When Litty Mathew and Melkon Khosrovian co-founded Greenbar Distillery in 2004, it was one of the first in Los Angeles since Prohibition. By 2008, the distillery was on its way to becoming “the world’s largest collection of organic spirits.” Ten years in, the distillery introduced multiple lines of ready-to-drink (RTD) canned cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks into its roster of botanical, flavor-driven beverages.
But a few years earlier, it would have been hard to imagine the now-married couple starting a spirits brand together at all. “When we first got engaged, I would just mention that my family didn’t drink at all,” says Mathew, whose family is from India. “Even as an adult, I barely drank anything. I had gone to cooking school in France, so if I was going to have something, it generally was wine.”
Khosrovian, who is Armenian, was accustomed to the harder stuff. “His family is from the former Soviet Union, and they drink a lot of spirits with their meals,” Mathew explains. She recalls the “heavy-duty fruit brandies” and vodkas served at his family functions: “It was not my thing,” she says. “It was really hard for me to enjoy.”
Now close to 20 years later, Greenbar Distillery produces a wide variety of organic spirits, including whiskey, gin, rum, vodka, tequila, amaro, bitters, and liqueurs; and multiple lines of canned cocktails, including alcoholic and non-alcoholic Highballs and aperitivo-inspired spritzes. The company has simultaneously pursued sustainable practices, such as using 100 percent certified organic ingredients, reducing packaging waste by using lightweight bottles and post-consumer waste (PCW) recycled labels, and through its “One Bottle, One Tree” program pledging to plant one tree in the Central American rainforest per each bottle sold. (At last count, the company planted more than 1 million trees.)
Most recently, in August, Greenbar Distillery added “UnSpritz” to its portfolio of NA RTDs. The botanical sparkler is a riff on the original Hibiscus Spritz and joins Greenbar’s suite of NA alternatives, including UnGin+Tonic, UnRum+Cola, and the refreshingly complex Bitters+Soda line, available in lavender, orange, and Earl Grey flavors.
With love and eco-friendly practices on their side, what truly drives Greenbar Distillery’s collaborative approach to spirits making is flavor — and the same is true for its non-alcoholic spirits production. But like many budding businesses, Mathew says, “We started not knowing anything about anything.”
Below, Mathew shares the couple’s journey, beginning with mason jar experiments in the kitchen and scaling up to 6,000-gallon batches of locally produced, sustainability-driven organic spirits and RTDs enjoyed nationwide.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Cat Wolinski: You have an extensive background in food and travel, and now 18 years running a distillery. When did you decide to start your own company, and how did you land on spirits?
Litty Mathew: Such a funny story. The other partner, Melkon, my husband, he’s Armenian. His family is from the former Soviet Union, and they drink a lot of spirits with their meals. It was not something my family did. When we first got engaged, I would mention that my family didn’t drink at all. Even as an adult, I barely drank anything. I had gone to cooking school in France, so if I was going to have something, it generally was wine. And so, at his family functions, they’d be pouring heavy-duty fruit brandies or vodkas because they are very Eastern European. And it was not my thing. It was really hard for me to enjoy.
So he thought, “Okay, I’m gonna make something that appeals to her cooking and food lover’s palate.” And so he would watch me cook and buy ingredients at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market when I was buying stuff here. And he would pick up a bunch of a variety of produce that had aroma. […] He would put store-bought vodka in a jar and put some herbs and fruits in. Then, he’d raid the spice cabinet for some hard spices.
Some of the stuff was really weird. Others were really tasty. And so those tasty ones, he would bottle and put a label on — he’s a really good designer, all the [Greenbar Distillery] labels are designed by him — and then off we go to these family events, and I wasn’t the only fan. All the cousins and everybody else liked them [too]. So it just became this weird little hobby.
But one neat thing is that we like working together. We really enjoy that experience. We’re very collaborative, so it’s been a really nice, almost 20 years together. It’s just been so much fun. My favorite joke is when we come home, and it’s bedtime, and we’re lying in bed, I like to turn to him and say, “How was your day, dear?” It gives us a chuckle.
CW: So how did Greenbar Distillery evolve from spirits to organic spirits, then a sustainability focus, and now the wide range you offer today?
LM: We started not knowing anything about anything. It was just this impulse. Everybody seemed to love our homemade spirits… [and we thought] okay, maybe there’s something here. People liked the flavor of real ingredients, so that’s kind of what we hung our hat on.
One of our farmers or growers had given us some produce, which tasted really strong. It had a lot of flavor in the batch, and we were like, “oooh, did we get the proportions wrong? Or what did we do?” When we discovered we had it right, we asked the grower, “Hey, is this a new variety?” And he said, “No, it’s the same variety, but it’s some new stuff we’ve been growing on our organic part of the farm.”
This was in 2008 or 2007, probably. And so we were like, “Huh, this sounds like something we should explore.” We called up someone we knew at UC Davis, and at that time, there weren’t the same kinds of studies [there are now]. Now there are a lot of studies that tell you that organic produce has more flavonoids, and that’s good for us because that gives us more flavor for the product. So our approach to organic was through the prism of flavor: Can we make something tastier? But then we realized in talking to our growers and farmers, their deal was about leaving land and water like their farmland to the next generation doing regenerative farming. So, we took cues from them.
We took a hard look at our packaging. At that point, our packaging was what we thought spirits packaging should be like — you know, these heavy glass bottles and virgin paper labels. Most people, when they get a beautiful bottle of spirits, may keep that empty bottle, but they’re not going to keep the subsequent bottles, right? We thought about all that and decided to get rid of the beautiful glass bottle. Every time we can, we’re trying to shave off the weight of the bottle because of the pollution. If you look through the studies on our website, you’ll see that it’s packaging and transportation that causes the most CO2 emissions. That was really eye-opening for us.
Yes, it’s nice to have a solar panel on your building, and yes, of course, you should give your spent grains to the local farmer. All of that is great, but it is so tiny, like less than 10 percent of your CO2 emission [or] your carbon footprint in comparison to packaging and transportation. It all started with learning from our farmers and growers.
CW: So it happened organically.
LM: Yes, it happened so organically.
CW: When did you decide to introduce non-alcoholic drinks into the mix?
LM: This was back at the end of 2018. It was watching people come to our cocktail making class at the distillery. They would love it. It was a fun social event for them, but we thought they would buy more [spirits] at our little gift shop downstairs after we taught people how to make drinks. But it wasn’t true. People who went on the tours tended to buy more than people who went to [the classes].
And we realized, talking to people attending the class, that making cocktails feels like work. When you go home, you might not necessarily want to do that. You want something easy. It’s also expensive — you need to commit because you need to have a liqueur, a base spirit, and some bitters. You know, it gets expensive. So, that made us think, “Wow, well, we go through all this trouble to make really great stuff. How can we make this easier?”
And so we started to think maybe the idea is to make a really good canned cocktail, and it has to come from a craft angle as opposed to a Jim Beam or a really big company; their approaches are very different [from] ours. We started to make these spritz cocktails, which are based on Italian spritz but with California craft products. We asked our visitors to come back and do a blind tasting and pick the winners, basically — we did a whole bunch of flavors or profiles, and then they picked. Then, we went with the top three that they thought were good. And so that’s how we started our spritz line in 2019.
And then, lo and behold, there was a pandemic [in 2020], and most people weren’t going out to bars or restaurants, so we were really well positioned at that time. We had just added the Highballs, so people were picking them up at their local Whole Foods. Then the non-alcoholics were right on the heels of that because people were like, “Oh, those are great, but what about me? I’m not drinking. I’m pregnant,” or “I want something in between drinks.” And then we were like, “Challenge accepted! Can we make a non-alcoholic cocktail?” It’s not like a soda. It’s different, it’s held in a different place. It’s a little more of an occasion. A little something where you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I’m having something special.”
CW: It is a really nice thing to have in those moments.
LM: I will say that on social media, the non-alcoholic drinks are what people write to us most about. So that I find to be interesting.
CW: That is interesting. Why do you think that is?
LM: There is a real need. Usually, if people reach out, it’s about bad news, right? So, it’s very nice to hear from people who genuinely liked it or were surprised to get it. It makes my day to see this.
CW: Do you think it’s a younger consumer that’s looking for [non-alcoholic] options?
LM: Yeah, I think so. But that is purely anecdotal. My 80-year-old mother, when she comes to visit, she enjoys the latest one we just put out. It’s called the Un-Spritz — part of that “Un” line, and it’s hibiscus. It’s her choice of drink when she comes here, just for something a little festive that won’t interact with all her medications.
CW: What is the process like for formulating recipes? Is there a difference between the non-alcoholic and alcoholic spritz recipe development, or is it, like you said, the same approach as spirits?
LM: It’s very much the same approach — at least, to a certain point. We do a lot of tea-based stuff, meaning it’s in boiling water so that we can see what we can extract from it. Then some of it is alcohol that has been boiled off. Un-rum is a good example — once you boil it off, we know there’s a moment where we still get some of that flavor of sugar cane and molasses, which are indicative of having a rum drink. It’s really hard to do any other way to get it right other than going through this process of boiling alcohol. It’s a lot like perfumery but for the mouth.
The big issue is you have to be able to provide a certain mouthfeel, so we have to mimic some of that feeling. How do you get that mid-palate? There are certain ingredients over time we’ve discovered that’s what you need to make it feel like … it doesn’t feel thin. That’s just years of experience — knowing how to fill the middle notes in, so to speak — and then, how do you give the burn of alcohol? What do you use to make it feel like there’s a little bit of heat in it? So, we’re inspired by what we always do: make alcohol, but using those techniques when we’re formulating [non-alcoholic drinks].
We start with very small mason jars filled with all of these botanicals that we have made into botanical tea, basically. From there, we use syringes and pipettes — it’s pretty precise because if we like something, we have to be able to do it again. We work with an Excel spreadsheet and go through all that. The key is, can the production team replicate it? So they’ll make a slightly larger batch, and then we’ll tweak it some more. Then there’s a production batch that’s made, and that’s usually to send to clients for approval. And then after that, it’s the big tanks.
CW: Why doesn’t a recipe scale up one to one?
LM: There are a lot of issues when using real botanicals. It’s part of it. It is nature. You might have one batch of cinnamon or cardamom, but batch to batch is a little bit different. That’s why the palate and tasting are so important to us. It’s not just a matter of 100 mls of flavor number three or this much red color. It’s not like that because … nature, she is fickle!
CW: You mentioned Whole Foods.* I know there’s a new NA spritz line coming out.
LM: The Un-spritz, and it is hibiscus flavored. It’s quite tasty, I think, and very similar to the [alcoholic] Hibiscus Spritz, so we’ll see if it resonates. It’s a little harder of a concept to get across. So, fingers crossed, but people understand the Un-gin and Un-rum and all of that.
CW: There are a lot of ways to label these types of drinks. This makes it pretty clear. It is a spritz, but there’s no booze.
LM: And like everything we make, you can turn [the can] around and take a look to see what the ingredients are. It’s easy if you’re trying to avoid something or are sensitive to something because it is all real ingredients.
CW: Why do you think more women are entering the ready-to-drink (RTD) business and non-alcoholic RTD business in particular?
LM: My armchair analysis is that it’s part of the larger trend of more women-owned businesses. I’m sure there is some experience that women contribute, whether it’s, “I don’t want to have any more white wine at my book club,” or, “I’m busy at my carpentry club, and I don’t want to be making a table while drinking a beer, if I make a mistake, I’d rather have this non-alcoholic drink.” Who knows? I think it’s part of this larger trend, and because this is such a big, hot moment for non-alcoholic beverages, it dovetailed so beautifully.
*Greenbar Distillery’s ready-to-drink Highballs and Bitters+Sodas are available online and in more than 500 Whole Foods Markets across the United States. Hibiscus UnSpritz is available at select Whole Foods locations in California, Colorado, Texas and Mid-Atlantic States.