand based around intentional consumption, community, and adventure. With so much external noise in our everyday lives, our goal is to inspire you to reconnect and celebrate.

I’m a surfer. So, it’s like my alarm goes off earlier than I wanted to right before the sun comes up. I was probably up late the night before – either working or maybe I was partying, you know, this is in college (jokingly implying that he doesn’t party anymore now that he’s no longer in college!).

But for whatever reason, it’s easy to snooze, right? There’s like that resistance there. But I found that every time I got up and I went to the ocean early in the morning and I stood in the cold, put the wetsuit on, paddled out, faced all that resistance that was – afterwards I always felt amazing. I felt alive. Like, I never regretted it.

That got me thinking about those moments. Those moments never go away if you don’t let them. 

First Light is about celebrating those moments and whatever it is that makes you feel the most alive. And having a drink to celebrate after. 

So we’re really about the community aspect of supporting each other and inspiring each other to find whatever it is that makes you feel alive….and celebrating when we do it.

ThereSanDiego: Beautiful. I love it!

People, planet, then profit

The sustainability is baked into everything we do. I mean, there’s only so much you can do when you’re small, we’d like to do a lot more than we do, but we are committed to it in the long run. 

Being a triple bottom line business is something that I strive for, but it does cost quite a bit to get certified and have all the checks in place. We do our best right now with our 1% for the planet initiative and supporting beach cleanups here in Pacific Beach.

There are some packaging ideas we want to do to minimize waste, like rethink the aluminum, like what we’re doing with canned cocktails and stuff, but it’s like we have to be able to get there. It’s like we have to grow big enough to be able to challenge some of the norms of the industry…we have to earn that right over time.

ThereSanDiego: That’s great. So the triple bottom line – you have to go and get measurement and certification for that?

Ryan, First Light Whiskey: Yes, if you’re a certified B Corp, then the triple bottom line takes into account more than just financial profit.

Once you make that switch as a company, you’re pledging that you and your board and the executives don’t drive the business purely for financial profit. It’s people, planet, and profit.

It includes how you are impacting people, whether it’s your own team or people in your supply chain. You may be green in profit, but if you’re negative in your impact on people or the planet, then you’re at a loss. 

ThereSanDiego: Cool. Sounds like what it should be, right? What business should be like.

Ryan, First Light Whiskey: There’s some companies that are doing it. It’s easy to blame businesses for problems in the world, but we’re not going to stop having business and capitalism.

We just have to treat this idea like, “What is profit? What does it actually mean to be a successful company?”

And then by getting founders and getting entrepreneurs on board with these ideas, we can then start to change what it means to be successful.

“We’re not selling whiskey; we’re building a community.”

ThereSanDiego: I would imagine that the far majority of people have no idea what goes into actually building the early stages of a business like this. It sounds like it’s very hands on, feet on the street. Like you’re at the bars, you’re at the restaurants, you’re doing the beach cleanups. That’s what it’s all about, right? It’s getting that initial traction.

A hundred percent. More than any business I’ve ever been a part of or have done, you really got to be out there. You have to be focused on the community.

Again, it’s about when we even think of First Light and what we created it for, it’s like more of an intentional experience. For those consumers going out, camping with their friends, going on intentional vacations, they want a great cocktail and they’re going to care about that story, care about the impact, and care about the ingredients of what they’re drinking. We’re here for that. That’s our whole intent behind it.

When we are out selling our product, it’s about building those relationships intentionally as well. You’re not just going in and selling a product, but coming in as a part of the community. 

It’s like making those promises and keeping those promises. That’s what it takes. For my team it becomes more than just a job. We love doing it and being a part of our community. 

We do beach clean ups in PB and after we’ll bring everyone back to Water Bar for First Light Cocktails. It creates good energy. It’s creating value for the bartenders, the owners, the store, and the people there. 

How I look at it is, we’re not selling whiskey. We’re building a community. That’s the approach.

When that’s the foundation, it completely changes the mindset and it inspires your team and it gives us the right values all around.

Coffee whiskey?

ThereSanDiego: So, coffee whiskey? Your’s is the first I’ve heard of it. How did that idea come about?

Ryan, First Light Whiskey: I wanted to create something that was a lot less sweet because like most flavored spirits, they’re overpowering. You can’t really mix with them very well. There’s too much sugar.

I love spirit-forward craft cocktails, and I wanted something delicious that would fit into those drinks. I wanted to create something that was mixable AND sippable. 

It’s just been awesome to see the variety of recipes that people have been able to make… really complex cocktails with layers of flavor. It’s so cool.

Growing a business in the San Diego spirits community

ThereSanDiego: How is distribution so far?

Our first accounts we were hand delivering. Then we were fortunate enough to be one of the youngest companies to get picked up by RDC. Now everything runs through them. 

We’ve still really been focused on San Diego and Greater Southern California. We focused on building local restaurant partnerships. Like we have with Breakfast Republic. We’re now on the menus at every location. 

We just kind of finished our incubation phase where we’re comfortable with our brand and we’re going to really start putting the pedal to the metal as far as sales coverage this year.

ThereSanDiego: Nice. Is Skrewball the role model here in San Diego? There’s so many beverage companies, but they’ve obviously had huge success.

It’s unbelievable. I mean, they’re the beacon, you know. They were like the Facebook of Spirits. They took off in a way that no other company has and probably ever will. It was the right time and place, and their core team and leadership are incredible. 

The community was so primed for it that when they released it, you couldn’t find a bar that didn’t want to have it because everybody knew their roots.

It spread like wildfire throughout the state and that’s what really pushed it throughout the industry. Their growth trajectory has been outstanding.

ThereSanDiego: It is amazing how many beverage companies have come out here in San Diego. Whether it’s beer or it’s mead, whiskey, gin, I mean, everything.

Yeah, I feel like the spirits industry is very open and like family. They have this kind of saying amongst the producers around, “all boats rise,”. 

We’re not direct competitors. We can all help each other do well, and for the majority of everyone I’ve met in the industry, that seems to be the common thread across San Diego.

ThereSanDiego: Right. It seems like such a tight knit community.

Yeah, we’re partnered with Pacific Coast Spirits up in Oceanside.Their owner, Nicholas Hammond, has been a really good mentor. He really liked what we were doing, and liked the purpose behind what we were doing, the intention. 

He does an amazing grain to glass program where, he doesn’t waste the grain. He worked with local farmers to make the model as sustainable as possible. He now runs all of our production out of his facility and Oceanside.

They have an amazing tasting room and distillery. We’re stoked to have PCS as our home base. The food is great at the restaurant, you can order new cocktails and even purchase bottles to go. It’s a great spot.

ThereSanDiego: That’s awesome. There is another great local brand up there – Locals Only Vodka.

Ryan, First Light Whiskey: I’m close with them. One of their founders, Sean Heal, has been a mentor of mine. Throughout this whole experience, he’s been helping us avoid pitfalls. We even designed their website for them. They’re 1% for the planet as well. So we have some shared values and foundations there.

Things he loves about life in San Diego

ThereSanDiego: What’s your favorite thing about living in San Diego?

Ryan, First Light Coffee Whiskey: I think it’s the community. Even before I created alcohol, I was always mixing cocktails. I have been creating craft cocktails since I started drinking. So I love this scene.

Neighborhood and Noble Experiment stand out from those days. Other cocktails spots followed suit like Craft & Commerce, Polite Provisions. I geek out over all that. And it wasn’t just the drinks, it was the people that worked there, the design, the vibe.

I used to live in North Park. I lived on the block where Seven Grand was before it even got popular. I used to go talk to the bartenders all the time.  I loved the community of mixologists and the food culture and the industry culture. I love that there’s no better place that I’ve found with that type of vibe.

ThereSanDiego: I totally agree. It’s unique. If we just said, “Hey, we’re going to go out for a drink,” where’s your favorite spot? Let’s do day and night.

Ryan, First Light Coffee Whiskey: Daytime, I love Water Bar. You can’t get a better view on the water than Water Bar in PB. Great friendly staff, great cocktails.

Nighttime, I got to go with Aero Club and Moe’s Steakhouse. I’ve been going in Aero Club since I was 21. My uncle, he would host us all, me and my cousin and our friends. Aero Club was our spot. I think it’s one of the most OG whiskey spots in San Diego.

ThereSanDiego: It was closed for a little bit during the pandemic.

Ryan, First Light Coffee Whiskey: Yeah, and since then it has gotten a lot bigger. They have a whole game room with pinball machines, pool tables, and an outdoor seating area… Space Kat BBQ food truck is always there.

ThereSanDiego: Oh yeah? I’m going to have to get there soon.

Ryan, First Light Coffee Whiskey: They had the biggest whiskey selection in San Diego until, I wanna say, until Seven Grand. They might have upped it now. But Aero Club owned that for a long time. Their whiskey selection is vast.

ThereSanDiego: When you have time to relax, what do you do?

Ryan, First Light Coffee Whiskey: Surf, play guitar, mix music. Play disc golf sometimes. I picked that up in the pandemic. It was right around my house. We couldn’t do anything and then we started going to the disc golf course and it was really fun. First Light sponsors the 18th hole at Morely Field.

ThereSanDiego: Do you have something local that you would like to use the opportunity to call attention to? Could be a product, a business, a person, a cause. Anything that you would say, “This is something that I think is special that more people in San Diego should know about.”

Ryan, First Light Coffee Whiskey: A friend of mine, Maxine, makes this product called Surf Durt. It’s like the most clean, reef safe sunblock you can get.

You know, as a surfer, it’s important to have sunblock. Some of the claims that a lot of sunblocks make aren’t that great. Surf Dirt, it’s really safe for the ocean.

ThereSanDiego: What would you like to see for the San Diego community in terms of development or growth or in the years ahead?

I’m hoping that San Diego maintains this identity as a community-driven place and somewhere that’s still attainable and doesn’t become out of reach for the majority of people.

I hope that we keep seeing innovation coming from the people that are here. I see so much creativity and opportunity. 

What we do here in California – our environmental policies and housing policies – people see it and it echoes across to different parts of the country. So, hopefully, we continue harnessing our innovation and creativity to build a better San Diego. By doing so we can also set a good precedence for businesses and communities elsewhere.

Where to find First Light Coffee Whiskey

ThereSanDiego: What about just finding the product. Where would you like people to go to explore?

Ryan, First Light Coffee Whiskey: You just go to firstlightwhiskey.com. We have our store locator on there. You can find the nearest place to you. You can see where to buy it. You can buy it online and get it shipped to your door, or you can go out to support a local store, restaurant, or bar.

ThereSanDiego: If I go out and I pick up a bottle of First Light, is there a cocktail, maybe it’s on your website, that you would like me to make first to experience?

I would honestly just try it straight or a little ice on the rock. You’re really going to get the most out of the product that way. It’s a blend of whiskey with coffee extract and organic agave nectar. That’s the only sweetener in it. So you’re going to get the smoothest whiskey you’ve ever drank with that natural coffee flavor.

But we have outstanding recipes on the website for anyone that wants to give them a try.

ThereSanDiego: We plan to try them all!

Thank you, Ryan, this was a lot of fun. Keep up the good work – we look forward to seeing you continue to grow and do great things in the San Diego community!

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