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California craft distilleries want to offer tastings, sales on site, like breweries and wineries

Greenbar Collective owner, Melkon Khosrovian, showing off his products in the empty tasting room at his downtown L.A. distillery.
Greenbar Collective owner, Melkon Khosrovian, showing off his products in the empty tasting room at his downtown L.A. distillery.

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Greenbar Collective is the first distillery to open up shop in Los Angeles since Prohibition. In an old warehouse on the outskirts of downtown, owner Melkon Khosrovian oversees the production of a range of hand-crafted spirits – all made from locally sourced organic ingredients.

“Our lemon vodka, like many of the spirits here is painfully handmade. We buy lemons from local farms. Right now we’re pulling lemons from Malibu. Then we hand zest 2,000 whole lemons."

But the average customer coming in to take a tour cannot taste it.

In California, distilleries like Greenbar are not allowed to offer paid tastings or sell bottles of their products on site. California is part of a tiny minority of four states that have such laws on the books.

The reason goes way back to the Prohibition era. When the ban was repealed in 1933, many states tried to limit the power of big liquor companies by instituting strict separations between producers, like Greenbar, wholesalers that distribute alcohol and retailers that sell it.

But there are some pretty big exceptions to the law. Just blocks away at Angel City Brewery – the tap room was buzzing on a Saturday afternoon. Breweries and wineries in California managed to get exemptions and have been selling on site for decades.

Angel City brewmaster  John Carpenter said that business  has been crucial to the success of the craft beer movement.

“It’s really nice for us to not only make it here but when somebody comes here to take a tour and see the equipment and meet the people who make, at the end to be able to share with them exactly what they’re taking a tour of," he said.

Now California’s craft distillers are trying to get a piece of the action.

“We just want the same privileges that wineries and breweries currently have and that  about 350 distillers in other states currently have. That’s all," said Arthur Hartunian, the president of the California Artisanal Distillers Guild.

Last month the organization successfully lobbied to get a bill introduced in the state Assembly that would change the law. AB 933, as it’s known, would allow distilleries to charge for tastings if it passes, but it stops short of allowing them to sell bottles of their product.

The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of California object to the idea of distillers selling directly to consumers and they’ve got some influence to back that up. Over the last four years, their lobby has contributed almost $600,000 to Sacramento lawmakers.

But Hartounian stresses – the distributors have nothing to fear from craft distillers.

“We want distributors, we need distributors. I certainly don’t expect anybody to back up a truck and buy a pallet of vodka from my facility. It’s not about that. We are not liquor stores, we are artisans who simply want the chance to showcase our product in the marketplace.”

Hartounian’s lobbyist will continue to work with the distributors to try to craft a bill that everyone can agree to before it heads to a hearing in mid-April.

Meanwhile back at Greenbar distillery, Melkon Khosrovian is hopeful things will go his way. He's already built a swanky post-industrial tasting room at the location.

"I have built it if only they will come.”