This is Straight Up, a column by whiskey expert and author Heather Greene. Today, Greene explores the complicated world of craft distilling in Los Angeles.
Flying over Arizona en route to Los Angeles from New York City, I became intoxicated with the idea of plunging myself into the LA craft distilling scene. I decided to abandon my beach plans and instead run around the city and explore whiskey — after a planned event where I was to flame oranges and make Old Fashioneds for a group of television executives in Santa Monica. The plan was simple: I would write about all the cool things LA was doing with whiskey-creativity, and enjoy a few cocktails at some swank Hollywood bars with friends. But it turns out that LA's whiskey story is a trickier one to tell: It's quite possibly the most unfriendly place to make whiskey in America — and that includes Utah.
"Hey, show me around!" I texted to Steve Ury as I got off the plane. Ury's an online keeper of craft distilling details in the USA, where whiskey wonks go when we want to find out who's doing what and where. "You will be disappointed," he foreshadowed back. "But go at least go check out Greenbar Craft Distillery. They're doing some pretty cool things there."
Los Angeles is quite possibly the most unfriendly place to make whiskey in America — and that includes Utah.
The morning following my event, I hiked up Runyon Canyon in West Hollywood, practiced yoga between Ron Jeremy and a woman wearing a metal triangle pyramid on her head, and scrubbed the rest of my New York neuroticism and seriousness off in a pool. By 5 p.m. I was throwing beets and spinach into a blender rather than pouring booze into a glass, and at that moment I realized: LA just doesn't feel like the kind of place to enjoy a spicy, rich bourbon or rye. I never seem to drink much whiskey when I'm visiting.
"It's something about the weather, the vibe, and even the population concentration," said Chris Steller, executive director of the California Artisanal Distiller's Guild (CADG). "You have an outdoor lifestyle that drives the drinking environment, and it's so spread out — there are fewer little bars and pubs than you'd find in San Francisco, for example." When I spoke with David Othenin Girard, Spirits Buyer from K&L Wine Merchants, one of the premier whiskey purveyors in LA, he agreed. "Our whiskey scene goes back to the structure of the city: It's not really one city, it's nine cities smooshed together, and it's just not a place where formal dining is encouraged." Girard also reminded me that LA is the largest tequila market in the world.
This relaxed, warm weather ethos also combines with a fierce wine-drinking loyalty so tight that whiskey-lovers and makers have had to develop strategies. Steller explains, "We get a lot of people up here in my distillery saying, 'I don't drink whiskey. I drink wine.' But I let them know our stuff isn't like what they've tasted from Kentucky, that we do things differently. We use wine-grade oak, and are heavily involved with the wine people. Many of us distillers take advantage of their knowledge, too." I recounted to him my own story of entertaining a group of Northern California wine enthusiasts at my old whiskey haunt the Flatiron Room, where we housed 1,000 bottles of whiskey. "We are from California," they said. "We drink wine. Can you tell us about your wine list?" I pleasantly urged them to sample some of the new and interesting products on the market like California's St. George, one of the early pioneers of the craft distilling movement whose American single malt is as sweet, mellow, and delicious as many white wines.
Here's the thing: Vibe and wine-drinking loyalty aren't to blame for California's distilling lag. Those elements are actually the consequences of outdated and arcane laws that make whiskey production about as difficult as erecting an Egyptian-style pyramid in Central Park. As a result, the tourism, appreciation, and growth probably isn't where it might be otherwise. Where exactly that appreciation might stand is impossible to know.
A tangle of rules
"Making whiskey is harder to do in California than other states, but LA throws another layer on that, making a difficult situation even worse," Steller says. To check out this supposed bureaucratic craziness, a friend and I hopped into a car and headed to downtown Los Angeles.
We got lost. In Scotland or Kentucky you're taking one road. In LA, there are at least 25 choices to make in a split second. Once off the highway in the arts district, we took a dozen or so left and rights between warehouses inside of which home-design, jewelry, and tech businesses bud. We identified Greenbar Craft Distillery by its bright red-brick exterior.
Greenbar is regulated, checked, and monitored by the same kind of government workers that might visit a Doritos or RingDing plant.
"This must look very different to you," Melkon Khosrovian, Greenbar's distiller/owner says as we enter the production room. Inside, an array of tubes and pipes sprouted from the top and sides, in all sorts of directions, of about six 12-foot wine fermentation tanks. They fed into different vats, tanks, and copper stills around the room in a scene more reminiscent of a Doctor Who episode than of a folksy-yet-cliched image of a traditional whiskey facility with open barn-like doors and piles of corn lying around. "Los Angeles County considers distilleries as food manufacturing plants," Khosrovian says. "We can't use grain or even make whiskey the way other distilleries around the world do. Everything is within that closed-loop system of tubes."
As a result, visitors won't smell the fruity, bready aromatics delivered by open fermentation tanks, and Khosrovian can't jettison his grains into large open mash tuns — all this is considered a violation of LA's food manufacturing rules. "We are not allowed to process raw grain in a warehouse because unlike wineries and breweries, we're regulated by the county health department, and we're the only city in California that does that. Not even Pasadena up the road has that condition." In other words, Greenbar is regulated, checked, and monitored by the same kind of government workers that might visit a Doritos or RingDing plant.
To get around traditional grain process that would be done elsewhere — in say, Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn — Khosrovian brings in liquid malt-syrup extract for fermentation. Once distilled, the whiskey is poured into 1,000- and 2,000-gallon aging vats made of French oak. Different slabs of wood are thrown into vats for flavor, and the fermented malt extract and wood elements are aged for "either less than 10 minutes or more than 10 minutes," the details of which are indicated on each bottle of Khosrovian's Slow Hand whiskey.
This is not bourbon or rye. That is, Greenbar doesn't adhere to grain mash requirements needed in order to be called a bourbon (at least 51 percent corn). It doesn't abide by the bourbon or rye cask requirements needed, either (virgin oak). "We don't make traditional things here — we are driven by what we want to drink, and whatever that takes, we'll just go ahead and do it," Khosrovian says. He's not busy fighting rules to change what can be called bourbon, like distillers are doing in Kentucky. Khosrovian's fight is bigger than that; he's still tackling both local and state distilling laws that were enacted back in 1933. Bourbon rules were set in 1964.
When distillers can't sell their own whiskey out of their visitors center, building a distillery becomes a very risky business.
These 80-year-old laws — such as the California law that says you can't add ice to any samples of whiskey in the distillery or even a drop of water for those who might want it — are silly and old, but when distillers can't sell their own whiskey out of their visitors center, building a distillery becomes a very risky business. A distiller like Khosrovian must do more than make whiskey. Like many craft distillers, he's also distilling Brandy, which is legal to sell because like wine, it's made from fruit. He also produces spirits for other companies who re-bottle under different labels (he can't say who), and sells a fresh-ingredient line of vodkas and tequilas, all created in a flavor laboratory where hundreds of herbs and spices in a dizzying amount of variations are being experimented with in mason jars.
Such strict distilling rules make him the only water-of-life game in town, much like the distilling scene in New York state back before 2007, the year in which Ralph Erenzo, owner of Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery, led the charge to help pass the 2007 Farm Distilling Act. The FDA, a New York state law, finally allowed new distillers to sell their product out of their distilleries, and since then, more than 50 craft distilleries have been born in New York. "Geographically and population-wise, we should have far more distilleries than any other state," Steller says of California. "We drink more, we have more people, and it's also a great place to get your hands on grains and fruit. Imagine all the creativity that could happen here." Indeed, allowing distillers to sell product in NY has spurned a slew of products that reflect the aroma and taste of the land, such Hudson's New York corn whiskey.
Meet Assembly Bill 1233
In February of this year, California assembly members Marc Levine and Susan Eggman introduced Assembly Bill 1233, which would allow distillers to sell some of their own product. "California distilleries are currently unable to truly market themselves, build brand recognition, and remain competitive due to the regulatory hurdles dating back to prohibition," the press release says.
But somewhere along the path to eradicating prohibition-era rules, opponents hoping to keep the status quo are blocking efforts, and the bill is now "on pause." The argument is that allowing customers to buy whiskey directly from a distillery changes the three-tier system, in which all liquor moves through a distribution company from the maker to the customer. Changing this architecture could mean a loss of revenue for some. (Head over to Edible East Bay for a deeper dive into this battle.)
For those of you non-Californians who choose to visit Greenbar, however, I have good news: You can buy a bottle of whiskey to take home. But you'll have to jump through a few hoops like I did: I signed over my license number, social security number, and signature promising to take my whiskey home to New York. Underneath a sunny skylight above the big aging vats, my friend asked, "Wait. So I can't buy a bottle?"
"Where do you live?" Khosrovian asked.
"West Hollywood. It would be great to bring to a house party tomorrow."
"No, you cannot," he said. "No sales to Californians in here allowed."
And just like that: a new customer, exposure to a party of people, and revenue lost. For the party, we stopped at the local market to pick up a bottle of Kentucky bourbon.
Heather Greene is a whiskey expert and the author of Whiskey Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life, out now.