California Poppy season is brilliantly fleeting (and currently at its peak). But what if you could bottle up these golden blooms and savor this essence of California any time you wanted? Downtown Los Angeles' Greenbar Collective has done just that. Made from California poppy and other local ingredients like citrus, bay leaf, and pink pepper, Greenbar's bittersweet Grand Poppy is one of a handful of new American herbal liqueurs.
Perhaps in reaction to the overly sweet flavors that have dominated the American palate, craft cocktails aficionados have increasingly embraced the bitter taste, starting with bitters and then herbal liqueurs. These days it is not uncommon to find an amaro like Averna, Cynar, Fernet Branca, and other more obscure liqueurs in bars and liquor shops. The vast majority of these are imported from Europe, where the Italians in particular have a long history of sipping amari as aperitifs and digestifs. Made from botanicals like roots, bark, and citrus peels, bitter concoctions are known for stimulating digestion and many of the recipes originate from European herbalists and pharmacists.
Yet there is a small, and perhaps growing, number of herbal liqueurs now being made in the United States from producers like Breckenridge Distillery and Leopold Bros in Colorado, Philadelphia's Art in the Age, broVo Spirits in Washington, Bittermens in New Orleans, Ogden's Own in Utah, and Greenbar here in Los Angeles. While Greenbar's Grand Poppy may not have the global reach of an Italian amaro, that is part of its appeal. Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew, husband-and-wife co-founders of Greenbar, explain that they were inspired to create something uniquely Californian.
"Each time we've traveled to Europe and different parts of the United States, we've sought the kinds of localized experiences with foods, drinks, songs, and dances that you can't get anywhere else," said Khosrovian. "They were memorable not because they were fancy but because they were small and unique. We wanted to make something like that here, so people can come to Los Angeles, go to a bar, and have a drink that has the spirit of this place."
To find the spirit of Southern California, the couple drew inspiration from their hikes. "For years Melkon and I would hike in the local Santa Monica Mountains, Griffith Park, and the San Gabriel Mountains," said Mathew. "Especially in springtime (but of course here there's always something growing) we would be fascinated by all the wild herbs like poppies, fennel, sage, pink peppercorns, California bay leaves, just lovely things."
Developing the recipe took the couple four years of experimentation. Initially Khosrovian and Mathew imagined something quite different from the bitter liqueur that is now Grand Poppy. "We wanted to use California poppies and thought it would be this beautiful, sweet liqueur, like the ones we make from hibiscus and jasmine. Then we actually tasted the poppy and realized it was hellishly bitter," said Khosrovian.
That's when the idea of creating a bitter liqueur struck. "Generally in the United States we don't have a tradition of bitter liqueurs," Mathew said. "They are more common in Europe where you have that feeling of ritual, drinking an aperitif or digestif. Grand Poppy was also designed to function like an aperitif, something you could drink with wine or club soda before dinner."
In addition to the Golden State botanicals like California poppy ("we use the whole thing, snout-to-tail"), bearberry, California bay leaf, and pink peppercorn, Grand Poppy includes orange, lemon, grapefruit, and other bittering agents like dandelion, artichoke, and gentian. "The big thing for us is we're USDA organic certified, and all our vendors and farmers also have to be," said Mathew. "So it's not us in Griffith Park with a bag!" They source the oranges, lemons, and grapefruit from farms within 100 miles; depending on the season the citrus may come from Malibu, Ventura, Santa Paula, Moorpark, or Temecula. The herbs are sourced from apothecary suppliers.
The process of making Grand Poppy can take up to three months. First the botanicals are infused in a sweet molasses liquor, which complements the bitter ingredients. To concentrate the flavors and aromas, the spirit is then redistilled and re-infused. The liqueur's golden color, which so beautifully evokes the California poppy, is the natural result of the ingredients used.
Despite its similarity to Italian amari — particularly Cynar in terms of the level of bitterness and low proof — Grand Poppy has its own character. With its bittersweet floral and citrus aromas, the liqueur mixes well with white wine, gin, and even tequila. (Mathew mixes a simple and refreshing 1:1:1:1 combination of IXÁ tequila, Grand Poppy, simple syrup, and lemon juice.) The liqueur can also be combined with soda or sipped straight.
Lauren Reyes, the bar manager at Echo Park's Mohawk Bend, uses Grand Poppy in a barrel-aged Negroni. "Although it's a bitter, Grand Poppy is not as harsh as traditional bittering spirits," said Reyes. "Because it's on the sweeter side and really floral, it pairs perfectly with gin. It also goes really well with bourbon-based cocktails, freshening them up with a tangy sweetness."
Is Greenbar Distillery part of a growing American trend? David Othenin-Girard of Hollywood's K&L Wine Merchants thinks so. "The trend towards digestifs and using these types of products in cocktails is really picking up. Americans are getting over their sweet tooth and learning why so many other culinary cultures use bitters after a meal, not to mention the versatility of using bitters and amari in cocktails," he said.
Khosrovian thinks it's an important next step in craft cocktail culture. "This is a deeper meaning of 'local' that is beginning to catch on with craft distilleries all over the country," he said. "We can all make whisky and vodka and whatnot, but using your uniquely local plants, landscape, and agriculture — that's making a drink that's truly of its place."