Three days a week, at 10:30 a.m., Melkon Khosrovian, Litty Mathew and their entire production team at Greenbar Craft Distillery — Los Angeles' first distillery since Prohibition and creators of the largest line of organic spirits in the world — gather around a long, high-top table in the company's sleek downtown headquarters.
On this particular day, shreds of dry ginger from a few potential vendors (along with a neutral spirit infused with each) are set up at one sampling station. Nine mason jars filled with hand-charred cubes of wood, each suspended in a brown liquid, form another. Three glasses of fermenting, partially infused and unfiltered versions of Greenbar's Crusoe Rum (spiced like an egg nog, not like Captain Morgan), Fruitlab Orange (made with 75 percent Valencia, 25 percent navel oranges) and TRU Lemon Vodka (flavored with 2,000 hand-zested lemons per batch) sit next to their previous-batch counterparts for comparison.
"These are coming along nicely," Khosrovian says after sampling each one.
Days-old fermenting grape juice, which tastes like a sweet white-wine spritzer, also gets passed around; eventually it will be distilled and infused into a spiced brandy that, because of California's liquor laws, will be sold in the tasting room in lieu of their molasses-based rum.
The setup is not unlike one that might be seen in a tea manufacturer or perfumery, where dozens of herbs, spices and aromatic fruits and vegetables combine to create complex concoctions.
The inconsistent nature of organic produce plus an obsessive commitment to flavor continually brings the crew here, to a room overlooking a dingy Industrial District street, where all the batches of booze currently under way are taste-tested and new projects are researched and developed.
"These sessions help us all figure out what we're trying to achieve. And what we're trying to achieve is a product that you can take home and make a great drink out of," says Mathew, who started professionally infusing spirits with her husband, Khosrovian, 10 years ago this month. "We're actually working backward in the sense that we start at the bar and we're thinking, 'How can we make this daiquiri better?' or 'How can we make a drink more tasty?'?"
If formulating product for a very specific cocktail sounds like a bizarre approach to crafting spirits, it is. While American small-batch distilleries today are having a major moment (rapid expansion in the once-stagnant industry has brought the number from fewer than 60 just 10 years ago to more than 600 today), most of these new operations are going back to stand-alone basics: good old-fashioned moonshines, 18th-century bourbons and traditional dry gins meant to be consumed spirit-first or, at the very least, plugged into a classic spirit-forward recipe that has survived generations without much alteration.
In an era when most distillers and mixologists are intently focused on re-creating and showcasing the booze of our pre-Prohibition forefathers, Greenbar has for the last decade been doing exactly the opposite.
From vodkas infused with celery, dill, fennel and other savory ingredients, to liqueurs fermented with white wine yeast and then infused with plants found on a hike through Griffith Park, to a whiskey aged on five more kinds of wood than any other whiskey that's ever been made before, Greenbar not only represents the inevitable post-modern response to the spirit industry's throwback obsession — it's pioneered it.
"Bartenders, as a whole, are trained classically. We're like ballerinas. There's one way to do it and that's it," says Lauren Reyes, bar manager at Mohawk Bend in Echo Park. Her bar stocks most of Greenbar's 28 products and, because it doesn't carry any spirit that isn't made in California, about half of Mohawk Bend's seasonal cocktail menu ends up being made with Greenbar products.
"It goes back to Prohibition-era cocktails where you are familiar with all the ingredients and if you don't have one of them, then you get confused," Reyes says. "But we have to be more open-minded here, and you have to let yourself be free. If you stick by the rules all the time, you're never going to have any fun."
When Khosrovian and Mathew first began selling their artisanal sipping vodkas out of a Monrovia office park in 2004, Greenbar was (perhaps more appropriately) called Modern Spirits. The original line was an outgrowth of Mathew's dislike of her husband's Armenian-family hooch.
At Khosrovian family gatherings, glasses of fruit brandies, vodka or mulberry wine would get passed around for toasting, and Mathew — who is of Indian descent but was born in Ethiopia and partially raised in Jamaica before moving to the Inland Empire — cringed at the thought of drinking it straight.
By watching how Mathew cooked at home (she is a Cordon Bleu–trained chef and food writer), Khosrovian began infusing store-bought vodka with layers of ingredients they bought on their weekly trips to the Hollywood Farmers Market, creating flavors such as pear-lavender-vanilla and kumquat-blackberry. He slapped a nice label on it so his family would think he brought something fancy to drink. When Khosrovian's cousins started taking bottles home from the family dinners and their cousin's friends began calling asking how to get more, the couple knew they were onto something.
"We either had to get our phone number unlisted or go into business," Mathew says. "Luckily, we chose the latter."
At first, they purchased predistilled neutral spirits and infused them with local, hand-processed produce. But with the vodka market flooded by cheap, chemically flavored raspberry, vanilla and cotton-candy versions from big-name brands, bars didn't want to invest in high-end versions of a partially disdained product, and consumers weren't interested in the multiple layers and subtle complexities of Modern Spirits' chocolate-orange-peppercorn and grapefruit-honey vodkas. For the first four years in business, the products were a hard sell.
In 2008, one of Khosrovian and Mathew's produce suppliers switched to an organic farm, and the subsequent batches carried a distinct increase in flavor intensity. After consulting with a viticulturist who confirmed that pesticide-free produce creates more flavor and aroma as a natural defense mechanism, the company launched its line of TRU organic vodkas and never looked back.
Over the next few years, the couple began infusing rum and gin and added a series of liqueurs and bitters. Going organic also gave them a heightened sense of environmental responsibility, which manifested in Earth-friendly packaging and a pledge to plant one tree for every bottle purchased (nearly 400,000 to date).
By the time they moved into their current 14,000-square-foot warehouse in 2012 and decided to begin distilling their own base spirits there, the original line of Modern Spirits was retired, making Greenbar Craft Distillery not just an all-organic spirits manufacturer whose products are carbon-negative but also the only distillery of any kind in Greater Los Angeles.
"We used to buy the distillate because we didn't have room before, but we've always wanted to make it vertically integrated," Khosrovian says of their current still setup. Because many of their distillates require precise treatment to create a final product, Greenbar has a traditional copper pot still as well as a higher-tech continuous column still. "We love to have control from the bottom all the way up," he says.
"We're just so flavor-driven here," Mathew adds. "Everything we do is about capturing the most we can out of real things. We still do so much by hand in a way that big companies aren't capable of."
Back in the conference room, the morning's tasting session is coming to a close. The final sample is of Greenbar's Grand Poppy, an unclassifiable liqueur and one of Greenbar's newer products, whose closest cousin might be a European aperitif or an Italian amaro with a local flair. It's most creative home is in a cocktail called the Griffith, which won a recent cocktail competition for the title of L.A.'s Signature Cocktail. Bitter, then sweet, and potent in aroma and taste, the liqueur is made with 16 ingredients native to the state, mostly herbs, roots and plants from Griffith Park that a purist might say have no place in a spirit.
But Khosrovian and Mathew don't concern themselves too much with the naysayers. They prefer to work with adventurous bartenders like Reyes, who understand that not everything has to reflect the so-called "Golden Era" of cocktails. In Los Angeles, with its international-fusion landscape a longtime destination for people from all around the world, it only makes sense that the city's largest distillery is finding ways to create entirely new drinking experiences instead of copying the old-world ways.
"It's so California, isn't it?" Mathew says with a smile.
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See also: More photos from Greenbar
Greenbar Distillery is open for tours with an RSVP. In celebration of the company's 10th anniversary, now through the end of the year, $1 from every Griffith cocktail sold in the city will be donated to a fund that helps maintain Griffith Park. 2459 E. Eighth St., Los Angeles, (213) 375-3668, greenbar.biz.