California has long been home to some of the nation’s best craft breweries including Sierra Nevada, Stone, and Ballast Point among others. But recently, a crop of spirited entrepreneurs are turning their attention to a new frontier: craft distilling.
Recent legal cases against Tito’s Vodka, Maker’s Mark, and Jim Beam have brought the practice of labeling a spirit as “handmade” or “craft” under scrutiny. The question of what differentiates a craft spirit from crafty marketing may be something the courts are forced to answer. But two Southern California distilleries, Ventura Spirits and Greenbar Craft Distillery, are blazing a new trail that can be defined as nothing less than artisanal craftsmanship.
When he was just 13 years old (an age when many curious lads are sneaking their first sip of Dewars from dad’s liquor cabinet), Anthony Caspary built his first working still. Today he is one of four co-founders of Ventura-based Ventura Spirits (venturaspirits.com). The company is one of a handful of micro distilleries in California that is using local ingredients to create a line of unique, and decidedly Californian, libations.
The idea of terroir is more commonly associated with wine, but Ventura Spirits is proving that even spirits can be true to the place where they are born. Founded in 2011, the four friends set out to start a distillery that “makes use of the stuff that grows here,” according to James Greenspun, the humble yet ebullient co-founder who serves as company spokesperson.
The company and its creations are made by hand, quite literally, from the ground-up. The founders pick the native botanicals used in their Wilder Gin from the hillsides that surround Ventura County and they source the strawberries used in their one-of-a-kind California Vodka from the agricultural surplus of local farmers. All of this is artfully distilled in their 300-gallon hybrid pot still, designed and built from scratch by Caspary.
Since shipping their first case in July 2014, Ventura Spirits has attracted the attention of talented mixologists in Southern California seeking interesting and exotic spirits for their creations. Christiaan Rollich, who heads the bar program at A.O.C., one of LA’s most-lauded restaurants, was an early convert.
When asked what defines craft, the boys at Ventura Spirits effectively demurred. “The question of craft is a red herring,” says Henry Tarmy, former land conservation professional and one of Ventura’s co-founders. “It cuts both ways, because when you say your spirit is so great because we touch it a lot and do it all by hand does not necessarily mean it is a superior product. That just makes it analog and unpredictable. There are a lot of great spirits using processes and ingredients that are not considered ‘craft’ by most people’s definitions.”
So instead of zeroing-in on whether a product is made by hand or in a state-of-the-art booze factory, Tarmy prefers to focus on artistry. In his view, a truly unique spirit is most often created by small, risk-taking distilleries unhindered by market research and focus groups. “They are the true artisans, which is more about honesty than about craft.”
Greenbar Craft Distilling
Greenbar Craft Distillery (greenbar.biz) was officially founded in 2004 by husband-and-wife team Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew. But the story of this pioneering Los Angeles distillery began several years earlier. After getting engaged, Melkon began infusing vodka with fresh fruit from his local farmers market to create custom libations that Litty could enjoy during family gatherings.
Melkon’s artful concoctions quickly earned the praise of friends and family who began requesting bottles of the quaff for themselves. Eventually, the pair formed Modern Spirits (later renamed Greenbar) – one of only 38 micro distilleries in the United States at the time. A decade later, that number has ballooned to more than 700.
Greenbar’s commitment to real ingredients that impart authentic flavor is impressive and all-consuming. “We don’t buy flavors, we make flavors,” boasts Melkon. The team at Greenbar hand-slices 5,000 vanilla beans for their TRU Vanilla Vodka to ensure the elixir actually tastes like its namesake ingredient. For each 1,000-gallon batch of TRU Lemon Vodka, they hand-zest more than 2,000 lemons to avoid piercing the bitter pith that can ruin the flavor balance.
But this unwavering pursuit of authenticity comes with its own set of challenges. Working with seasonal, agricultural products that vary by season—and farm-to-farm—the company closely monitors every batch of its spirits to ensure flavor consistency over time.
Reminiscent of the couple’s early days of infusing vodka, Greenbar has also taken a novel path to whiskey making. The company’s Slow Hand Six Wood Whiskey achieves its unique flavor and aroma from a variety of exotic woods introduced during the aging process. Maple, mulberry, hickory, and other woods are cut into 2-inch cubes and toasted in-house, then steeped with the whiskey inside a 1,000-gallon French white-oak barrel.
The pièce de résistance of the entire operation is the one-of-a-kind fractionating continuous column still used for primary distillation. The large, steampunk-ish contraption can hold a constant temperature throughout the distillation process, allowing the makers to isolate specific flavors that exist in the mash and pull them out into the final product.
Melkon is passionate in defending his view of craft spirits. “Craft is a maker with an original thought, the skills to put that idea into a bottle and who is involved in every step of the process. Craft requires a maker. No maker, no craft. No original idea, no craft.” But in the end, Melkon insists that he is still just trying to create products that please his discriminating wife.
Ventura Spirits Opuntia Prickly Pear Spirit
Opuntia shares the Latin name of the Nopal cactus from which it is made. Its flavor profile is similar to tequila though it is technically an un-aged brandy. Chewy and full of earthy texture, Opuntia possesses a “deja vu” familiarity. The sun-ripened fresh fruit that forms the structure of the spirit bursts with freshness and reminds the drinker of a casual stroll through a local farmers market.
Greenbar California Six Woods Slow Hand Whiskey
This organic whiskey is distilled from 100% malted barley and aged in a 1,000-gallon oak barrel along with toasted cubes of other exotic woods. Greenbar’s unorthodox aging process ultimately results in a spectacularly unique spirit. The aroma is complex with hints of maple syrup, butterscotch, vanilla, and curry. The flavor is surprisingly smooth and well-rounded with a symphony of faint woody notes that add up to a very approachable whiskey.
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