By: Nan McCreary
Husband and wife team Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew, owners of Greenbar Distillery in the heart of the downtown Los Angeles’ Art District, may not see themselves as pioneers in the beverage industry, but they are right up there with the leaders in two of the hottest trends going today: bar-quality canned cocktails and non-alcoholic mixed drinks. And, as Los Angeles’ first distillery since Prohibition and home to the world’s largest portfolio of organic spirits, they are using their innovative spirit to drive a sustainability movement that they hope will make the planet a better place.
Khosrovian and Mathew began their odyssey into craft spirits in the early 2000s when Khosrovian tried to “import” the drinking culture from his native Armenia into their home. Traditions there meant sipping fruit brandy, but only with meals, and even then, always with a toast.
“My wife hated what family served,” Khosrovian said, “so I began to visit farmers’ markets to gather fresh fruits and herbs to infuse into vodka. The first drink I created was vodka infused with fresh pear, lavender and vanilla beans. She loved it.”
With this success, the two began making complex spirits with clean, rich flavors that they could serve with food. As a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and food writer, Mathew complemented Khosrovian’s skills as a spirits maker.
“It was a collaborative effort,” Khosrovian told Beverage Master Magazine. “I’d make it, she’d try it, I’d fix it.” They began sharing their creations with their cousins, and when the cousins—and the cousins’ friends—kept coming back for more, and more, and more, they decided to open their own distillery. That was in 2004, and they’ve been breaking barriers ever since.
Initially, the team created only bottled spirits in a 6,000 square-foot warehouse in Monrovia under the brand name Modern Spirits. As the couple expanded, their products—gin, vodka, tequila, rum, whisky, liquors, and amaro—were not typical run-of-the-mill recipes. From vodka infused with midwestern wheat and California pomegranate to whiskeys aged with six kinds of wood, their spirits were designed to be interesting and complex, with flavor as the main motivation. Initially, they weren’t necessarily seeking organic products.
“We primarily bought ingredients from local farms for freshness and maximum flavor,” Khosrovian said, “and over several years, we noticed that the spirits began to taste different. We narrowed the difference down to the flavors; the farmers were selling us organic products because they had more flavor, and they knew that flavor is what we were after. That’s when we made the switch to all organically grown ingredients.”
After several years of growing and evolving the business, in 2012, Khosrovian and Mathew moved from their Monrovia location to their current digs, a 14,000 square-foot distillery in the LA Arts District. They retired the name “Modern Spirits” and adopted the moniker “Greenbar,” a name that fits their emphasis on organic products. Instead of buying pre-distilled neutral spirits and infusing them with local produce as they did in Monrovia, they now had the equipment and space to distill their own base spirit.
Greenbar’s spirits begin with whole ingredients. “We always use whole ingredients, whether fresh or dried, because that’s what tastes right to us,” Khosrovian said. “In fact, we make the largest volume of infused products in the U.S.”
Khosrovian and Mathew, like true artisans, are deeply committed to their craft. Greenbar, for example, hand-zests more than 2,000 lemons for each 1,000 gallon batch of its lemon vodka. “This is why people like our products,” Khosrovian added. “They taste real.”
The distillery uses a continuous column still for primary distillation. But it’s not the typical column still that one finds at a vodka distiller. “This still is designed to pull very precise flavors, so it is a unique beast,” Khosrovian said. “We can get very geeky with flavors by changing temperatures and extracting specific flavors, and then recombining them at the end. If you have OCD, this is your dream still.” Greenbar also owns a traditional pot still, which they use for redistillation.
Greenbar’s spirits are essentially a bartender brand, created “for customers seeking a higher standard of taste and an easier way to make the perfect cocktail.” They include liqueurs, amaro, gin, whiskey, vodka, rum and tequila. Before the pandemic, Greenbar sold 80% of its spirits to bars, hotels and restaurants. When Covid-19 hit, the game changed practically overnight.
“When the pandemic struck, our sales essentially evaporated,” Khosrovian told Beverage Master Magazine. “Everyone was clamoring to experience a real cocktail but couldn’t get it. Sales were exploding at retail stores, so we began to make canned cocktails that people could buy at liquor stores and supermarkets. Basically, we reinvented ourselves.”
Their sales took off. With products that tasted like what you could get at a bar, Greenbar found a home in more and more states. Today, Greenbar has distribution in approximately 40 states. “The pandemic hurt us in a lot of ways and helped us in a lot more ways,” Khosrovian said.
As Greenbar enjoyed success with their canned cocktails, and with the better-for-you movement gaining traction, they decided to take another leap to create canned non-alcoholic mixed drinks.
“We’re distillers, so at first non-alcoholic products didn’t compute,” Khosrovian said. “But we learned that while people like the idea of cocktails, for many, it’s the flavor, not the booze. We began to see cocktails in a brand new light—as a flavor experience first and as an alcohol experience second.”
Greenbar’s non-alcoholic cocktails are made with the same process as their alcoholic products, starting as an alcoholic spirit and then distilled until the alcohol has been stripped away, leaving behind the flavors that people know and recognize. “We came to the idea with a good grasp of what was happening in the market,” Khosrovian said. “A growing number of people want the experience of enjoying a cocktail, but they don’t want the booze.”
Today, while Greenbar still produces a full range of bottled spirits, 75% of their business is canned products. Non-alcoholic ready-to-drink cocktails include Burnt Orange Bitters+Soda, Lavender Bitters+Soda, Earl Grey Bitters+Soda, UnGin+Tonic and UnRum+Cola. All non-alcoholic RTDs are carbonated after distillation, which gives them a bubbly texture. Their alcoholic RTDS include City Gin+Tonic, Coastal Rum+Cola, Single Malt Whiskey+Soda and Hibiscus Spritz, an Italian classic updated to make it craft, organic and portable. Alcohol by volume ranges from 6% to 8%. Greenbar also produces a line of bitters to add to cocktails or sparkling water.
With RTD alcoholic beverages being one of the fastest-growing beverage industry segments—and the market for non-alcoholic drinks taking off—Greenbar is enjoying increasing success with its canned products. “As the pandemic goes on, we are selling literally everywhere,” Khosrovian said. “We’re selling to retail outlets, restaurants, hotels, bars, concert venues; you name it. People just want that cocktail experience, and our canned products are filling the gap.”
As some hospitality venues are slowly reopening, canned products are in big demand there, too. Bartenders like the alcoholic products because they require less time and fewer additional ingredients. Also, staff shortages require quick turn-around times, and Greenbar’s canned cocktails—alcoholic and non-alcoholic—are simple to pour yet offer the same complexity as a real cocktail.
While Greenbar Distillery generates enthusiastic reviews as having the world’s most extensive portfolio of organic spirits, their efforts toward sustainability are equally acclaimed. “After we went organic, we changed to light-weight glass for our bottles and recycled paper for labels,” Khosrovian said. “If not, we would have been talking out of both sides of our mouth when discussing sustainability.”
At the same time, Khosrovian and his wife contacted a company that traced their carbon footprint for producing a bottle of spirits. To them, the results were shocking. Production of one bottle—including the box, the glass and other products used in manufacturing and transportation—created two to three kilograms of pollution (1kg = 2.2 lbs). With this knowledge and realizing that a tree absorbs 790 kilograms (1741 pounds) of carbon, Greenbar decided to plant one tree per bottle sold. Trees are planted, in cooperation with a nonprofit organization, in the rain forests of Central America and provide shade for fair trade crops of coffee and cacao so local farmers can better feed their families.
“An average American produces 45.2 kgs of carbon dioxide every day,” Khosrovian said. “By being efficient and careful in the manufacturing process and planting one tree per bottle sold, a single cocktail with Greenbar spirits helps remove 46.6 kgs of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. If you drink one cocktail made with one and a half ounces of any Greenbar Distillery spirits, you are carbon negative for the day, and you are drinking to a better world.”
To date, Greenbar has planted nearly one million trees and made more than 16 million people carbon-negative for a day.
As Greenbar Distillery looks to the future, Khosrovian said their goal is to encourage their peers in the industry to make cocktails better and easier to drink. “Everyone loves a cocktail, but no one wants to make it,” he said. “Whether it’s bubbly in a can or a spirit in a bottle, our goal is to make the experience so easy and so delicious that anyone can drink better anytime they feel like it. Plus,” he added, “we want to forge a path as a company so all of us can keep living on this planet.”
For more information on Greenbar Distillery, visit their website at…www.greenbardistillery.com