Organic spirits grow nationally from a single relationship

Melkon Khasrovian, co-founder of Modern Spirits, a small organic distillery in Monrovia.
Melkon Khasrovian, co-founder of Modern Spirits, a small organic distillery in Monrovia.
Katherine Sheehan/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 2MB

If you plan to toast the New Year with a cocktail, you'll find shelves more crowded with ingredients these days. Small-batch liquor makers are booming, and sales of organic liquor were up 16 percent last year. KPCC's Molly Peterson offers this profile of one local distiller who seeks to turn green into gold.

It's the single noblest intention to do something in the world. What motivated Melkon Khasrovian to start experimenting with liquor was his wife-to-be's distaste for the liquor with which his family toasted them.

His family inspired him, too. He says that in Armenia everyone, including his cousins, makes their own liquor at home.

"My cousins would steal the bottles. Or we would give it to friends and they would say my friends love that stuff, will you make them some too," he half-laughs. "Two and a half years after that we went into the business because our house had turned into a little liquor factory."

Now, Khasrovian and his wife Litty Mathew run Modern Spirits out of a nondescript office complex in Monrovia. Where some companies store office supplies, they concoct TRU organic vodka and gin.

With a hollow clank, he opens one 350-gallon tank.

"This one is full, full, full. We layer in ingredients. They look like gigantic tea bags. We put them in over two months," says Khasrovian. "Everyday between 10-11 o’clock every morning we taste through all the batches so if you are thirsty, come by in the mornings."

Six years ago they were one of a few dozen small spirits distillers in the United States. Now that same group numbers more than 200. Khasrovian and Mathew's Greenbar Collective product line occupies an even more specialized niche. Khasrovian says he'd tell people he made organic spirits. "And they’d go, ‘What?’ is this a gimmick just to make more money?'"

It might be working. They spend more for organic ingredients: Juniper berries for TRU gin cost as much as 50 percent more than conventionally grown ones. Still, Mathew says organic farms are plentiful in Southern California - good citrus is local too. She runs a fingernail over a bumpy navel orange. "It's great for what we do because there's so much orange oil in it."

Melkon starts making an Organic Friday cocktail: equal parts Crusoe spiced rum and Fruit Lab Crism hibiscus liquor, agave and lemon juice, shaken.

The company's Crusoe Rum is made with molasses byproducts from sugar production in South America - a sort of upcycling of what would otherwise go to animal feed. His enthusiasm is contagious.

"And always use fresh lemon, there's no substitute for the stuff," he says. He shakes and serves the cocktail he and Mathew concocted.

“Organic's” the buzzword for the cocktail ingredients. Another word Khasrovian throws around is “sustainable.” Independent audits published on the company's website back that up.

"To make a bottle of TRU vodka or TRU gin from the glass to the ingredients to the storage and transportation causes about 1 kilo of carbon dioxide to be created," he says, pointing to a study published on his website.

Much of liquor's carbon footprint comes from shipping heavy glass bottles. Greenbar Collective packs its spirits in recycled cardboard boxes - inside bottles made with at least 25 percent less glass than the competition’s.

"We went from the insides being certified organic, our bottles being lightweight, our labels being biodegradable, everything about our packaging became light," he says.

Modern Spirits audits the amount of carbon dioxide taken up when it plants trees in South America - one for every bottle of gin or vodka it sells. Khasrovian says what he's making is "radically carbon-negative. If you have a drink that has 2 ounces of TRU, you become carbon negative for a day."

Finding a market for organic liquor took some doing: now Khasrovian sells 80 percent of the Greenbar Collective line to restaurants, bars and hotels. The Wyndham Hotel in New York tested a menu of cocktails with the products, including a signature TRU Blue martini. Wyndham media representatives and Khasrovian say it's working: Wyndham customers bought organic cocktails two to one compared to conventional cocktails and paid $1 more for them. Even at this time of the recession.

Small spirits companies like Modern Spirits are nearly invisible to major distillers, with less than $10 million in sales, in a $50 billion industry. But Wyndham Hotels has expanded organic vodkas, gins and rums to at least six more of its properties around the world.

Khasrovian says he'd like to add a local tasting room. Greenbar Collective plans to introduce an organic tequila next year.