LOS ANGELES — Melkon Khosrovian never thought he would be interested in the world of spirits — of the alcoholic variety.
But here we are: Khosrovian, and his wife, Litty Mathew, cofounded Greenbar Distillery in 2004, the first in Los Angeles since the end of Prohibition. They specialize in gourmet, organic, small-batch spirits, cocktails and mixing bitters.
The two, who married in 2002, became distillers quite by chance, and for love.
As Khosrovian said in an interview in December, “literally everything happened by some kind of accident.”
Khosrovian and Mathew met at the University of Southern California (USC) where they were both enrolled in the journalism master’s program. One thing led to another and they soon became an item and got engaged.
“When my wife and I got engaged, we went round to visit with our families. We would make toasts and drink,” Khosrovian said. Unfortunately, there was nothing that ticked off any of the boxes for Mathew and she said all the liquor was too harsh.
Mathew has a sophisticated palate. She attended Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, honing her lifelong love of food and cooking.
Mathew has worked as a freelance travel and food writer for major publications like Maxim and Saveur. In addition, she has also published a novel, The Musician’s Secret, about the Armenian community in Glendale.
And thus, Khosrovian began to experiment to see if there was a cocktail or spirit his wife would prefer.
“It started with me trying to make something my fiancée could drink,” he recalled.
Both Khosrovian and Mathew are researchers by training, and therefore the idea of finding a solution was one they could not pass by.
Every night, he said, he would experiment with flavors and combinations, trying to hit on the magic formula.
“It became every night,” after work, he recalled. And he remembers thinking, “What exactly are we doing this for?”
Before starting Greenbar Distillery, Khosrovian worked in crisis communications. In 1999, he launched an Internet startup, which he later sold.
Being that they are both highly educated and curious, they decided to take it to the next level.
“We didn’t know anything about making complex infusions. I would take some flowers, fruit and spices and put them in vodka. I had no idea what I was doing,” Khosrovian said.
But they had an advantage: “We knew how to ask questions and to think,” he said.
In a way, he noted, their total lack of knowledge about alcoholic beverages was an advantage as they didn’t think about the pitfalls and wanted to produce beverages that “tasted real, complex and interesting.”
“We didn’t want them to do things like burn or leave a weird aftertaste,” he noted. As a result of all the efforts, the couple decided to start their own distillery in the heart of the Los Angeles Art District, Greenbar Distillery, in 2004.
According to Khosrovian, Greenbar Distillery makes around 30 different spirits, such as gins, whiskeys (including single malt), vodkas, liqueurs (ginger, hibiscus, orange and jasmine), and Amaro (Italian herbal liqueur), as well as ready-to-drink cocktail mixes in cans. The distillery also makes two kinds of non-alcoholic beverages, canned lavender and lemon bitters with soda, as well as bottled bitters.
The list of ingredients for both of the sodas is like menu items in a top restaurant. For example, the orange bitters contain orange, tea, jasmine, mandarin, burdock, gentian, neroli, petit- grain, clove, star anise, grapefruit, chamomile, California bay, ginger, allspice, cinnamon, rooibos, eucalyptus, Lapsang Souchong tea, among other ingredients.
The approach to making the flavors is surprisingly similar to the way they created mixes in their home.
“We base it on things you can eat. We are going back to the beginning,” he said.
Khosrovian added that ironically neither he nor Mathew is a great bartender.
They produce two gins — City Bright and City Amber — and for the first, again, their list of ingredients is one that any chef would be thrilled to use: wheat spirits, juniper berries, ancho chiles, angelica, basil, California bay, cardamom, cassia, coriander, cubeb, black cumin, fennel, grapefruit, lemon balm, lemongrass, lemon, kaffir lime, Lapsang Souchong tea, lime, pink peppercorn, Sichuan peppercorn, peppermint, spearmint, star anise and tarragon.
The palate reflects a lot of Middle Eastern and Mexican cuisines, as well as traditional Armenian herbs, especially tarragon.
That gin, he said, makes the Negroni taste a lot better.
Selling to Restaurants, Stores
While the bottles of spirits sell briskly, the distillery is focusing on its line of canned drinks. This past year, 70 percent of total sales were from cans, while next year it is expected to be 85 percent.
Up to now, about 80 percent of Greenbar’s business has been with restaurants. Then, Covid hit and so many restaurants shut down. Now, Greenbar is shifting to retail, with bottles of spirits, as well as canned carbonated alcoholic beverages being sold to stores.
Those cans have proved to be quite popular. “The flavors are very big and bold with hibiscus, ginger and orange,” he said, created in the style of the Italian favorite, Aperol Spritz.
As are two others. “The two most popular [flavors] are rum and cola and whiskey and soda,” he said.
Those currently are retailed at Whole Foods and Albertson’s in the West Coast, and Whole Foods on the East Coast, as well as independent retails. (If your local liquor store does not carry it, you can ask them to order it for you.)
Taste and smoothness are the guiding lights for the Greenbar team and it was in pursuit of those that they have chosen to use only organic products.
Switch to Organic, Community-Centered
In the first four years of the distillery, they were doing well, Khosrovian recalled, using as good a bunch of ingredients as they could get, with no particular interest in organic products. Then, they distilled a batch of spirits that were off. “We traced the source of the problem,” he said. “It dawned on us that organic products have a lot more flavor,” he said. “In 2008 we switched to all organic to make them more tasty.”
That change in turn led to a greater focus by Greenbar Distillery on its impact on the land and the community.
Said Khosrovian, “Here is everything we want to do: [be] pleasing to the palate but our bigger obligation is to make a difference and inspire. We changed our packaging from virgin paper and heavy glass bottles to lightweight glass and recycled paper labels that are biodegradable.”
Then, he said, they thought about what more they could do. “Grandparents [in Armenia] plant a tree for new babies. We decided to plan trees for every time we sell a bottle. We want to make a way to give back and make the plant better for the future generations,” he added. They plant fruit trees in various locations, including in Guatemala.
“We want to do well and do good at the same time,” he noted.
In addition, they help the local organizations that feed the hungry. “We want to give back to the com-
time someone drinks a gin cocktail with a Greenbar gin. So far, he said, 30,000 burritos have been given away.
“We are a little company and want to do whatever we can,” Khosrovian added.
Moving to LA
Khosrovian and his family moved to LA when he was a child, in May 1980, first to Providence, RI for 11 years.
Melkon was born in Yerevan. His father was the head of a textile company, working alongside his mother, who studied linguistics. He grew up with his family, including his sister, celebrating life with family dinners where they’d sip homemade fruit brandies and grain vodkas along with their meal. His grandparents made their own high-proof fruit brandies in Armenia from excess fruit in their orchard.
Khosrovian said that now he has very few relatives in Armenia, consisting of a number of cousins and one aunt. The family is descended from survivors of the Armenian Genocide who repatriated to Armenia in the 1930s and 1940s.
Mathew, who was born in Ethiopia, hails from a family rooted in Karala, India. She also moved with her family to the US when she was little.
Khosrovian noted that in the past his company has tried to do small projects in Armenia, especially regarding walnut, cherry and apricot for use in their line of bitters.
“These are fruits and trees that Armenia grows incredible well,” Khosrovian said. “That’s great about Armenia, the vibrant fruits.”
For more information about the company, visit their website at http://www.greenbardistillery.com. The site sells the products and also includes a list of outlets that sell them.
Pre-Covid, Greenbar offered tours of the distillery. Once the restrictions are lifted, the tours will start again.