Take a look at cocktail menus these days and you’re likely to see a laundry list of exotic ingredients - everything from beef jerky to wildflower-infused liqueurs. The craft cocktail movement has taken off, and with it an interest in locally produced artisanal spirits. But small distilleries in California face some unique legal challenges. Now industry leaders are hoping a bill making its way through the state Legislature will make it easier for them to do business.
Greenbar Distillery in Los Angeles is one of the dozens of craft distilleries to pop up in the state in recent years. Owner Melkon Khosrovian oversees the production of a range of handcrafted spirits made from locally sourced organic ingredients.
He brags that his lemon vodka is “painfully” handmade by zesting more than 2,000 whole lemons by hand. But he has a hard time showing off his products in his tasting room. Unlike wineries and breweries in California, distilleries are not allowed to offer paid tastings or sell bottles of their products on site, putting us in a tiny minority of four states to have such laws.
Earlier this year, a trade group of about 30 distilleries successfully lobbied the state Assembly to introduce a bill that would loosen these restrictions. AB933 is now in committee in the state Senate and awaiting a full vote in the Assembly.
“AB933 is absolutely essential to the growth and success of all small distilleries in California,” said Lance Winters, the head distiller at St. George Spirits in Alameda.
They’ve been in business since 1982 -- long enough to find some creative ways around the restrictions: They charge for tours, and then offer tastings for free. But there’s no way they can force customers to buy the tour and they currently operate their tasting room at a loss.
Winters hopes that if the bill passes he’ll have enough revenue to hire about 20 more employees to staff a full-time tasting room. There certainly seem to be receptive customers, such as Esther Galeridge, who stopped by St. George Spirits to try its chipotle vodka.
St. George's Director of Inebriation, Pauly, leads guests on a tour through the distillery.
“What’s great about it is you have a chance to taste and see what it’s made of,” she said. “Our tour guide was fantastic. He showed us everything, answered all our questions.”
One question that hasn’t been answered is whether the proposed bill would allow customers like Galeridge to buy bottles of liquor directly from the distillery. Currently, if she wanted to purchase a bottle of her favorite vodka it would have to go from St. George to a distributor and then to a retailer before she could get her hands on it. Galeridge said she finds the laws ridiculous.
“To me they’re ancient and inadequate. If I like something, I want to be able to purchase it on the grounds that I discovered it,” she said.
Arthur Hartunian, president of the California Artisanal Distillers Guild, certainly agrees. He helped put together AB933.
“If you think of a winery that operates a tasting room and then couldn’t sell bottles of their product, it would be a bit of a tease if you ask me,” he said.
He and his lobbyist are still pushing for an amendment that would allow for bottle sales but they’re coming up against some stiff resistance, much of it is from liquor distributors, like the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of California.
They object to the idea of distillers selling directly to consumers and they’ve got some influence to back that up. Over the last four years, their lobby has contributed almost $600,000 to Sacramento lawmakers.
Rows of bottled alcohol on display at the St. George Distillery.
But Hartunian stresses that the distributors have nothing to fear from craft distillers.
“We want distributors, we need distributors. I certainly don’t expect anybody to back up a truck and buy a pallet of vodka from my facility,” he said. “It’s not about that. We are not liquor stores. We are artisans who simply want the chance to showcase our product in the marketplace.”
Hartunian’s lobbyist will continue to work with the distributors to try to craft a bill that everyone can agree to before the full vote in the Assembly.
Meanwhile, back at Greenbar Distillery, Melkon Khosrovian is hopeful things will go his way. He's already built a swanky postindustrial tasting room at the location.
"I have built it if only they will come,” he said.