Once upon a time, Los Angeles' Arts District was an agricultural hub for vineyards and citrus groves. Fast-forward years and years of industrialization and gentrification later, and the neighborhood has become one of the city's glitziest destinations for restaurants, galleries, and alcohol.
On the alcohol front, the Arts District has bucked the nation's whiskey trend, with a number of distilleries putting out vodka.
The first player in the game was Greenbar Distillery, owned by husband-and-wife team Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew. Khosrovian started making alcohol for his wife and family events, and his product grew in popularity through word of mouth. The company moved from Monrovia to the Arts District about four years ago.
"We were the first distillery in LA in a hundred-plus years. We were the first in this neighborhood—the first in LA, as far as I can tell on Wikipedia," Khosrovian said. "At that time this was still a dive. That nice arts loft apartment building at the end of the block was a meth lab."
Khosrovian has come a long way from making jars of alcohol for his wife. Today, Greenbar distills vodka, gin, liqueurs, bitters, rum, whiskey, and even a tequila (made in Mexico). Perhaps most impressive is the way in which Khosrovian does the distilling.
"Distillation happens in this first-of-its-kind-in-the-US continuous infinitely fractionating column still," Khosrovian said in front of his massive high-tech creation. Khosrovian co-designed the still with an equipment manufacturer in Montana. "It's the first of its type, period, and we're the first to have it in the US."
So what does a continuous fractionating column still do?
"It means that whatever flavors we happened to have created during fermentation, we can find and pull out using the still," Khosrovian explained. "If there are ten flavors, for example, and we like numbers two and five and ten, we can pull those three and leave the rest behind. It is impossible to do that on our first still, which is the kind of still most places have, which is a pot still."
"The [continuous fractionating column still] is much more akin to the way we think, which is control freak-y because we want certain things to end up in the bottle."
About a mile away is The Spirit Guild, a distillery that looks the part of a business in a neighborhood filled with creative types. Customers must pass through an ornately carved wooden door to get to the chic tasting room run by another wife and husband duo, Morgan McLachlan and Miller Duvall. The couple launched The Spirit Guild in 2012, making the world's first vodka and gin from California clementines.
"People don't get that this is made from clementines. Sometimes you even have to tell bartenders two or three times," Duvall said. "People think that vodka is made from potatoes and that kind of thing."
"We taught ourselves distilling. We were doing it as a hobby first," said McLachlan, the company's master distiller. "It was an interest of ours for a long time, and Miller has this farm connection." Miller's family has been in the Central California agriculture business for six generations.
The Spirit Guild products begin with California clementines juiced by the distillery's neighbor Califia Farms or in-house, using an old wine press. "It's sort of the early 80s diesel Mercedes of wine presses," McLachlan said. "It's this old tank but it keeps going." That clementine juice is eventually transformed from brandy into either gin or vodka.
"Since our vodka is made from delicious clementines, we only distill it as much as we have to to call it vodka," Miller said.
The couple worked with fine artist Megan Whitmarsh and Thunderwing branding studio to properly package their clementine product. "Our brand is very playful. We wanted to capture that whimsical element of the California spirit without being super cliche," McLachlan said.
Miller added: "We wanted to reference LA's past as a safe haven for occultists and weirdos and free thinkers of all kinds without being too on the nose about any particular era."
The Spirit Guild's newer distillery neighbor is Loft & Bear, a startup by Paul Ryan Elliott that hit the neighborhood in 2014. In just a few years, the company has outgrown its 1,400 square foot headquarters and will be expanding to one with 10,000 square feet of vodka distilling potential.
Elliott decided to start a vodka company because it was the spirit he preferred drinking.
"We were selling from the trunks of our cars," said Loft & Bear's director of business development and hospitality Karl Steuck of the early days. "It was definitely a hard sell."
Loft & Bear is made using a soft organic winter wheat traditionally used to bake pastries.
"You get a little butter, lemon, vanilla," Steuck said. "It has a creamier mouthfeel. It sounds weird but it's almost like a creamy chardonnay."
Like The Spirit Guild, Loft & Bear aimed to make a vodka that challenged the spirit's literal definition.
"Vodka even by definition, by the Food and Drug Administration, is characterless," Steuck said. "We make vodka with character. We don't strip it away."