Today we take a break from craft beer to focus on something equally important: craft spirits. I confess that I am just as much a fan of a fancy $15 cocktail as I am any craft beer. Put a Negroni or Old Fashion in my hand and the look on my face will probably reside somewhere between satisfied and elated. Find me three to four hours later in the same room, and that look will have changed only slightly; to satisfied and sleepy.
My love of cocktails aside, we take a break from beer today because there are equally intriguing characters harnessing the same can-do mindset that we’ve come to observe so often in beer; and I for one believe that spirit-makers deserve equal representation. For that reason I’d like to introduce you to Melkon Khosrovian, founder of LA’s Greenbar Craft Distillery.
Melkon’s story is perhaps best told backwards. Today, Melkon and his wife Litty Mathew have amassed the world’s largest portfolio of organic spirits. Greenbar, which hosts regular tastings and tours (which I highly recommend), is a beautiful space tucked neatly into the Arts District by the LA River. They produce nearly every type of liquor under the sun, from flavored vodkas to rum, gin, tequila, whiskey, as well as its own line of bitters. They even make a bitter liqueur called Grand Poppy that makes for an excellent alternative to Campari. Like many of the spirits it produces, the space itself is refined and deliberate. A glass wall from the stylish tasting room overlooks the production floor giving visitors an immediate connection to the locality of each product’s origin.
But Greenbar’s polished building and sophisticated packaging was not always so. In fact, Greenbar can trace its humble beginnings to a lovely little story with a tale as old as time: one man trying something crazy to please the woman he loves. I’ll let Melkon explain for himself…
Nick: How’d did Greenbar get its start?
Melkon: Greenbar started 13 years ago when my wife (Litty Mathew) and I got engaged and started to do the family circuit. I’m Armenian, and like a lot of people from Eastern Europe we drink spirits with food, not in the form of a cocktail. We drink in a very ceremonial way; someone stands up during dinner and says a toast and everyone drinks. We drink two kinds of liquors generally, high proof fruit brandy, or vodka. By brandy I mean schnapps, something that’s just a distillate of fruit.
My wife to be hated drinking those things. She thought it was too harsh, like nail polish remover or jet fuel. The adjectives were not kind. She would pick up her glass and put it back down, which typically is fine if you don’t like drinking, but when someone is toasting you it can be kind of awkward. So that was the impetus for me to make spirits. It was not a business idea; I just wanted to make something she would drink.
I would buy vodka from stores and pick up fresh produce and herbs from farmers markets. We’d raid our spice closet, and I’d try to put things together that I thought would be interesting. I was combining for complexity and depth in a way that would also have compatibility with food. It wasn’t something sweet that would make no sense with a meal; I wanted something balanced and savory. We made things like celery and peppercorn, black truffle, among others. And lo and behold she drank those.
My cousins would be curious, they would say, “You got her to drink! What is she drinking? I’ve never seen a bottle like that.” We would always fake a label so no one would think we were cheating, but they discovered our ruse by picking up a bottle and saying, “hey where’s the back label or government warning? Oh, you made it? I like it! I’d like two bottles for next week.”
It snowballed from there, until a couple years into it we came home and the whole house looked like a little factory. And we thought, “Why are we doing this?” It was fun but it felt a little odd, because we’d come home from work everyday and make liquor. So either “number unlisted” or we go into business, and we chose to go into business.
Nick: Probably the smart move?
Melkon: Well, five years ago it didn’t seem so smart but today it feels a little bit smarter. We got into this business with complete ignorance to how the whole thing worked. We just kept doing it on slightly bigger scales than what we did at home.
Nick: Were you distilling at home or just adding to existing liquor?
Melkon: Initially we were taking liquor and flavoring it. But what we did was bizarre in the context of how people flavor liquor. If you pick out bottles that are flavored, 99 out of 100 of those bottles will have their flavor come from a flavor company. Alcohol producers will buy barrels full of flavor and sugar from International Flavor and Fragrances Inc. and dump it into their giant tanks of rum or vodka or whiskey, stir and bottle.
We thought that if you make something simple like vanilla vodka, you should use vanilla beans. If you want lemon, you use lemons. A few years into business we would get phone calls from flavor companies. They wanted to know where we got our lemon flavor, for example. I told them, “lemons. We get our lemon flavor from lemons.”
And they said, “Oh my God, what are you guys, crazy? You use real lemons? That’s insane!”
Nick: Was that coming from a price perspective?
Melkon: All kinds of perspectives. It was wrong from here to sunset. They said, “That’s not really the way it’s done.” And I asked why it was wrong. Their response was, “a few big issues. One, other than price, is that you’re going to have inconsistency of flavor. Different farms, different seasons, different regions. How do you come up with something that tastes the same all the time? Two; stability. There are lots of things that are whole in nature that are not stable in alcohol. How do you know you’re not screwing it up or setting yourself up for giant recalls? And the third was scalability, how do you make something with ingredients where you’re zesting lemons or cutting this and chopping that? That’s cute and all but how do you make a lot of it? Buy from me, always cheap, always the same. No stability issues, you’re not going to have recalls buying from me.”
So I said, “alright, send us your lemon flavoring.” So we get it and we blend it into our alcohol, and it tastes like Pledge. Literally something you should clean your floors with rather than drinking. We called him and said, “thanks for thinking about us but we barely used any of it and we’re going to send the rest of it back because this makes no sense to us.” We’re after flavor not cheap mass produced stuff. That’s not remotely what we care about.
Nick: How have you seen LA respond to these flavorful organically made products?
Melkon: LA is a really big town, which is good and bad. Today we make whiskey, gin, rum, vodka, liquors, bitters, bitter liquors, tequila (I go to Mexico to make tequila), so we get responses from every type of product. As an “apples to apples” comparison, generally everyone loves what we do. You do the Pepsi Challenge and real natural organic flavors based on whole food always win out against artificial flavors, its not contest.
The challenge is that it’s a gigantic city and there are lots of people that come from somewhere else. When we travel around the country there’s an incredible amount of local pride in other cities. It’s slowly developing here but it’s not the same.
Nick: You think LA is behind in that way?
Melkon: LA is considerably behind almost everywhere. It’s not night and day but it’s like… night and early morning. But we’re getting there; it’s happening. The biggest test case is the success of Mohawk Bend. It’s the first concept that really favors locally made things. It’s the first place that’s taken that to its core by only buying products made in California. They focus on local because it’s something that matters to people once they have the opportunity to buy it.
Generally speaking that means nothing in LA, at least in our experience with liquor. Partly because people think of home as somewhere else, partly because it’s such a gigantic market and there’s so much money flowing in the industry. It’s not a fair fight in a way. Little companies up against behemoths, and the behemoths need to keep market share in LA. It’s tough for us to compete, sometimes they’re cutting deals in a way that no one is making money.
Nick: You find similarities there in craft beer. It’s like Budweiser trying to keep control of their market share. Do you think there’s a need for more smaller craft distilleries in order to make yourselves appealing against those behemoths?
Melkon: The reality of LA will change only by people changing it. It’s not going to happen by some revelation from the public. The public is into it, but they have to have real options, and they have to be able to understand and see the difference. Right now it’s not so easy because there aren’t enough craft distilleries. We’ve been the only one in LA for eons. Some cities have craft distillery crawls.
I hope this comes to pass in LA, so there are enough distilleries where the public can go and see these places; they can touch the equipment and talk to the makers so people can understand that “local” and “craft” mean something beyond what they read on the label. Going to a place and talking to people, you can’t fake that. That’s your touchstone. If you have that and you can verify it yourself, you know it’s real. It’s going to happen, but I hope it happens sooner than later.
Nick: You touched on an interesting point. I know Greenbar has the largest portfolio of “organic” spirits in the world. The word “organic” is becoming one of those buzz words like “craft” or “natural” where it’s starting to lose some of its meaning. What does organic mean to you guys as a company?
Melkon: Organic is far from “natural” or some bullshit term. Organic is a government certification, you can’t just throw that around without having to have earned it by taking the steps to be certified and continually monitored. It’s not a marketing term; it’s a process we have to comply with.
For us organic means two things. One means a lot more to us than the other. To give you some background, when we started to make spirits over ten years ago nothing we used was organic, most things we used were conventional. About seven years ago we noticed some of our batches didn’t taste normal, and we traced it to a few ingredients. We talked to the farmers and said, “we love working with you but the stuff you’ve been sending us has been forcing us to redo some of our batches. The celery you sent us has been insanely flavorful and overshadowing the other ingredients. We had to dump the old stuff. This grapefruit is just obnoxiously strong. It’s throwing off our balances. We love it but what the hell are you selling us? It’s not the same as before.” They were in the process shifting their farm to be completely organic.
Nick: So your flavors were increasing?
Melkon: They were increasing. They said when you stop spraying, plants have to fend for themselves against bugs. The way they do that in nature is through flavor and aroma. They also use that when it’s time for pollination to attract the right kind of bugs. So, in the beginning they ward bugs off, and at the right time they attract. When you stop feeding plants artificial fertilizer, (which is topical so it doesn’t go all the way down to the roots), they don’t dig as deep to get nutrients. In organics they get much more flavor coming up, all of which leads to slightly lower yields but increased aroma and flavor.
This was a revelation! We wanted to switch everything to organic to capture better flavor. That’s part one of our answer. “Organic” is a thing, it may mean something to some people, or bullshit to others, but we use organic for better flavor. And by the way, it helps save soil from junky fertilizers and pesticides.
It’s like why Tesla makes great cars that happen to not pollute, it’s because they’re electric. How else are you going to get instant torque, or replicate a low center of gravity for a heavy car that can outdrive a Porsche? You go electric. It’s not the piece of junk that the Prius is, which is also environmentally friendly, but if you like to drive, that’s an abomination. If you like cars, Tesla is a great car, and it doesn’t pollute.
Same thing with us, we make flavorful things that will blow your mind, and they don’t pollute. And it’s actually is government regulated. To put that seal on your bottle you have to meet their standards, you have to be able to have an inspector come in whenever they feel like it, go to your warehouse and pull a bottle off the racks, read the code on it, and say, “you have 10 minutes, bring me every documentation that proves everything in this bottle has not been polluted with artificial fertilizer, GMO or synthetic pesticides, all the things that would be inconsistent with organic farming.”
Nick: Did you find that hard? Was there anything you guys had a hard time getting your hands on?
Melkon: There are a few things that you just can’t get organic, mainly because they’re not farmed. Organic means farming. Things grown in nature that no one farms are not organic compliant.
Nick: That seems like something that would be the most organic that just can’t be called organic?
Melkon: Exactly. It’s so organic that no one’s farming it. But it’s called “wild crafted,” and doesn’t fit into the organic standard. We want to use things like cinchona bark, which nobody farms. It’s the bark of a tree that grows in the Andes that you use to make quinine for tonic water. There’s nothing else that tastes like it, nothing. And if you want to use that in some organic product, well good luck, you can’t do it.
We had some challenges but it’s getting easier every year because more companies are beginning to use incorporate organic ingredients; more farmers are turning towards organic production. When we started the stuff was just insanely expensive, but it was worth it because the flavor was there and the customers wouldn’t have to use as much, so it made sense. But it’s getting to be more and more available and less expensive.
Nick: I want to switch gears. When I look at similarities between craft beer and distilling, I have a conversation with myself about home brewing. There are over a million home brewers in the US, and they get to interact with each other, which helped propagate both home brewing and the craft beer industry. This network, because it’s been legal, has allowed people to discuss and help beer thrive.
But when it comes to liquor, home distilling is still very much illegal, so people can’t talk to each other and thrive. People are home distilling regardless, but no one can talk to each other in the same types of social forums you find with beer. To me that is one reason we’re not seeing more craft distilleries popping up. What’s your take on that?
Melkon: Well, there’s a good reason home brewing and wine making is legal; the worst thing you can do is make a bad batch. You’re not going to blow up your house, like you could if you distilled at home. This stuff, especially with the cheap equipment you can buy online can be pretty dangerous. You’re dealing with open flames and leaky containers. And also open flames in the context of explosives vapors.
We’ve seen professional distillers that have blown up their facilities. Not everyday of course, but it does happen. If you’re doing the same thing at home, with colder climates in a basement or garage, there is every chance in the world that you can hurt yourself or worse. So there’s a reasonable justification to keep it illegal.
It sucks if you want to learn about distilling before you open your own shop, which is a challenge and a huge hurdle for many early distillers, but there’s a good reason for that. The rationale of you hurting yourself is real. It ought to stay illegal, unless there’s some professional school that can be attended by people that want to do learn before you open up your own shop. To go from zero knowledge to plunking down a million dollars to open up your own distillery… that’s a scary jump. There aren’t that many places to learn.
Nick: You went from flavoring to distilling, what was that process like for you guys?
Melkon: It was a slow transition. We began to distill, but initially bought all the alcohol that we flavored and bottled, and then began making some of our own alcohol internally. We had to learn a lot; distilling is a whole lot easier than flavoring. Flavor chemistry we’re still learning. Distilling we’re still learning too, but we’ve learned most of it, it’s not that difficult. Fermentation is difficult as hell. Infusions are difficult as hell. Distilling, not so hard… dangerous, but not so hard.
So flavor manipulation is really what our company is focused on. Flavor is difficult in terms of understanding complexity, finish, mouth feel, and mid-palate transition. It’s hard to make things taste good over and over. You can make something good once, but to do it at scale and offer it at decent prices; that’s not easy.
Nick: I know you have an emphasis on making spirits to go with cocktails. Why the emphasis on liquor that will go into a different finish product?
Melkon: There’s a historical reason for this. America invented cocktails. This, among a few other things like jazz is our gift to the world. When I’m at home making dinner with friends, we serve cocktails and beer. Cocktails are really creative, and that for us is in the sharing in the fun. We get to be creative in making spirits, and when we hand it off to customers we allow them to be as creative as we are. We pass on the baton in a way.
We make things that make cocktail making fun, easy, and enjoyable. You can make cocktails that reflect your style, geography, or the seasons. Cocktail making can be as fun and enjoyable to share as cooking, and our customers have that style of entertaining. It allows someone to share something we hold dear with our friends and family. You don’t have to overthink it, just enjoy it. That’s really the undercurrent of all of our products.
Nick: If this is a good way to reach and LA audience or craft beer audience, what would you like to say to people?
Melkon: The thing we share in common with brewers, with whom we take great inspiration, is being as fearless in distilling as they are in brewing. There are no traditions that we will not break, no methods we will not embrace or invent, as long as it tastes good. That’s the only thing that matters.
We make the oldest style gin in existence today. We also make a type of rum that is so revolutionary that no one else but us makes it. It’s a molasses rum that we ferment with white wine yeast, that we mature and mellow out with the same technique that red wine makers use to mellow out their pinots and cabernets. It’s a bridge between agricole or cachaça, and Caribbean molasses rum.
All we care about is flavor. Sometimes that takes old world techniques and sometimes it takes new ones. We don’t really care about the methods; it’s all about the final product. That’s something we share with brewers because they will brew anything anyway as long as it tastes good. It’s not like the German purity laws.
Nick: Lastly, I heard everything you guys do is aged to taste, or made to taste. Explain that?
Melkon: Everything is made to taste, and there’s nothing that has a particular measure except our palate. The only thing that’s the great equalizer is our own palate. Palates are pretty sophisticated among everyone; you can’t talk someone out of liking something if it tastes good to them.
To go one step further, we are the structure. There is no structure greater than us. Our palates, that we hope are in tune with that of our customers, is how we judge our spirits. There’s no time frame, no method or heritage; we couldn’t care less about those things. We are the measure of our spirits. That’s the only thing that ultimately counts when you pour yourself a cocktail. That’s the only thing that really matters.
For more information visit http://www.greenbar.biz/ . Greenbar is located at 2459 E 8th St, Los Angeles, CA 90021. Tours can be booked online.