Laura Johnson realized she was running out of options. For almost a year, the University of San Diego graduate had taken every distilling workshop and apprenticeship she could find — training at Dry Fly Distilling, Wine & Spirits Education Trust, and the Distilled Spirits Epicenter Master Distiller’s program — but she couldn’t get an entry-level job in the industry.
“When I realized I that my desired path wasn’t panning out how I wanted it to, I decided to do what I know how to do,” she told me. Apprenticeship wasn’t in the cards. It was a clarifying moment; she was going to have to start her distillery to work in one and started drawing up a business plan. “Fuck it. I’ll just learn everything else along the way.”
Johnson, who opened San Diego’s You & Yours Distilling Co. in 2017, discovered her interest in distilling when she was 18 years old. Her father took her on a trip to Cuba as a high-school graduation gift before she set off for college. The pair took a trip to the legendary Havana Club distillery, which left an impression. “It wasn’t an a-ha moment,” she said. “But, as cliché as it sounds, it was life-changing. I was really fascinated with the whole process of how spirits came to be.”
In college, Johnson, an international business and economics major, found herself as the designated bartender, infusing vodka or simple syrup with lavender or herbs as the base of a cocktail. “They weren’t fancy — it was random Pinterest stuff,” she said. “[But] I was definitely that kid everyone called to bring a cocktail or punch bowl.”
As she set about the country visiting distilleries, one thing stood out to Johnson: There was often a “huge disconnect between product and experience.” She put together a finely detailed business proposal, which incorporated the idea for a beautifully designed distillery tasting room that had much thought behind it as the spirits. She also took a strategic approach to her spirit profiles. Like other young distilleries, she had to start with un-aged spirits first, while waiting for darker spirits, like whiskey, to mature in barrels. Johnson wanted a vodka with character that could stand out in a saturated space and settled on a 100% grape-based vodka with a vanilla-like sweetness. Her first gin is American-style — “not juniper-forward Christmas tree bomb” like the London Dry — made with Valencia orange, bright and grassy fresh mint, grapefruit, coriander, a hint of juniper, and rosehip to give it a rounded floral quality.
While at a course in Kentucky, she pestered the former CFO of Jim Beam to look over her business plan. “You know it won’t work in Kentucky,” she recalls him saying to her with a laugh. “But it’ll work in California.” That aside, he was impressed with the level of detail in her plan and later came on as an advisor to the business. She had her first verbal commitments from investors within a month of pitching her idea.
In 2017, two and a half years after finishing her business plan, Johnson opened the doors of You & Yours Distilling Co., with a custom-designed copper still and tasting room outfitted with hand-painted wood tiles, white-washed brick, and a teal velvet banquette. It was quickly dubbed “Instagrammable,” but it wasn’t all surface. Her vodka and gins also earned a space on the back bar at lauded local cocktail bars, like Polite Provisions, Kettner Exchange, and Juniper & Ivy. In the future, she plans to roll out amari, whiskey, and an old Tom gin, and a whole line of canned cocktails, starting with a soon-to-be-launched grapefruit-accented gin and tonic.
When asked about the roadblocks along the way, Johnson acknowledged that that there have been slights and people who dismissed her along the way but refused to dwell on them. “There’s always a way if you want there to be one.”