Part two: Drink Eco-Good Liquor & A Tree Grows in the Forest
on 04/11/10 at 9:28 amBoozeBlog
Part Deux …Continuing the conversation with Melkon
BN: Where do you get your ingredients from? A country, a specialized company?
GC: We get some ingredients that are fresh. We can’t keep them around, we process them right away – lemons, oranges. Local farmers, primarily Ventura County and San Diego Country. Tons of farmers right in our neighborhood. We source anything fresh like lavender from local farms – ALL organic farms. Other things that are dry – we source from Mountain Rose Herbs. They’re located in Oregon. They are consolidators of lots of spices and dry goods.
BN: Do they get their cinnamon from the Orient?
GC: We’ve tasted through almost every available cinnamon, every available vanilla bean and we pick and choose specifically what works best for us. Not always what’s popular.
BN: So do you taste every season, or do they call you up and say as an example, “we have this other cinnamon?”
GC: We do, we do. We order growing quantities from them. So we try to get the ingredients when they are at their peak. Like chefs. We time our productions to when the lemons and oranges are ripe, not – I need it now. We are very driven ingredient –quality and timing. Dry goods come from all over the world. Ironically, some things we would like to get locally are not available organically. We’re hoping that companies like us can spur those kinds of producers to produce organics. But to be honest, we were driven to this by your local farmers. Who didn’t always make organic. But we sourced all of our fresh produce from local farmers, primarily the ones we used to buy from at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market. That’s how we first started to make alcohol to begin with. It was a home project for my wife. She hated Vodka that we would invariably serve at our family meals. This was almost nine years ago. I’m Armenian, so we drink a lot of liquor with food. We would go from Uncles and Aunts homes, and everyone one of them would throw these little dinner parties and toast the new couple.
BN: And you had to drink at all of them?
GC: Yes. Litty didn’t like to drink any of the spirits they would make serve. So we began making home-infused vodkas. Complex, something that would get rid of the weird smells and not taste like nail-polish remover. Things like pear lavender, grapefruit honey, celery pepper corn, even black truffle. Food-friendly flavors as well that we would package in little cute bottles with hand-made labels and take to these gatherings.
BN: Did your relatives like those better?
GC: Well, they took the bottles. And then, before we even got home, they would call us and say “Can I have three more bottles?” We would gift them to friends for holidays or birthday parties and they would call and say – “you know, I’m having a get-together, could I have a few more?” Or there friends would call and say “I need some really cool gifts – can I have ten bottles.” We would keep making them as favors. Slowly realized, that half of our house had become a factory. A year or so into this came the realization we either had to get a handle on this or go into business. Which we did. And we kept using the same farmers from the Hollywood Farmer’s Market. And slowly, many-many of them began to embrace organic production. And, we started to notice our product began to taste better and better. Organically produced ingredients are not hurried to grow fast and look pretty, but not have a lot of flavor and aroma. We noticed the trend in their production and the change in the quality of their products, we started to ask them – why are you guys all going organic? Like someone put out a memo. A lot of the time they were getting ready to retire. That’s kind of a weird time to making this huge change in your business. And they were like “Well, when we were the age of our kids who are going to inherit our farm we couldn’t inherit either some of the farm or all of the farm because our parents generation had poured too many chemicals on the land, and it wasn’t suitable for farming anymore.” That’s kind of interesting and sad. It made us question our relationship to the land. It was kind of an overgrown hobby, but we were starting to take it seriously. We started noticing the quality was improving, and because of that we began to wonder the relationship of what were we doing to the land – the relationship of spirits to land. That’s when we discovered some very scary things. To farm one acre of conventional American farm land, farmers pour 100 pounds of chemical fertilizers on that land – which mostly come from petroleum. They pour or spray a pound and a half of synthetic pesticides which is like a chemo-therapy for land. It literally obliterates all other organisms, other than the crops you want to grow. Then they pour 163 gallons of water on that one acre. As soon as the water touches those chemicals – it’s unfit for human consumption. We were like sitting there horrified, like oh god – “this is what we’re really responsible for?” The impact our product was having was more than we could bear – so almost to this date (October 8, 2010) two years ago – we decided to go organic as well. Literally, shut down our company for a month, got all our certificates to make spirits that are all organic.
BN: So everything is all organic?
GC: Yes, in fact, we now make the world’s biggest collection of organic spirits. We started with the Tru Line — a straight vodka, a vanilla vodka and a lemon vodka. These seemingly basic flavors because we wanted the building blocks for cocktails. Something simple and useful. The best of their kind. [Melkon shows first product bottles]
BN: They’re beautiful.
GC: But, as we made this transition to organic spirits, we realized it’s not just liquor, we need to have sustainability. All of a sudden these beautiful bottles started to look heavy. This feels like an SUV now. We do we have to have virgin paper? These are laminated to look glossy? They’ll look pretty four hundred years from now. Who’s gonna need that. PVC capsules are toxic to make. The production is toxic. Our stomachs churned as we discovered this. To have organic spirits with this chunky bottles with fancy paper and PVC capsules would be like talking out both sides of our mouth. We can’t really do that. So we went from those bottles that way about a kilo (most high end liquor bottles weigh this) to these lightweight bottles that are 20 grams.
BN: Where did you find the lighter weight bottles?
GC: Same company, just different bottles. We use tree-free paper from the plants, which will bio-degrade and go back into the soil. Not laminated with soy inks. We use PET capsules which are like soda bottles. They are not toxic to make, and can be recycled in any municipal recycling plant. And finally, because we were on this self-cleansing thing, we said we have to do something to get people to understand they can make a difference. We wanted to give back – plant one tree for every bottle that we sell. To date we’ve played over 76,000 trees in the last two years. As we started hearing from customers (bartenders, mixologists) – very interested in having organic cocktails, not just one, but we need more things. I can’t just make vodka and juice drinks. I need gins, I need liquors. The next thing we made is for the rum.
BN: Lightening up the bottles, it’s definitely a direction that people are going on.
GC: We were one of the first companies to do it in spirits.
BN: They have to be sturdy, so they can’t break.
GC: That was something we learned in our research – if you go too lightweight, they break. There’s a compromise.
BN: If you’re filming a western than it’s good to have bottles that break over your head easily. Are you going to consider refillables?
GC: Good question, we’ve thought about that. Seemingly a cool idea, and then we did the math on it. The shipping alone is going to kill it. This seems cool, the organics, what does it all mean – the answer is we didn’t know. We had made this transition so fast at a very gut level. These were good ideas and we just did it. We didn’t know the answers, we commissioned two agencies to tell us the answers, and the studies are both published on our website. Everything we do is a helluva commitment. Organics cost a lot more than conventional. Light-weight, cutting edge packaging costs a lot more, although we’re hoping that…
BN: Do you factor that tree price in the bottle?
GC: We’re not a nonprofit. We’re a business. But, we don’t gouge our customers, we pay for it. Our stuff costs at wholesale – less than Grey Goose. So imagine what they’re making. Our mission is to make better spirits than contribute to a better planet.
BN: You do not distill the spirits, you are purchasing spirits and blending them with organic ingredients.
GC: We purchase organic spirits.
BN: Was that hard to find?
GC: Well, the stuff is not off-the-shelf product. Nothing we do is something you can just go and buy.
BN: So, you’re finding small distilleries?
GC: No, actually with big distillers. Because to make base alcohol, like a neutral spirit, you can’t make that in a small place. To make neutral spirits requires tens of thousands of dollars in investment in column stills. Which is not something we can afford, which is not something little companies can afford. De facto, we have to partner with others that have the technology.
BN: Is it cheaper to make small batch whiskey?
GC: Anything, you want the flavor to come through, is done in pot stills. Which are very flavor-forward. Once you want neutral, blank canvas, no way you can do that in pot still. We partnered with one of the smaller distilleries and had them make the first American organic wheat spirit for us.
BN: When was that?
GC: Two years ago. 
BN: What was the distillery?
GC: Distilled Resources in Idaho.
GC: Exactly. In the past we worked with them on the Tru line. Fantastic distillery. Trusted their quality and had them custom make this for us. Wheat spirits are the most expansive spirits you can make.
BN: Ah, so they do wheat in Idaho too. What do you mean by “expansive”?
GC: You put it on your tongue it will dissipate, evaporate faster than any other kind of spirit.
BN: Like the way cotton candy evaporates on your tongue.
GC: Sort of.
BN: If you put a Pringle on your tongue, it will evaporate.
GC: We learned this evaporation business, because we had to finally control flavor delivery. Dissipation or evaporation is the best way of controlling. So on the very low end, you have grape distillers – which is very soft, because it doesn’t go anywhere. You take some brandy, it sits on your tongue. You put wheat spirits on your tongue, it will go everywhere on your palate.
BN: What’s the science on that?
GC: I don’t know. And I’ve asked a lot of people. And they don’t even know what I’m talking about half the time. Other than companies like us, who have been using it for flavor delivery, no one seems to care. It’s not something they think about. If they live in wheat country, they make wheat liquor. Corn country, potato, this is what they make. It all happens with being accidently near these crops. We don’t have any of those issues, luxuries, allegiances or history. We could care less to be honest. We choose things by function, by what they do on your palate. We picked wheat because it’s the most expansive and a lot of organic cocktails made with fresh produces are heavy, so you need to lift them.
BN: When we go to the bar, we ask for our cocktails to be made with your spirits?
GC: Yes. I’ll give you some homework to experience this difference in expansion rate. Take the Sazerac. There’s the old Sazerac made with wheat, and the new one made with rye. Rye and wheat have a very different expansion rate. Rye is spicy, has a very piquant quality. Other than the base alcohol, everything else is the same. That’s one of the big things were trying to communicate to bartenders. In some ways their education is being hijacked by brands that brainwash them to sell their products, without understanding what each of these spirits do. We want them to have control of their destinies and spirits and futures.
BN: Do you feel this control extends to making things organically?
GC: To make an impact, it really can’t be based on weekend voluntarism, end-of-the-year donations. It has to be built into things we touch every day, consumer products.
BN: Fair trade people, are they organics? In the mind of the public, what is Fair Trade? Starbucks coffee has Fair Trade, does that mean it’s organic, green?
BC: The way we approach is it to have organic on our packaging. To do this you have to jump through many, many hoops. The certifiers pick up a bottle and say, “Here’s the batch code on your product – you’ve got fifteen minutes, go and find me every invoice that went into this. Production schedules, logs to prove this product is made only with organic ingredients. Otherwise, I’m taking away the seal.” If you’re Fair Trade or Green – you just call yourself that. You are supposedly buying “Fair Trade” crops.
GC: But, you don’t know if Fair Trade is organic or not. Most likely not if it doesn’t say Organic on it. To be serious about the environment and sustainability, if you don’t try to be Organic – you’re not really real.
BN: I’ve heard from various wineries – “we’re organic essentially, but to jump through the hoops, we don’t want to deal with it.”
GC: They have a technical issue. It’s not because the paperwork is too onerous. To make organic wines you can’t use sulfides. Without sulfides wine becomes vinegary. They don’t want to make organic wine because it doesn’t taste good. Organic spirits taste better. Organically grown wine is okay. We want to make great-tasting spirits; nothing about organics inhibits making great-tasting spirits. Anyone [in spirits] who claims it’s too much of a headache – trust me, we did it in a month. If we can do it, anyone can do it.
BN: There’s a marketing issue with wine as well. If people see a label, they don’t want to buy it; they think it’s more expensive.
GC: The quality. Price-wise, there are relatively expensive wines. They don’t taste good. If you are going to drink something for pleasure and enjoyment – you shouldn’t be guilted into doing these things. If you’re going to make organic spirits, it’s because they taste the best because they have the best ingredients. Then, they protect water, the environment .
BN: What if non-organics had tasted better, would you have gone that direction?
GC: We would find a way to be organic, now that we know how to make the best-tasting spirits in the most environmentally sensitive way.
BN: What came first, organics or taste? Did you come across this accidentally in a way? Now, it’s become a goal.
GC: A huge passion for us. Everything we did is accidental. We will take the Pepsi-Challenge against anybody. Organics for us is not political. It’s a flavor issue. We want to make the best spirits in the world.
BN: But now, is it becoming sustainable.
GC: It’s like unraveling a sweater. When we started out it was taste. But when you go down that path, where does it lead you to? If you’re going to go after organics because of flavor, then you learn all these horrible things. Why stop? Heavy chunky bottles? People used to think SUVs were cool. It’s pointless. The goal is to have packaging that conveys that idea of quality craftsmanship without being heavy. We are attempting to redefine luxury. Quality is luxury. Packaging conveys that. But Packaging doesn’t have to be at odds with what’s on the inside of the bottles.
BN: Do you think that it could get to a point where packaging is so severe that maybe you’re damaging the integrity of the product? That it’s such an austere packaging?
GC: It’s totally possible. We could have cool things in burlap sacks, but it doesn’t get the message across. We’re trying to find that balance between functionality and the right look.
BN: Because I have to be honest, I like those first bottles more than those.
GC: They’re cool. They’re beautiful. But, that’s the road we’re on. We’re not there yet. We’re trying to find that luxury, that image, and replicate it in a way that doesn’t cause irreparable damage.
BN: There’s a classic kind of theater aesthetic called the school of poverty, where you use your poorness to your advantage. Home-madey, interesting, represents making a front-porch, instead of building a front porch. Because we’re going to work within these limitations, that will make our aesthetic more interesting.
GC: We will one day get there. Others too. But that’s the goal. Luxury without waste. And that’s a huge challenge, because luxury invokes a lot of excess.
BN: Austere luxury.
BN: Has your personal life taken on an organic tinge –food, clothes, are you a vegan?
GC: None of this is political. My wife and are immigrants. She’s Indian. I was born in Armenia, we both came as kids. Like most immigrants, we came here as dirt poor. This idea that living a green life style – this is what poor people do. There’s no waste, there’s no excess, because there’s no opportunity for it. So for us to live a green life style is almost redundant, because that’s how we live. It’s not a novelty if you come from poor countries. What we do now is more of an extension of our lifestyle than being influenced by the product.
BN: You’re back to the future.