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California Distilleries Get Into Spirits Of Handcrafting

By Samantha Masunaga, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Greenbar Craft Distillery’s Grand Poppy organic aperitive was inspired by hikes in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park and created with local, organic ingredients that pay homage to Southern California.

The Los Angeles distillery’s California connection is paying off — over its 11 years in business, the distillery has developed a unique lineup of organic, handcrafted spirits, including vodka, gin, whiskey and rum. Husband and wife founders Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew say they don’t worry about faithfully reproducing centuries-old European recipes. They only care about taste.

Mathew winked. “We’re not very traditional.”

In the midst of a Renaissance for carefully crafted spirits, artisan distilleries like Greenbar have boomed in California and across the nation — there are now nearly 800, up from only about a dozen in 2000. California, home to at least 75 craft spirit makers, has been a pioneer in this expansion.

These pricier artisan spirits are a growing niche of the $60-billion U.S. spirits market, with 2 percent of sales last year, according to the American Craft Spirits Association. The volume of craft spirits produced has nearly doubled in the last two years, the trade group said.

A new law signed last week by Gov. Jerry Brown could push California craft distillers even more mainstream. The Craft Distillers Act of 2015 allows spirits makers to sell up to three bottles of their alcohol from tasting rooms and operate an on-site bar and restaurant for the first time.

“There will be an explosion of more and more small distillers,” said Lance Winters, master distiller at Alameda, California-based St. George Spirits, the first craft distillery in the nation. “Hopefully because of the fact that there will be a lot of competition, people will be really working hard to differentiate themselves from one another.”

The industry has changed dramatically over the last two decades as consumer preferences changed.

“When I first started distilling, people were predominantly drinking wine coolers,” Winters said. “In an era when white wine is just too hard-core to drink, there’s not a lot of hope for a distiller to carve out a living.”

Then about 15 years ago, spirit-driven cocktails became popular. These drinks showcased the sharp taste of distilled liquor rather than hiding it in a bevy of other ingredients.

Momentum continued to build, Winters said, as more customers turned to local sources for food and expected the same from their spirits, leading to greater demand for craft distillers. The surging interest in craft beer doesn’t hurt, either.

Craft brews have continued to outperform the overall U.S. beer market and now represent 11 percent of total volume. California alone has nearly 600 craft breweries, according to the California Craft Brewers Assn.

Many craft distillers started off as craft brewers and ventured into spirits-making to further challenge themselves.

“What is whiskey but distilled beer without the hops,” said Andrew Faulkner, vice president of the American Distilling Institute, a trade organization for craft distillers.

Whiskey is the most popular spirit — 37 percent of craft distillers produced it last year, according to the American Craft Spirits Assn., a trade group. Craft producers often while away the time it takes to age whiskey by expanding their production to gin, produced by 13 percent of craft distillers last year, and vodka, which trailed at 12 percent.

Stark Spirits in Pasadena chose to focus on rum and brandy while its single malt whiskey aged in barrels. The microdistillery has only two full-time employees — husband and wife Greg Stark and Karen Robinson-Stark — who do everything from distilling to hand labeling and signing bottles.

Though the distillery opened less than a year ago, its products can already be found in more than 30 California restaurants and retailers. Their specialty is a 100-proof orange brandy called Sunshine that’s made from locally grown citrus fruits.

“It’s fun, and it’s ours,” Robinson-Stark said.

In California, there are at least 75 craft spirit manufacturers, up from the five to 10 that were in business in 2000, said Cris Steller, executive director of the California Artisanal Distillers Guild.

Much of the action is happening in Northern California, home of craft distilling pioneers such as St. George Spirits and related industries like craft brewing and winemaking.

“The growth in California, I think, is due to the fact that we grow so much here,” Steller said. “Between the beer industry and the wine industry, that creative momentum just grew into distilling.”

Advocates say direct-to-consumer sales could help California catch up with Washington, Oregon and New York, which have outstripped the Golden State in spirits production and number of distilleries.

Brian Christenson is ready to take on the challenge in Southern California. A former art director at an advertising agency, Christenson decided to turn his interest in craft brewing and spirit-making into a new career.

His Santa Ana distillery, Blinking Owl, should be fully operational by early 2016 and will produce vodka, gin and a Scandinavian spirit called aquavit, similar to gin and flavored with dill and caraway.

“Orange County is the last frontier, just because there isn’t anybody,” Christenson said. “There definitely is a need.”

Khosrovian and Mathew of Greenbar saw the same opportunity when they first emerged on the craft spirits scene in 2004 as the 38th craft distillery in the nation.

“Lots of companies in the Midwest or the East Coast were trying to capture a bygone era,” Khosrovian said. “You find very few companies trying to relive the past in California.”

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Litty Mathew, left, and Melkon Khosrovian are the founders of Greenbar Craft Distillery in Los Angeles. (Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Video Of New Jersey Police Shooting Fuels Debate On Use Of Force

By Samantha Masunaga, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Video of a fatal police shooting in Bridgeton, N.J., has led to protests, demands for an impartial investigation and a national debate over whether the officer was justified in firing his weapon.

The dash-cam video of the Dec. 30 traffic stop shows two officers stopping a motorist for allegedly rolling through a stop sign. The video, the subject of a public records request, was released by the Bridgeton Police Department on Tuesday.

The initial dialogue is casual, with Officer Braheme Days approaching the passenger side of the car. He asks the two occupants how they’re doing, introduces himself and explains the traffic violation.

Days asks the driver for his license. Then the front-seat passenger apparently reaches toward the glove compartment, and Days shouts: “Show me your hands! Don’t you … move!” and pulls out his weapon.

The second officer, Roger Worley, comes to the driver’s side of the car. Days tells his partner there’s a gun in the glove compartment.

Days repeatedly orders the passenger, Jerame Reid, 36, not to move. Days appears to try to prevent Reid from opening the door. But Reid opens the door and appears to get out with his hands up, and in doing so moves closer to Days.

Both officers open fire, killing Reid. At least six shots can be heard.

Days and Worley have been placed on administrative leave, according to a statement from the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office, which is investigating the shooting.

The video “confirmed that his (Reid’s) hands were up, and he was shot,” said Walter Hudson, chairman and founder of the National Awareness Alliance. He has led two protests over the shooting, and his organization is calling for the state attorney general to handle the case.

“We want to ensure a fair and impartial investigation,” Hudson said. “We’re not asking for any special favors. We’re asking for what is right.”

Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae has recused herself because she knows Days, said Harold Shapiro, first assistant prosecutor, who is handling the investigation.

Law enforcement and legal experts who watched the video said the histories of Reid and of the officers, as well as the officers’ training, all must be considered when determining what led up to the incident. Reid reportedly had a record and had spent time in prison.

Several critics have noted that Days at one point calls Reid by his first name. That comes after Days shouts to Worley that a gun is in the glove compartment.

Right then, Reid can be heard faintly speaking:

“I ain’t doing nothing,” Reid says. “I’m not reaching for nothing, bro. I ain’t got no reason to reach for nothing.”

Days replies, “Jerame, if you reach for something, you’re going to be … dead.”

Then Days screams, “He’s reaching, he’s reaching!” before one of the two men in the car says, “I’m getting out and getting on the ground” — despite Days’ repeated orders to not move. Reid opens the passenger door and emerges, and he is shot to death.

Richard Rivera, chairman of the civil rights committee at the Latino Leadership Alliance, an advocacy group for Latinos in New Jersey, said the casual conversation at the beginning, as well as Days’ use of Reid’s first name, “makes it very clear that he knows this individual.”

He also pointed to Days’ solo approach to the stopped car as a move that is “unheard of.”

“The whole reason they’re assigned to the area together is to protect each other’s safety,” Rivera, a former police officer, told the Los Angeles Times.

John DeCarlo, associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and coordinator of the police studies program, said body camera footage would have been better than the dash-cam video to determine whether the use of force was justified.

In any event, DeCarlo said, it’s too soon to know. Many facts remain to be disclosed, he said, such as the conversation between the officers and the dispatcher before the traffic stop.

The gun’s discovery escalated the incident, DeCarlo said.

“At this point, they are in a highly dangerous, life-or-death situation,” he said. “If the guy is in the passenger seat, he’s literally in arm’s reach of a firearm.”

Release of the video was somewhat controversial.

In a statement on Facebook, the Bridgeton Police Department said it “does not, as a routine, consider the posting of any such video as compassionate or professional.”

Without the open records request, the police statement said, the video would not have been released to the public “out of respect for the family of Jerame Reid, basic human dignity and to protect the constitutional rights of all those involved.”

Conrad Benedetto, lawyer for Reid’s estate, said in an email that Reid’s widow, Lawanda, had seen the video.

“It is a powerful video with great shock value,” he said in the email to the Los Angeles Times. “It was traumatic for Lawanda to see as vividly as she did what happened so violently to someone she loved.”

AFP Photo/Jim Watson