The tidal wave of craft distilleries begins
As Greenbar was fighting the good fight to open and operate their distillery, several others around the LA-area were looking to do the same. While some were facing their own challenges independently, others saw Greenbar as role models. "Now new distillers can have a much freer time opening and operating in L.A. County because we went through hell first,” Melkon explains. "The huge advantage has been time. We were part of the industry before 'craft distiller' was really a term. There were so few of us that it really gave us time to hone in on our skills." Melkon points out that when they first started they were one of only 10 spirit makers in the state, and thanks to the changes brought by AB 933 and 1295, along with a renewed interest in craft production, now there are over 60 in California alone. And the country now has over 1,200 craft producers up from only a few dozen when Greenbar started.
“Unless you come in with a lot of expertise and a lot of money, you're not going to make it. Which is harsh, but there's just so much competition,” Melkon explains. “So, our big advantage was having enough breathing room to ramp up and learn the skills that we've honed over the years. And now we can offer something really useful and disruptive in the industry that will make a difference in someone's ability to go home and make an incredible cocktail without killing themselves.”
Stark Spirits, the second distillery to open in LA county and the first in Pasadena, was launched in March 2013 by another husband and wife team, Greg Stark and Karen Robinson-Stark, who make rum, whiskey, aquavit, and brandy. While Greg admits that they were aware of Greenbar’s efforts, they were mostly focused on their own challenges to open their micro-distillery -- it’s less than 1,200sqft -- particularly from 11th hour demands from Pasadena’s Building and Zoning departments. Ultimately the issues were resolved, and they were happy with their decision to open in the city of Pasadena.
“We heard horror stories from both breweries and distilleries’ efforts to open in Los Angeles,” Greg explains. “Each city offers its set of challenges, and for Stark Spirits the challenge today is to be able to sell spirits from the distillery like other craft distilleries throughout the county and state. The zoning at our location allows us to manufacture, but not do retail sales.” Stark Spirits recently won five medals (including a best-of-category) at this year’s American Distilling Institute’s craft spirits competition and a Gold medal at the California Craft Spirits competition for the brand’s Traditional Aquavit.
“For the longest time it was just Greenbar,” Greg goes on to say. “Then four years ago we started, and now in the past year and a half three others have opened. I can see a dozen or so distilleries popping up here and there in the in LA area. Others are already showing up in Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura counties. More distilleries are coming.”
The second distillery to open up in the city of Los Angeles was YSA (Young State America) Distillery, producing the award-winning Loft & Bear vodka in, you guessed it, an Arts District loft. Founder Paul Ryan Elliott, one of the youngest distillers in the country at 31, says they were inspired by Greenbar, their neighbor down the road. “I’d say arguably that they paved the way for us newcomers,” Elliott says. “They were the first in what’s proven for us at Loft & Bear to be a great local market with fierce local brand loyalties.” YSA continues to operate out of the Arts District, but is currently working to expand to nearby Huntington Park, where they have plans to build a much larger distillery and a tasting room.
Another new neighbor of Greenbar in the Arts District is The Spirit Guild, which opened their distillery and tasting room early this summer on Mateo St. Launched by Miller Duvall and Morgan McLachlan, yet another husband and wife distilling duo, The Spirit Guild distills their two current offerings, Vapid vodka and Astral Pacific gin, from clementines grown on Miller’s sixth-generation family farm roughly 100 miles away near the Kern River. Morgan explains that they were going through similar challenges of going through the permitting process as Greenbar around the same time. “There wasn’t much of a precedent for opening a distillery with the city, so it made things a little difficult getting through permitting, and explaining to the city the intent of what we were doing,” she says.
Morgan goes on to say that the passage of AB 933 and AB 1295 helped their efforts tremendously, “The passage allows for us to charge for tastings and tours, and to sell bottles out of our distillery directly to consumers. For small distilleries, having a tasting room is a wonderful vehicle for consumers to become educated about our unique process, meet the makers, and become more intimate with the brand. We love having people 'discover' the distillery while walking through the Arts District, people find it quite enchanting!”
Soon after The Spirit Guild opened their tasting room doors, a new micro-distillery called Our/Los Angeles opened in the Arts District. The small vodka distillery is a partnership between Steven Ocheltree and Tyler Simmons -- co-founders of local creative agency Sew -- and Pernod Ricard’s Our/Vodka brand, which is collaborating with local entrepreneurs in cities around the world to create a unique flavor profile for each location. “We were aware of Greenbar, but the choice to settle in the Arts District was made independently of them,” explains distillery manager Samantha Hochhauser. “That said, part of the reason we love the Arts District so much is because of the wonderful community that continues to grow here, and that includes Greenbar as well as all of our other wonderful neighbors like Mast Bros., Stumptown, and The Spirit Guild.” With the ability to open a tasting room and offer tours, Our/Los Angeles looks to engage more with the public on a personal level. “We think the product speaks for itself and we like to be transparent about our process and what goes into it,” Hochhauser says. “On top of that we love to get involved with our community and spread the word about other businesses and brands we’re enthusiastic about.”
Beyond the Arts District and Pasadena, other distilleries have also sprouted up -- two in September alone -- with others in the works. Rob Rubens Distilling and Brewing recently opened in El Segundo, and further down in Orange County, Blinking Owl Distillery is opening their doors in Santa Ana. And meanwhile Ventura Spirits has been distilling California-inspired spirits to the north for several years now.