Have you ever tried to visit a distillery in California before? By no fault of the distilleries themselves, it's a big pain in the ass.
Until last year you could take a tour and see how the spirits were made, but you couldn't taste anything. Then, starting in 2014, you could take a tour and have six quarter-ounce samples of liquor afterward, but you had to pay for it. Want to take a bottle home with you? Too bad. You'll have to go to the nearest liquor store for that. What do you think this is, a brewery or winery?
“Part of the charm of visiting a winery or brewery is you get to buy something and take it home,” says Melkon Khosrovian, co-founder and spiritsmaker at downtown's Greenbar Distillery, Los Angeles' oldest distillery. “But as of right now, we [liquor distillers] can only charge them for a few samples, then tell them about a store that carries it."
Starting Jan. 1, some of these wonky Prohibition-era liquor laws will loosen, thanks to the California Small Spirits Bill, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown a few weeks ago.
Under the new law, small distilleries will be allowed to have open tasting rooms where you can go in, sip some samples, order a cocktail and, when you're done, buy a few bottles to go. It also allows distilleries to operate restaurants or pubs, as well as hold private events. All of this will help put California’s craft spirits industry on an even playing field with craft beer and wine.
"It's the biggest thing to happen to distilleries in California since the legalization of brewpubs in '83," says Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute. "California's been languishing with 49 distilleries for the last two to three years, and it has not been able to grow because you can't pour samples."
Beholden to the three-tier system — meaning all liquor must be sold to a distributor before being sold to a retailer, which then sells to the customer — distilleries of all sizes were unable to sell directly to the consumer. Boutique wineries, and then breweries, were given a pass on three-tier regulations because of their small size, but distributors fought any attempt at removing the restrictions for distilleries.
The revised bill creates a new craft distillers license, which would be available for those who produce less than 100,000 gallons annually.
"This opens the door to make a living and maybe send your kids to college," Owens says. "It's not like brewing, where you can open small for $50,000. To come into distilling, you'd better have some deep pockets and be able to wait it out."
This is all good news for Greenbar, which for most of its 11 years of existence operated as L.A.'s only distillery, all while lacking the means to provide the education necessary to grow the local market for small-batch spirits.
It's also good for L.A. County's two other craft distilleries: Young State America, makers of Loft & Bear vodka, whose owners were banking on the bill's passage when they bought their new tasting room–ready Huntington Park space, and year-old Stark Spirits in Pasadena, which because of city regulations won't be able to have a tasting room.
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Khosrovian says Greenbar will be applying for the new license when the law takes effect Jan. 1 — and says that as soon as they receive it (in about a month), they will turn their conference room into a full-time tasting room and gift shop. Khosrovian is most excited about the ability to serve cocktails at the tasting room and says he plans to offer private classes focused on cocktail making.
"When we give out samples on our tours today, they're not getting the 24 spirits we make and they're not cocktails, which is how most people like to drink," he says. "This will finally allow us to embrace craft cocktails, which is the driving force of the craft spirits industry."
Greenbar also will be expanding into some buildings across the street from its 10 freeway-adjacent facility, and he says that, within a year, it will open a restaurant there.
"This is going to accelerate the movement," Khosrovian says. "In the blink of an eye we will have multiple distilleries opening throughout Southern California, and it will make this a really exciting place for the community. How much fun would it be to come to downtown and have a distillery crawl?"