Along with my usual nature photography calendar (my annual Visionary Light calendar), I’m offering a California wine country calendar this year. It features images from the state’s beautiful wine regions, and I’m donating $5 from the sale of each calendar to the RCU North Coast Fire Relief Fund, which is helping with recovery from this year’s devastating wildfires in Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties. Just click this link to see a full preview that shows the 12 included images (and purchase one or a dozen!). They make a great holiday gift, and the funds are going to a great and important cause.
I do not generally devote an entire blog post to a single wine, or a single bottle of spirits (unless it’s just a quickie kind of review).
But this is different. Really different.
First, a preamble and a bit of a explanation for why I am so besotted with Greenbar’s Grand Poppy bitter liqueur (or “bitter brandy”). In my work as a nature photographer, my focus for the last year or so has been on my Land/Sea project. The “land” part of that is centered on California’s chaparral ecosystem. What is chaparral, exactly? The technical definition, courtesy of the California Chaparral Institute, is this:
Chaparral is a special plant community characterized by drought-hardy, woody shrubs, shaped by a Mediterranean-type climate (summer drought, winter rain)
It is, in fact, California’s most common ecosystem–and belongs almost entirely TO California. Chaparral stretches into southern Oregon and Baja California just a wee bit, but it’s almost solely a California landscape. It’s also California’s most unloved ecosystem–it’s tough and scrubby, too dense to even hike through in many areas, and very prone to fire (always a concern in our drought-plagued state). It’s strangely beautiful, with a muted rainbow of color, a host of edible and medicinal plants, and home to critical species of birds, reptiles, mammals and insects. I’ve been photographing this iconic California landscape for a while now, and continue to be amazed by its beauty and diversity.
So what does this have to do with a bottle of craft spirit? Greenbar has taken everything remarkable about chaparral that you can taste and smell, and they’ve bottled it. I’m already a fan of multi-sensory experiences; it’s why I end up photographing the wild areas surrounding every wine region I’ve ever visited. You can experience a place through every sense–and the idea that I can taste that chaparral ecosystem in this beautiful bitter brandy is pretty exciting to me.
Everything that I’ve captured with my camera, I can smell and taste in this spirit. I am instantly taken back to hours spent bushwhacking through sagebrush and manzanita–the aroma of sage and wild fennel and thistle and California bay leaf and on and on. Those things are literally in this bottle. And it’s delicious. As Greenbar describes it:
a California-inspired take on classic European aperitives. We made it by marrying the best of California’s bounty — citrus from our favorite Southern California farms, coastal herbs and berries we discovered on our hikes and one very bitter flower, the California poppy — to bring a new taste to cocktail lovers everywhere.
It’s not often (in fact, this may be a first) that I come across a spirit and find it significant beyond its own in-the-bottle merits. I think this is a significant spirit–it embodies the state it celebrates, and shows off some of the underrated beauty of the chaparral ecosystem. It’s nicely balanced between bitter and sweet, with a stunning range of herbs and other aromatics both on the nose and on the palate. It’s delicious on its own, and divine mixed into cocktails. You’ll find a recipe or three featuring this liqueur on the Greenbar website, and my personal preference for enjoying this remarkable spirit is to mix it with sparkling wine for a sort of champagne cocktail (three parts sparkling wine, one part Grand Poppy).
I would never have thought it possible to bottle the most representative and iconic landscape of California–but Greenbar has done just that. Highly recommend.
You could (and should) be excited that LA has a well-established and (really) high quality craft spirits distillery. You should be excited that it’s downtown in the always-lively Arts District (location, location, location!). And you REALLY should be excited that this distillery is not just organic, they’re so focused on sustainability that you reduce your own carbon footprint with every 2 ounces of their spirits you consume.
Did you ever think it could be so easy, so fun, so delicious to be kind to the environment? Well, WELCOME TO GREENBAR.
I know. I’m excited about it, too.
Greenbar had its genesis over 14 years ago when husband and wife team (at that time newly engaged) Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Matthew decided to try their hands at producing spirits. The endeavor arose out of a desire to find something a bit more palatable to drink at traditional celebrations with Melkon’s large Armenian family (yes, there’s a love story in the mix, too). The celebrations involved beautiful toasts with high-proof (and often harsh) fruit brandies and vodkas, which were just too much for Litty’s palate (Litty has a culinary background and her palate is more attuned to fine wines–a woman after my own heart, clearly). She was eager to fully take part in these family gatherings, so they set out to create some spirits that would make it easier for her to join in.
Their dabbling proved successful and delicious, and after a couple years, they decided to officially go into business–their handmade spirits using fresh, real ingredients (a pear and lavender vodka, for example) had impressed friends and family with their quality and the couple were now trying to keep up with requests for their spirits.
As one of the first distilleries in California since prohibition, Melkon and Litty were trailblazers (because they had to be) in going through the somewhat arcane application process. Though the state legislature is slowly catching up with modern spirit production and sales practices, the laws that governed licensing dated back over a century and weren’t really designed to deal with the sort of market we know today, and certainly never had craft producers in mind–and which also favored distributors more than it does small producers.
Once they’d worked their way through the state and county/city requirements, they were, indeed, in business. They’ve grown significantly over the years, and in 2012 moved from their original location in Monrovia and into their current location, a 14,000 square foot converted warehouse in the Arts District.
This is where you need to go, because you need to taste these spirits. You have the option of taking a tour with tasting, where you’ll be introduced to all aspects of spirit production at Greenbar, starting with an introduction right on the distillery floor. You’ll conclude with a tasting upstairs in their beautiful tasting room that overlooks the production facility (you can rent this space for private functions, too). The cost for a tour with tasting is $12, or $8 if you want to drop by for a tasting only–but I highly recommend the tour. It’s fascinating to learn all about their approach to spirit making (and then taste those same spirits).
There is one particular spirit, a bitter brandy, that I’m going to tell you all about in a day or two in its own post, because I find it simply astonishing. How’s that for a tease? But they do a seriously large lineup including vodkas (neutral and flavored), gin, tequilas (the only spirit not produced on site, as it’s a legit tequila–Melkon and Litty travel to Jalisco every year to oversee production), one of the most interesting (and tasty) whiskeys that will ever pass your lips, rums, brandies and liqueurs. There is, literally, something for every taste in their lineup. They even produce a line of five custom bitters, created by bartenders around the country (there’s a contest, it’s serious stuff).
My hot take/review on the spirits? It’s really hard to pick favorites out of all the excellent offerings at Greenbar. If you like whiskey, you’ll love their cask strength Slow Hand (they produce a white whiskey–you HAVE to try that one–a six-wood malt whiskey, and the cask strength six-wood). Their commitment to using only local organic ingredients, including the grains for the whiskey, is evident right on the palate. The flavors are clean and up-front, with a lingering and complex finish.
Their savory Tru “Garden” vodka is a must-try, and works beautifully in savory cocktails like a bloody mary, and the vanilla vodka–infused with real organic vanilla beans–isn’t even in the same universe with the more cloying mass-produced vanilla vodkas you’ve encountered elsewhere.
The Crusoe spiced rum? Big winner. If you think you don’t like spiced rum, you’re wrong (where this one is concerned). Again, it’s a huge departure from the overly sweet, chemical-overtoned spiced rums you’ve had in the past.
The Fruitlab liqueurs are all tasty (I’m a bit fascinated by spirits like this in general, and Greenbar’s really impressed me). They produce a liqueur you can only purchase at the distillery–their “California” liqueur called Grand Hops, which should appeal to any IPA drinker. It’s both bitter and sweet, as you might expect with anything involving hops–but it’s also herbaceous and skunky (in the BEST way) and unlike anything you’ve tried before.
Throughout their entire lineup–from the white Slow Hand to the Bar Keep bitters–you can taste the quality. You can taste the difference that the organic (and local!) ingredients make in the spirits. And it all comes in lightweight (read: easier on the environment) glass bottles with beautifully designed labels made from recycled paper and eco-friendly inks–and a tree. Greenbar plants a tree for every bottle they sell, which means they’ve planted around a half a million trees so far.
The distillery brochure you’ll pick up when you’re there for a tour and/or tasting includes many cocktail recipes featuring their spirits, so make sure you take one of those home (some of them are just fabulous recipes, and some are new and interesting takes on old standards).
And if you’re into making your own cocktails, Greenbar hosts cocktail classes most Friday nights where you can try your hand at some mixology with the Greenbar spirits lineup.
Until you’re able to make it in for a tour, you can find their spirits at most Los Angeles-area Whole Foods stores (there’s a product locator on their website, and you’ll also find the aforementioned cocktail recipes there, too).
Tours and tastings are every Saturday at 1 p.m., 2:30 p.m, 4:30 p.m., and 6 p.m.. Tastings are available Friday and Saturday from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., and the distillery store is open the above hours, plus Monday – Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Greenbar is located at 2459 E 8th St, Los Angeles, CA 90021, 213.375.3668. You can book your tour (and cocktail classes!) online through their website; they do accommodate walk-ins for the tours, but reservations are strongly recommended.
I’ll begin with a bit of understatement: Alex Villicana is a high-energy kind of guy, who is passionate about what he does.
And that’s a very good thing for all of us.
He is the embodiment of the Paso Robles pioneering spirit that’s made this area such an interesting and exciting wine region. He and his wife Monica began producing their estate-grown wines under their Villicana label in 1999–but that’s a story for another time (which I’ll cover in the coming months). Just know for the time being that those wines are beautifully crafted and you should stop by if and when you’re in the area. Taste some, buy some.
But it’s their secondary business that really caught my interest recently.
I’d seen their sign on Adelaida Road for years (there are a lot of wineries on Adelaida Road; I’m still trying to visit ALL of them). And along with the sign directing you to their tasting room, there’s also a sign for RE:FIND Distillery. While there’s no shortage of great wineries in Paso, I had never seen a distillery set up shop there, and never really seen anything stronger than port promoted at a handful of other wineries.
I was looking for someplace new to try on a trip a couple of months ago and decided to finally check out this Villicana/RE:FIND operation and see exactly what they were up to.
And what they are up to there is something pretty amazing. Villicana had been bothered for years by the fact that there was nothing much to do with the saignée–the “bleed” of juice from some wines (mostly Rhone varietals) that was otherwise dumped down the drain. It seemed unacceptably wasteful.
“Growing wine grapes has a pretty big carbon footprint,” Villicana notes. “When you think about the cost and energy and water that goes into farming those grapes, it’s a shame to just pour out thousands of gallons of juice.”
And then he had an epiphany. He stumbled on a grape-based vodka in the mid-2000s, and it was good. “I didn’t know you could do that,” Villicana said. “It was my ‘Aha!’ moment.”
So Villicana set about figuring out how he could take that otherwise wasted saignée and recycle it by turning it into spirits. He visited Dry Fly Distilling in Washington state to learn how to use distilling equipment. And then he began the long process–about three years–to obtain a license to run a commercial distillery, something that wasn’t widely done in California since before Prohibition.
“My local ABC guy (California Alcoholic Beverage Control) was very helpful in figuring our way through this, fortunately,” Villicana said. The tricky part about the licensing process is that you must own a still before you can get the license.
“But stills are expensive, so we were torn about whether to make such a big investment before we knew if the license was a sure thing,” he said. But as soon as the ABC official told him that it looked like he had a clear path to getting that license, “I wrote the check out that day [for the still], and sent it off!”
“We got our license in 2011, and produced 200 cases the first year,” Villicana said. And with that, RE:FIND was on its way. They initially had a single 60-gallon still–since those first few years, they’ve added another 60-gallon still and a 300-gallon still, and currently produce around 2,000 cases a year.
“With this setup, we can turn over as much as 50,000 gallons of saignée, and produce as much as 6,000-7,000 cases of spirits a year.”
The second year, Villicana had to shop around for enough saignée to produce the desired amount of spirits, which has led to ongoing relationships with other local winemakers to recapture their run-off as well.
Villicana said he approaches his flavor profiles in distilling the same way he does with his wines, and the results are exceptional. RE:FIND currently produces a vodka, a cucumber vodka, a barrel-aged vodka (which is actually closer to a whiskey in flavor and color profile, which makes this bourbon girl all kinds of happy), an extraordinarily lovely and aromatic gin (sold in the tasting room as a “botanical brandy”), a rye, and a limoncello. Between my first visit and my visit last weekend, I’ve tasted through all of these spirits–they’re remarkable. Every one of them.
Everything is hand-crafted–even the bottling process. “We actually contracted with a bottling operation for our spirits, but at the last minute they told us their insurance wouldn’t cover the job because of the risk of explosion.” So, they hand-bottle their spirits as well. “It’s actually better,” he said, “because it gives us better quality control.” Always glass-half-full, that Villicana guy is.
The distillation process, to put it overly simply, involves removing the bad alcohol (acetone and methyl alcohol) from the good alcohol. And of course Villicana has found a way to recycle that, too. “We use the bad alcohol as a cleaner!”
He also tries to use local producers whenever possible–something that’s a bit of a challenge when acquiring the grains and aromatics needed to craft the spirits.
“I’m now working with local farmers on getting the specific grains and aromatics we want, and we use the lavender we grow right here at the winery.”
Villicana has found a way to recycle his winemaking byproducts into something truly beautiful–and now produces almost the same amount of spirits as they do wines.
“One of the great things about this is that the spirits have kind of filled in some of the gaps that are part of the ups and downs of winemaking,” he said. “This gives us greater flexibility to focus on the quality of both, and actually makes winemaking more fun. And it’s allowed us to take some risks we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”
In an example of recycling writ large, the Villicanas recently purchased the dilapidated Fox Theatre in downtown Paso Robles, and plan to make it the new base for RE:FIND.
“We have the conceptual drawings and floorplan now,” he said. “We hope to start construction around the end of the year, and expect about a 12-month build.”
When completed, the renovated (nee, recycled!) theatre will also house, among other things, a performance space and a professional kitchen. Stay tuned; I’ll write more about the theatre in coming months. It should prove to be a fantastic addition to Paso’s downtown scene.
Villicana’s dream to use an otherwise discarded product to turn out beautiful spirits has also opened the door for the competition. But he doesn’t see it that way. Currently 8-9 new distilleries are in the plans in the Paso Robles area, and Villicana is thrilled, going so far as to offer guidance with the licensing process.
“It’s a cool way to be sustainable,” he says. I’ll second that.
RE:FIND Distillery and Villicana Wines are open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 2725 Adelaida Road (805.239.9456).