Organic is not the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of alcohol, but as Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew of Greenbar Collective in Monrovia know, and as I learned from just one taste of their complex and refreshing hibiscus liqueur, it really is the way to go. A couple with a shared passion for quality drinks and the sustainability of the earth, they craft a product that promises “better spirits for a better planet”—and judging from the fact that they sell their vodkas, liqueurs, gin, rum and bitters in 45 states and some Caribbean islands as well, it would seem the public has responded well to their mission.
Curious to know more about how their drinks are created and what makes their venture so environmentally friendly, I sat down with Melkon in the brightly painted lounge area of their Monrovia warehouse and did just a bit of sampling while we talked.
How long have you been in business?
We’ve been producing bulk batches of our spirits and selling them to restaurants and bars for six years and have been totally organic for two years. Before that, making drinks was a hobby of mine that grew gradually into the business after I saw how many of our friends enjoyed what we made. We now make three kinds of vodka, three liqueurs, two rums, a gin and three bitters, all from scratch using infusions of organic herbs, spices and fruit. Most alcohol manufacturers take a base and add a mix for flavoring, but our recipes take from two weeks to a month to make, because the alcohol has to soak up the flavors from the natural ingredients.
The process of transitioning to an organic company must have taken some time—can you tell me about that shift?
Yes, it did take a while. About a year, actually. When I say we’ve been organic for two years, that’s how long we have been fully transitioned, but the shift started nearly a year before that. It was around that time that some of our local suppliers of citrus and herbs began growing organic and we realized that our spirits started tasting better. So we started thinking about going completely organic, though we knew it was an expensive and long process.
So what exactly does it mean for a spirits company to be all organic?
It means that every single ingredient is certified organic and that our bottles, labels and brochures are made from 100% recycled materials. Organic is, of course, about flavor, but it is also about much more than that—it’s about making a product that in some way helps protect land and water.
Our “one tree per bottle” promise ensures that we help others. We’re involved with a Maine-based nonprofit called Sustainable Harvest, whose goal is to plant trees in Central America to help the preservation of tropical forests while combatting poverty. For each bottle of spirits we sell, a tree is planted that will provide for the livelihood of a family. To date we have been responsible for the planting of more than 100,000 trees. The planting of trees also ensures that our production process is a carbon-negative one.
How exactly does that work?
Well, one day we realized that we wanted to quantify what we were doing, rather than just go with the fact that organic tastes better and that we were helping tropical forests, so we decided to have our carbon footprint analyzed. This analysis included everything from the harvesting of the ingredients to the shipping of the final product. We learned that with our new organic practices, recycled paper and glass, one bottle of our TruVodka has a carbon footprint of 1.04 kilos. To put that number in context, we found out that one tree absorbs 790 kilos of carbon. This means that our “one tree per bottle plan” results in a product that is carbon negative. In fact, a drink with just two ounces of our alcohol makes you carbon negative for a day.
What an incentive to drink! How has Southern California served as the center of your business?
You know, many people wonder why we’re based in the L.A. area and not somewhere that might be seen as more hippie, earthy or organic, like the Pacific Northwest or the Bay Area. But the truth is that this part of California is perfect, because it is a huge agricultural hub. So many fresh ingredients are grown very locally all year round. Our drinks wouldn’t be the same without our California citrus, and we get that from very close by. Monrovia has been a very helpful and welcoming community, and we feel both safe and comfortable running our business here. Really, being located here has been key in getting our business off the ground.
When you have a day off, how do you spend it?
I hike around the San Gabriel Mountains or the foothills between Glendale and La Cañada, foraging for new herbs that I could potentially use someday. There are so many plants in our mountains that were historically used for medicinal purposes that also have a wonderful aroma, and I would love to be able to bottle that.
After hiking, I would take a nap at the top!
You can look for bottles of Greenbar’s creations by following this link to a list of stores in California.