Turning Peanut Butter Into Premium Whiskey: The Story Behind The Founder Of San Diego’s Skrewball Whiskey
One of the most stunning business success stories to come out of San Diego in recent years is that of Skrewball Whiskey, one of the fastest-growing alcohol brands in history.
Entrepreneur Steven Yeng conceived of Skrewball Whiskey, the original peanut butter whiskey, in 2018, born from the success of a whimsical peanut butter and whiskey shot that became popular at his Ocean Beach restaurant.
Skrewball ascended swiftly to national stardom, clinching awards and hearts with its creamy, nutty allure, and beating the sales records of global brands like Jameson and Grey Goose along the way.
The stunning success of Skrewball Whiskey is an amazing story, but it’s the story of Steven Yeng’s journey that’s even more incredible.
From Refugee Camp to Whiskey Revolutionary
The story of Skrewball Whiskey is more than just a tale of a successful drink. Steven’s journey began far from the vibrant lights of San Diego, in a Thai refugee camp where he and his family sought shelter after escaping the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Yeng’s parents experienced an almost unfathomable journey of rags-to-riches-to-rags-again as they achieved professional and financial success in their home country, only to have it stripped from them under the brutal treatment experience by millions of Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge.
Life wasn’t easy, and a son suffering from a bout with polio (Steven) only made things tougher.
But just when the odds seemed stacked against them, a random act of kindness changed everything. Sponsored by a kind-hearted family, the Yengs found a new home in the U.S., landing in Ocean Beach.
Building a new home in Ocean Beach
Settling in America was made easier by the support of the AAPI community of immigrants that were already calling San Diego home.
“The AAPI community in San Diego is very strong. You know, there’s a lot of southeast Asian refugees that landed in San Diego, especially in City Heights and in the Convoy area. There’s a lot of Laos, Cambodian, and Vietnamese out here. And being refugees from their own country, the bond that they connected through was trauma created by war, through escaping famine, and escaping violent governments,” said Yeng.
“I remember Ocean Beach as a very special place. I mean, they welcomed us immediately, you know? I remember my parents got a job at a local donut shop, and when we got off school at OB Elementary, we would just hang around,” recalls Yeng.
“There’s a group of elderly that would hang out and tutor us while drinking bottomless coffee. I started third grade without speaking a single word of English, so they would tutor us. I mean, I got a nurse, I got a war veteran, I got a school teacher, I got a computer programmer. They were all retiring and became my teachers each day after I got out of school. That really helped build confidence and really helped build, you know, just, just help kind of built me to what I am today.”
Peanut butter: a taste of freedom
One of the first tastes of the Yeng’s newfound freedom? Peanut butter.
It turns out that peanut butter is a key player in the care packages refugees often receive because of its combination of price, caloric density, nutritional value, durability, and of course, taste.
So in his early years in America, peanut butter was added to just about everything Yeng ate.
Eventually, that came to include the dishes and drinks at his very popular Ocean Beach restaurant, the OB Noodle House.
Finding success in America
One thing that became clear from interviewing Yeng is that he and his family have a deep respect for the value of hard work and the American Dream.
“America is definitely the land of opportunity, the land of dreams, you know. And then you have to put yourself in position to be lucky, you know, either work your ass off to be in that position and then hopefully luck will shine on you.”
His family ended up buying the donut shop they were working at out of bankruptcy, and then ultimately expanded into the restaurant industry when Steven and his brother opened the OB Noodle House.
The restaurant was a pretty immediate success, but got a big boost of visibility and fame when it was featured on Guy Fieri’s Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.
Dishes featuring peanut butter were a staple at the restaurant, but it was a shot that featured whiskey and peanut butter that created local fame for the restaurant.
Years later, the tasty concoction would inspire a sensation: Skrewball Whiskey.
Betting it all on Skrewball Whiskey…
Steven and his wife we were forced to self-fund the start of the brand, a challenge at the time that has more than paid off.
“I mean, we pretty much went broke back in 2018. That winter, we had our gas shut off probably every other month and were upside down our mortgage.”
Why go through that much stress again after finding success in the restaurant business?
They were betting it all in hopes of creating a business that they believed would give them a break from the grueling hours of the restaurant industry and allow them to spend more time together as a family.
Thankfully, it worked. The brand’s growth has been nothing short of incredible.
In 2021, Skrewball Whiskey reported an unbelievable 1,976% consumer retail growth rate, selling over one million cases in just its third year on the market.
By 2022, they’d hit another huge milestone: selling over half-a-million nine-liter cases.
“We’re the fastest ever to a million case brand for any product over $20. That’s our premium brand. You know, fastest to two million cases. I mean, we’re talking about, beating out Grey Goose, we beat out Jameson…I mean some really iconic brands.”
Steven and his wife feel blessed by the good fortune they’ve had, and the generosity of others to help them along the way, and are channeling their gratitude by making contributions to schools, hospitals, physical therapy programs, and refugee support organizations.
“Yeah, my wife and I came from very humble beginnings. She was a military brat and I’m, you know, I came from a refugee camp, so we have a lot of gratitude for the kindness that was that was given to us. So we are always motivated to pay back this amount of kindness that we received back then.”
We’re suckers for a good success story, particularly one that captures the spirit of the American Dream so well! Congrats to the Yengs and the Skrewball team, and continued best of luck and prosperity in the future.
Explore the flavor of freedom today!