Tour LA's Best Distilleries And Say 'Bottoms' Up'
For a city awash in artisanal vodka, whiskey and rum, Los Angeles's crop of distilleries is a relatively new phenomenon. Blame Prohibition. In 1920, teetotalers put the proverbial cork in alcohol production in the United States. Not that the law stopped people. It led to more than a decade of bootlegging, violence, speakeasies and booze-fueled hedonism. Even after Prohibition was officially repealed in 1933, many states, cities and municipalities passed onerous laws about the production and sale of alcohol. For instance, California distillers couldn't have a tasting room or directly sell their own spirits without a middleman until 2016.
In the early 2000s, husband and wife duo Litty Mathew and Melkon Khosrovian started bottling flavored vodkas in Monrovia under the Greenbar Distillery label. Now, they boast the world's largest portfolio of organic spirits, all made at their headquarters in downtown L.A. Their ordeal with the city's bureaucracy paved the way for other distillers to produce spirits in Los Angeles. Now, we have so much locally made vodka, gin, whisky and rum, you can have one helluva happy hour at these tasting rooms. Most of L.A.'s distilleries are centered around the Arts District in downtown but you'll find a few outliers in Pasadena, El Segundo, Orange County and Ventura. Here's where to sip, sample and buy L.A.'s best homegrown spirits.
You've undoubtedly seen a Greenbar bottle on the shelf of your favorite bar or liquor store. The OG Los Angeles distiller has a varied catalogue -- Tru vodka, Crusoe rum, Ixa tequila, Slow Hand whiskey, Fruitlab liqueurs, City gin, Grand Poppy and Grand Hops amari, and Bar Keep Bitters -- all made with organic ingredients and an eye towards sustainability. (The company has planted almost 800,000 trees since 2008 through its One Bottle/One Tree program.) Even the bottles are earth-friendly with 100% recycled labels. What grew out of Khosrovian's hobby of making flavored vodkas for Mathew is now a massive distillery on the edge of the Arts District, the first in L.A. since Prohibition. Open to the public for tours, you'll learn the ins and outs of making organic hooch, and the $15 ticket includes sampling of spirits and cocktails. PS: Be sure to try the new low-ABV canned spritzy cocktails they just released.
2459 E. Eighth St., 213-375-3668, downtown L.A.
Part of a larger compendium of city-specific Our/Vodkas (they also have Berlin, New York and London versions), the Los Angeles version is partly distilled, blended and hand-bottled in the Arts District. Using organic wheat from Idaho and an organic strain of non-GMO yeast, this is a smooth vodka with a subtle grain flavor and fruity notes. The small-production facility only produces about 40,000 cases a year, a virtual drop in the vodka martini, er, market. You'll find Our/Los Angeles on many cocktail lists around town and on shelves at BevMo, Pavilions and Bristol Farms as well as at retailers of fancy spirits. The tasting room is sleek and chic, with art from local artists on the walls and vodka served on tap. Tours and tastings are available weekdays (weekends by appointment).
915 S. Santa Fe. Ave., downtown L.A.
The Spirit Guild
Next to Blue Bottle in the Arts District sits this cool gem of a distillery. You'll know it by the multi-colored stained glass windows and sunburst wooden door. Inside, there's a small lounge and tasting counter where you want to stop and try the Astral Pacific Gin and Vapid Vodka. Both are made on-site. From fermentation to blending and bottling, no part of the process is outsourced. The Spirit Guild's gin has a distinctive zesty citrus flavor, which comes from clementines, and hints of pink peppercorns and pistachios on the backend. It's a delight to drink, either as a mixer or on its own. The vodka is equally smooth, a fuller bodied spirit with a subtle sweetness. Take the $10 tour of the small facility and get $5 off any spirits you buy in the shop.
586 Mateo St., downtown L.A. 213-613-1498.
Turning the distilling game on its head with technology that accelerates the aging process of whiskies and rums, madcap distiller Bryan Davis is known for creating award-winning booze. At the Arts District home of Lost Spirits he offers two Abomination peated malt whiskies, including The Crying of Puma and Sayers of the Law (both named for chapters from the H.G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau), and two rums, including a rich and complex Navy-style version. If you live in downtown L.A., you can get bottles delivered via Amazon Prime. Retailers include K&L, Silver Lake Wine and Mission Fine Wine and Spirits. In another life, Davis designed amusement park rides so of course the distillery's tour involves a maze, a boat, a jungle, a submarine and a circus trolley. We won't say more because that would spoil the surprise. Besides, the tour is constantly evolving. Tickets cost $37 and should be booked well in advance. They're worth the effort, especially since you're sipping spirits the whole time.
1200 E. 5th St., downtown L.A. 213-505-2425.
The future really is female, at least when it comes to this gin. There's a powerhouse of talent behind Future Gin, including wine distributor Amy Atwood, cocktailian Mary Bartlett, distiller Morgan McLachlan and Coolhaus founders Freya Estreller and Natasha Case, making it the first fully female-owned, operated and distilled gin in existence. Future makes a London dry-style gin filled with distinctive SoCal flavors like meyer lemon, honeysuckle, grape, avocado leaf and a bunch of traditional botanicals. It's definitely a smooth gin for martinis. It's also great for cocktails. Future is custom-distilled at the Spirit Guild downtown, so it doesn't have it's own tasting room (yet) but you can try it at places like Botanica, the Ace Hotel, The Mermaid, Hippo, Bibo Ergo Sum and many others. To buy some for home, try K&L, Silver Lake Wine, Domaine LA and Bar & Garden.
Founded by actor Walton Goggins -- whose face is all over town right now on billboards for his new show, The Unicorn -- and friend and cinematographer Matthew Alper, Mulholland Distilling has a gin, a whiskey and a vodka under its belt. Named for the man who brought water to Los Angeles, the venture uses water from L.A. but sources ingredients for its spirits from all over. The three liquors are finished and bottled in Downey. The whiskey, which is mostly corn but not labeled as a bourbon, and the gin and vodka all tend toward the sweeter side. The ultra-exclusive "private salon," The Mulholland Room, is the owners' de facto tasting room, but only those in the know (or who know them) get invited. Goggins and Alper are planning to expand with a new facility and tasting room that's open to the public. Until then, look for bottles at Whole Foods, K&L Wine, The Wine House and other drinking establishments around town.
Considering Karen Robinson-Stark and Greg Stark make their array of spirits in less than 1,200 feet of space near the Rose Bowl, it's the definition of microdistillery. Open since 2013, the Starks combined their hobbies -- brewing and fermenting beer and mead for Greg, cooking for Karen -- and turned them into this small operation. The first product to launch was barrel-aged single malt whiskey, followed by a 151-proof rum, an orange brandy called Sunshine, Skyline gin and a caraway-scented aquavit. Tours and tastings at Stark Spirits are open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays (reservations required). You can also find their products at Bar Keeper, The Oaks Gourmet, K&L, Topline Wine & Spirits, and bars like La Descarga, Seven Grand, The Doheny and Everson Royce.
1260 Lincoln Ave., Pasadena. 626-798-1377.
Whiskey can only be called bourbon if it's made mostly from corn and barrel-aged in the U.S. of A. Most comes from Kentucky and other Southern states but we can't let them have all the fun. There are California bourbons being made right now, and El Segundo's RG distillery was the first to designate their product as a Los Angeles bourbon. Made from yellow corn, rye and malted barley, R6 Bourbon has hints of vanilla, caramel and spice. RG also offers a unique blue corn bourbon, a single-malt whiskey, a vodka and a canned Moscow Mule. You can tour the distillery (advance reservations needed), which takes you through the entire process, from milling the grain to mashing, fermentation, distillation and aging. Samples can be sipped at the speakeasy-esque Smoky Hollow tasting and taproom.
909 E. El Segundo Blvd., El Segundo. 424-277-1134.
Orange County's first craft distillery has a repertoire of vodka, gin, aquavit and several types of whiskey. There's a good story that comes with it. Founder Brian Christenson's great-grandfather was a bonafide bootlegger who supplied his fellow dairy farmers in Nebraska with spirits. Today, Christenson and his wife, Robin, who sold her successful Irvine medical clinic, Womanology, to fund the distillery are partners in Blinking Owl. They start with organic grain (instead of buying pre-made grain alcohol) then mill, mash, ferment and distill it on site (the whiskey is barrel-aged there, too). Other ingredients, like fruits and botanicals, are mostly organic, sustainable and sourced from local farms. That makes it 100% Californian, like many of those who drink it. You can hit their beautiful tasting room and tour the facility in Santa Ana or buy bottles around Los Angeles at places like BevMo, K&L and Larchmont Village Wine and Spirits. You can also sip the stuff at plenty of bars including Belcampo, Neat, 189 by Dominique Ansel, Gwen, Atrium and more.
802 E. Washington Ave., Santa Ana. 714-852-3947.
If you've ever wondered what Ojai would taste like in a martini, use Wilder Gin. Ventura Spirits incorporates natural, locally sourced ingredients into their spirits and that's most apparent with their gin. Scented with Pixie tangerine peel, purple sage, bay and yerba mate, it's refreshing whether it's mixed into cocktails or topped with off bubbly water. The Haymaker's vodka is made with California apples and potatoes that are mashed, fermented and distilled six times in the Ventura facility. There's a prickly pear liqueur, made from the Nopal cactus, and a strawberry brandy that's aged for two years in French oak casks. Check out the tasting room on your next drive up to Santa Barbara. It's open every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Tours are available by request.
3891 N. Ventura Ave., Ventura. 805-232-4313.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated from its original version to correct details about the tour at Lost Spirits and the address of Stark Spirits.