It might be hard to believe, but a bright red brick building in downtown Los Angeles -- nestled among strip clubs and scrap yards, a block from an Amtrak maintenance facility, in the shadow of the 10 freeway -- represents the future of food production for the city.
Husband and wife Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew are still buffing the dust off the shiny new headquarters for their Greenbar Collective, a 14,000 square-foot distillery and warehouse where they produce locally-sourced organic lemon vodka and jasmine-infused liqueur. As soon as they scale up, they'll be able to make four million bottles a year, which would make them the producers of the largest, most diverse portfolio of organic spirits in the country.
But there's much more to toast about Greenbar. When you raise a glass filled with one of their products, you'll be drinking the first spirits to be distilled in the city of Los Angeles since Prohibition.
"It was so important to us because we really wanted to be a part of downtown," says Mathew from her sunny office overlooking East 8th Street. "I'm hoping just being here and having a presence on the street is a good thing." It's something the city is banking on: They're the first new business lured to the area as part of the CleanTech Corridor, a new enterprise district L.A. hopes will bring green jobs to downtown.
Greenbar's company history already contains one tale of similarly heartwarming innovation. Khosrovian's family is Armenian, and family dinners often included vodka shots -- which his then-girlfriend Mathew, who is of Indian descent, despised. After they got engaged, Khosrovian began creating flavored vodkas using natural ingredients that would allow her to toast to tradition without offending her palate. Soon Mathew -- a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and food writer -- was collaborating on the infusions, and friends were demanding their own bottles. They launched their company as Modern Spirits in 2004, moving operations to a strip mall property in Monrovia.
The move towards organic ingredients happened, well, organically. Modern Spirits began by working closely with farmers they met at local markets, using fresh, local ingredients. But after a few years they noticed certain fruits and herbs were standouts and they went back to the farmers to figure out why. "As the farmers converted to organic methods, their produce tasted better," says Mathew, who quickly began seeking out organic produce. "We did it for flavor." Mathew and Khosrovian began to embrace a total sustainability-focused ethos, using a more responsible glass for their bottles and post-consumer paper for their labels. They embarked upon an ambitious energy and emissions audit. And they also began planting one tree for every bottle of liquor sold, and estimate they've planted at least 135,000.
At a tasting event at Bottega Louie in 2011, Mathew and Khosrovian met a representative from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's office who alerted them to the CleanTech initiative, and its four-mile district, that was hoping to bring sustainable startups to the emptying industrial buildings around the L.A. River. The timing was perfect: Mathew and Khosrovian had just learned that their Monrovia building might be demolished with the extension of the Gold Line -- and besides, they were quickly outgrowing it. Soon Mathew and Khosrovian were being courted by the city to move to corridor, receiving a jaw-dropping $250,000 from the Community Redevelopment Agency to help pay for distilling equipment, the last loan from the agency before it was terminated in 2011. "It sounds so cheesy," Mathew admits, laughing, "But it really does feel like they were dreaming with us."
When they purchased the building, it was in no shape for spirit-making. Built in 1902 as a warehouse for a paint company, the building had been compromised by a fire next door and was missing parts of its walls. There were pigeons roosting in the rafters. But thanks to the CRA funds, a renovation moved quickly under the guise of architect Sanjiv Bajaj, the principal at Archithetics. The space retains its industrial character but embraces Greenbar's sustainable philosophies with renewable materials and energy-efficient features. The bright palette nods to the ingredients found in their products, with walls painted bright hibiscus red and warm citrusy orange. Local artist Matthew Hodges created a fruit-forward mural for the entrance.
For all their organic practices, it has been difficult for some to embrace a spirits company as a "clean tech" company, unlike the solar energy or bike manufacturers which are being lured to the corridor. "We're not the typical business for green tech," admits Mathew. But once you consider how they could impact the city, their presence becomes obvious. Greenbar is pioneering not only local sourcing practices but also local manufacturing techniques that could be serve as a model for the entire L.A. food industry. Plus, they're showing that downtown, with its great distribution connectivity and market resources, is a viable place for artisanal food production. "L.A. is the place for a business like this," she says. "Our product is all about fresh ingredients and we could really only be in L.A. because all of our produce comes from farms within 50 miles of us."
A tour of the factory floor offers a peek into the Steampunk-meets-chemistry class aesthetic of craft spirit production. A massive whiskey still manufactured in Kentucky stands against one wall, looking like a character from "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." A smaller still allows them to distill flavors like rhubarb and sage. Massive silver distilling tanks hold vodka, gin, rum, bitters and liqueurs (their organic tequila is made in Mexico in order to be called "tequila"). And an on-site bottling and packaging operation tucked into one room like a pristine science lab allows them to control the entire manufacturing process under one roof.
While the city made it easy for Greenbar to locate their manufacturing facilities to downtown, local liquor policies (many of them antiquated and of the Prohibition Era themselves) make it a bit more difficult for Mathew and Khosrovian to personally hawk their product. Distillers can't sell to the public on-site, so their hope of a small space on the ground floor being converted into a retail store will have to wait for a change in state law. Instead, Greenbar will host small events at their "R&D bar," a beautiful, restaurant-quality lounge on their second floor where they can educate the public. The focus of the classes will be not only on the origins of their own organic products, but will also give a window on local cocktail culture. L.A.'s great bartenders will hop behind the bar to shake up local concoctions and teach attendees how to improvise with their own fresh, organic ingredients.
Mathew also hopes their presence will spur a renaissance in made-in-L.A. spirit awareness. Surprisingly, it's still hard to get support from local restaurants and bars, she says. There's no question that Angelenos have an allegiance to California wines, and craft brewers have engendered a drink-local movement for beer. Yet the demand for local spirits hasn't quite sparked in L.A. Not that there aren't lots of local distillers in the state: She points to places like Echo Park's Mohawk Bend, which sources all their beer, wine and spirits from California. "Maybe what L.A. needs is a signature cocktail," muses Mathew.
If there's anywhere that cocktail should be invented, it's here: on the banks of the Los Angeles River, by this enthusiastic multi-cultural duo, using Southern California-raised fruits and herbs, in the heart of what will soon be a thriving center for a reinvented L.A.
1 oz TRU lemon vodka
3/4 oz TRU gin
1/2 oz FRUITLAB jasmine liqueur
1 oz fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz agave nectar
2 fresh lavender sprigs
3 dashes BAR KEEP lavender bitters
Shake hard and strain into glass. Garnish with lavender blossom.
[Photos by Amy Tierney.]