Five years ago, Jan and Marsh Mokhtari sat on the cliffs of Big Sur, Calif., captivated by the view of the Pacific Ocean and a pod of migrating gray whales making its way north to the Arctic Ocean from San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja. Already inspired by their recent trip to Napa Valley, the Mokhtaris talked about a legacy project and their goals for the future. At the time, Jan had more than two decades of experience working as a creative director on marketing campaigns for some of the world’s most iconic brands, including Samsung and Google, while Marsh was an established television host for food and adventure shows across multiple cable networks, including National Geographic and The Food Network. Despite that success, the couple wanted to create something of their own, something that could help them provide for their children, support California conservation, and protect the state’s coastline.
Ninety minutes later (and 65 miles farther south along the Pacific Coast Highway), on their drive home, the Mokhtaris purchased the domain for Golden State Distillery and focused their initial efforts on making a spirit that could embody the entire California coastline. They soon settled on gin; however, it would be another two years before a smooth and balanced liquid flowed from their stills in Sonoma. During the time in between, the Mokhtaris visited hundreds of distilleries and surveyed many experienced distillers.
“We had the confidence to take risks because we didn’t come from the spirits industry,” says Jan. “We decided that we were just going to make choices to make a product that we’re proud of. We’re also huge fans of gin, so from a taste profile every choice that we made was to make a gin that we would love. Sometimes we got feedback from advisors who were experts in the field who would say you shouldn’t use that botanical, or you shouldn’t mix with this botanical, but we were able to take those risks and move forward with what we felt was right.”
The Mokhtaris decided to name the gin in honor of the gray whales that follow the entirety of California’s coast during their annual migration. Despite that conviction, the journey the Mokhtaris took to create the gin’s unique flavor profile was defined by trial and error—152 experimental recipes to be precise. In the end, they settled on six key botanicals that are either hand foraged or sourced from organic and sustainable coastal California farms. Wild juniper berries that grow along Big Sur’s rocky coastline serve as the foundation for this gin, but they’re expertly married with bright notes of citrus from Baja, subtly sweet and herbaceous characteristics of mint grown in Santa Cruz, and the crispness of fir-tree needles sourced from an organic farm in Sonoma Valley.
When sipped, the gin’s remarkably smooth mouthfeel reflects the presence of almonds harvested from the Central Valley, while the spirit’s flavor delivers just a hint of the ocean imparted from the restrained presence of sea kelp (kombu seaweed) sourced from Mendocino.
From the onset of Golden State Distillery’s existence and the conceptualization of Gray Whale Gin, the Mokhtaris have partnered with nonprofit Oceana, donating a portion of each sale to support the preservation of California’s coastline and the protection of the gray whale. That partnership—combined with the Mokhtaris’ ambition to create a gin that showcases the entirety of California’s maritime flavors—inspired them to limit the number of ingredients in the spirit’s botanical recipe.
“We felt there was a quiet confidence in just putting six simple botanicals on the front of the bottle and being able to taste them in a spectacular fashion, and doing it the right way,” says Marsh. “If you go to any Michelin-star restaurant, they do things better than most and with fewer ingredients. They don’t need a lot of pomp and circumstance to make something spectacular. And allowing the botanicals to truly shine is our best way to celebrate the gray whale.” graywhalegin.com