Micro-distilleries are shaking things up all over the cocktail world. Small-batch artisan spirits are being served in the pubs of London, the bars of New York and the penthouses of Hong Kong. Of the 400 licensed artisanal producers in the U.S., 30 are in California. Northern California leads the pack, but we have a few SoCal producers causing a stir. In fact, local residents Karen and Greg Stark lay claim to Pasadena’s first craft distillery, Stark Spirits.    


Stark Spirits is housed in the corner unit of a Pasadena business park. Behind doors more likely to hide reams of paper or boxed import items, a gleaming copper 10-foot pot still commands attention. Pipes run along walls in all directions, connecting steam boiler, auxiliary stills and fermentation tanks. It’s a feat of engineering, a skill that comes naturally to Greg Stark, a skilled craftsman and former Jet Propulsion Laboratory employee. He gets it from his father, Tony Stark, a master machinist at Caltech. Stark the younger modified the kettle of his Still Dragon column still to allow for slower, more accurate distillation. He’s more than a machine nerd, though. Stark has been a home brewer and winemaker for years, winning awards for his beer and mead.


“Distilling spirits is the next step in Greg’s expertise,” says wife and co-founder Karen Stark. “I’m in it for the adventure.” As her husband’s brewer assistant for 24 years, Karen Stark knows a thing or two about the chemistry of booze. Both Karen and Greg know what they like in a sipping drink — something not too sweet, with enough depth and nuance to drink on its own — and are out to create it.


After licenses were obtained and building and fire department inspections were passed, bottling began in late October. Their first batch yielded six cases of Sunshine, which were promptly delivered to Mission Liquors in Pasadena.


“It’s technically an orange brandy,” explains Greg Stark, “because it’s made by distilling orange wine.” But this 80-proof concoction has the heart of a fine whisky and the heady aroma of California oranges. Meant to be sipped neat, Sunshine is California in a glass. Adding a single ice cube, however, allows the elements to breathe in the nicest way.  


The Starks have the equipment and recipes to expand their production to rum and barrel-aged whisky. Karen will take the reins on crafting the gin, redistilling the spirit with a unique blend of 15 botanicals, including juniper, coriander, star anise, orange peel and cardamom. They plan to bottle a gin worthy of the Stark Spirits name. “Our motto is ‘Strength is in the Character,’” Karen Stark explains. “‘Stark’ can mean strong, ‘spirit’ means character.” Indeed, the strength of Sunshine (as opposed to moonshine) comes from the character of the fermented and distilled Valencia oranges, not to mention that of the passionate owners.


They plan to work with a distributor who sells to Everson Royce and other fine liquor stores. “We think Sunshine will put us on the map,” says Karen Stark, “but all our products capture the elegance and nuance of handcrafted spirits.”


Ten years earlier, when Stark Spirits was just a twinkle in the couple’s eye, another husband-and-wife team, Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew, started their own micro-distillery in Monrovia. Today, Greenbar Craft Distillery represents the world’s largest portfolio of handcrafted organic spirits, according to the owners. While organic ingredients are important to the make-up of Greenbar’s vodkas, gins, tequilas, whiskies, rums and liqueurs, Khosrovian explains that Greenbar doesn’t use organic ingredients simply because they’re organic. “Taste trumps all,” says Khosrovian. “We discovered over the years that produce from organic farms simply tasted better and created better-tasting spirits.”


One of their more recent (and more delicious) releases is Grand Poppy, a rum-based bitter aperitif infused with various California flavorings. Essence of citrus, bearberry, pink peppercorn, California bay leaf and, of course, the bitter California poppy flower blend together harmoniously, resulting in an aperitif reminiscent of European bitter liqueurs, paired with a wonderfully familiar set of aromas  — bringing to mind a hike in Griffith Park. But this goes way beyond locally grown: Grand Poppy is practically a California native. Try it mixed with lemon juice, simple syrup and Greenbar’s Tru Garden vodka in their award-winning cocktail, the aptly named Griffith.


A few years ago, the expansion of the Metro Rail Gold Line squeezed Greenbar out of its Monrovia business park space, so Glendale residents Mathew and Khosrovian procured sweet new digs in downtown Los Angeles. The distillery offers tours to the public (reservations required), and just last month they added a tasting room. The tasting room is a very new animal made possible by Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent signing into law AB-933, which allows for up to six quarter-ounce tastings of distilled spirits on licensed premises. You can taste them there, but, with a few exceptions, you can’t buy bottles to bring home. No worries. Greenbar products are available at Whole Foods Pasadena, Bar Keeper in Silverlake and Vendome in Toluca Lake. Or put yourself in the hands of a mixologist who knows exactly how to handle these fine spirits at Mohawk Bend in Echo Park.   


Olive Heights Trading Company, another recent Pasadena start-up, is not technically a micro-distillery, but it does craft products that make cocktails taste better — small-batch bitters. Started by veteran bartenders Benjamin Carpenter and Scott Winnie along with colleague Skyler Champion, the two-year-old company began in the attic apartment of a Craftsman home in the Olive Heights neighborhood. Today, they’re producing roughly 600 two-ounce bottles of bitters a month in eight different flavors, including Padre Pio Mole Bitters and Vito Vincenzo Basil Rosemary Bitters, named after Olive Heights neighborhood patriarch Vito Vincenzo DeGiacomo.  


“Every step of the process is by hand,” says Carpenter, “and our batches are a few gallons or less. The process is essentially an infusion of roots, herbs and spices, as well as dried and fresh fruits. They take a shade over two weeks to mature, after which we add a nominal amount of rich syrup, then put them through our filtration process and bottle them.” 


Olive Heights bitters are bold and unique, providing enthusiastic bartenders with creative new flavor profiles with which to craft cocktails. Their bitters are shaken by mixologists at fine Pasadena restaurants including La Grande Orange, Luggage Room Pizzeria and Trattoria Neapolis. They also create custom house bitters for retailers and restaurants like Settebello and Green Street. Carpenter and Green Street Restaurant recently joined forces to create the grand prize winner of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce’s SIP-tember Best Cocktail Contest. Carpenter’s modern twist on an old French grapefruit wine recipe, Vin de Pomplemousse (recipe at left), showcases Olive Heights Grapefruit Bitters.


California citrus makes an appearance in a number of Olive Heights bitters, including an orange-y homage to Pasadena pioneer Benjamin “Don Benito” Wilson, but most of Carpenter and Winnie’s ingredients come from far corners of the world. Aromatic excellence is their constant goal. I look forward to the date they release their handmade cocktail shrubs, vintage drinking vinegars that make excellent additions to cocktails.   


Olive Heights Trading Company recently signed a deal with a chain of 30 restaurants in the South and Midwest and will be ramping up production in January. They’ll stay in their beloved Pasadena, however. They’re currently in the process of obtaining a new permanent space on the eastern end of town.


Arroyoland’s players on the cutting edge of today’s cocktail craze have at least one thing in common: They believe that fresh, natural ingredients with compelling aromas is what it’s all about. One might say Stark Spirits, Greenbar Craft Distillery and Olive Heights Trading Company are leading the way in the farm-to-barstool movement.