Couples in the Booze Biz
Making a successful spirit is all about blending and balance. Take a little sweetness and a little sourness, add a dash of softness and a touch of spice. You want the result to be harmonious. It’s a lot like a marriage. Several distilleries are in fact run by married couples, including KOVAL in Chicago, SPEAKeasy in Nashville, and the Greenbar Craft Distillery in Los Angeles. So what are the good and bad points about being in business making spirits with your spouse?
For Robert and Sonat Birnecker of the KOVAL Distillery in Chicago, the whole point was to be in business and be able to spend time together. “Robert and I decided to start a distillery,” says Sonat Birnecker, ‘when I was a professor and he was working at the Austrian Embassy in Washington DC.
We were each driving about two hours a day commuting and we said to ourselves: ‘Do we really want to have this lifestyle?’ We decided we wanted to do something that would allow us to spend our time together, not apart. We wanted to live where we worked, and not be commuting to work. I’m from Chicago and wanted to move back so we said: ‘Let’s do something together.’ Robert comes from three generations of distillers in Austria so we decided to do what we knew: distilling.”
KOVAL was one of the very first craft distilleries, as Sonat explains:
“Back in 2008 there were hardly any distilleries in the USA. There was the Anchor team in San Francisco but they were originally a brewery. When we were starting up the knowledge about distilling was hardly there, and the people who knew weren’t telling! Today we’ve taught over 2500 people how to distill. We estimate that we’ve educated about 1/3 of the people who’ve started a craft distillery in the USA.”
Robert says that being married to your business partner is undeniably beneficial:
“It’s definitely changed our creative process, in a positive way. We often have business meetings, or late-night conversations, after the kids are asleep. It’s a time when we’re able to really focus on our plans and ideas. Then we divide tasks – I work most often with production and consulting — and Sonat focuses on branding, marketing, sales, and distribution. One of the reasons for starting this business was for us to work together. While it has some challenges, it also gives us a lot to talk about.”
It’s also paid off, as KOVAL’s products have won numerous awards. Most recently their latest release, KOVAL Dry Gin, was awarded a Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
At the other end of Route 66 in Los Angeles, husband-and-wife team Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew run the Greenbar Craft Distillery. The couple, who married in Pasadena in 2012, have had quite an exotic personal journey to get there.
“I was born in Armenia,’ says Melkon, ‘and came to America in 1980 with my family. Like many refugees from the former Soviet Union, my family came to America seeking a better, freer life.”
Litty was born in Ethiopia and grew up in Jamaica, though her family was from Kerala in India. She also studied cooking in Paris. It was Melkon’s Armenian background that would turn them into distillers.
“Both of my grandparents distilled fruit brandy in Armenia,” Melkon says, “but we started to make our own spirits strictly out of necessity, not tradition. The need arose from Litty’s refusal to drink the high-proof fruit brandies and vodka my family served at special meals and used to toast us, the new couple. To her refined palate, the stuff tasted like jet fuel. So I began making concoctions that tasted better and that Litty could drink at these events.”
“I combined fresh fruit, herbs, flowers and vegetables from the Hollywood Farmer’s Market, ingredients from Litty’s spice closet and whatever vodka I found at Trader Joe’s to create complex, flavorful infusions that tasted more rich and balanced and would pair well with food. Soon Litty started to help, and along the way we began learning the chemistry of flavor, which we later used to create unique processes for fermenting with exotic yeast, distilling individual fractions of alcohol for better flavor focus and aging whiskey with six , not just one, wood.”
And how does it work out, being married and in business?
“Many of our friends wonder how we can spend 24 hours together without killing each other,” says Melkon. “But the secret is that we’re each other’s best friend and that we’re slightly buzzed all day long. Greenbar doesn’t feel like a business partnership at all – rather, a giant public display of our affection. I still make every one of our spirits to entertain Litty’s palate, except now everyone gets to drink it, too.”
Two more kindred spirits can be found at SPEAKeasy Spirits Distillery in Nashville. Jeff and Jenny Pennington have been friends since high school, though romance only blossomed when they met up again several years later when they were working for rival wine and spirits distributors in Nashville. They had to date secretly, but then decided to use their distribution knowledge to set up their own distillery, while learning the production side. Established in 2012, SPEAKeasy lauches Nashville’s first craft vodka, Pickers Vodka in April of this year.
“For Pickers Vodka,” says Jenny, “we’ve created an original and two flavors: blood orange and blueberry. We’re really excited to see our hard work come to life.” Jeff confirms the plus side of being in business with his bride when he says, “I have a partner that I know is always someone I can trust, and has my best interest and the interest of the company we have built at heart.”
“Every day isn’t perfect but it means a lot to me to know that we are working together to achieve a common dream. I think the passion we both possess makes our marriage stronger and keeps us dialed in to what the other one is going through along the way.” Does the couple have children? Jenny notes with a laugh, “We joke that our Tennessee Sipping Cream, Whisper Creek, was our first child and the family keeps growing!”
It’s clear that for these three couples at least, husband-and-wife distilling works out. In fact you could say that, together, they lead quite a spirited life.