The mill snarls continuously as Greg Stark knife-in-hand severs 55 pound bags of barley. The weaved white sacks give like slicing into room temperature butter. It’s only 6:30 p.m. but with no moon in the sky it’s dark as midnight. One after another the sacks are slowly poured into the spout of the mill. In the daylight this Pasadena, California industrial park where Stark Distillery lies erupts with noise from Stark’s neighbors. Now the only noise is the piercing mill dulled only by earmuffs Stark wears. With the last bag poured Stark reaches into the spout, gleefully brushing his hand through the grains like a child toying with sand, grabs a few grains and tosses them into his mouth. His face swells with a large grin. The process of producing Stark’s whiskey has begun—something suggests it won’t be the last time you’d see him smiling.
Stark, a tall weighty man with a sooty white beard peppered with strands of gray, wasn’t keenly pursuing his title of master distiller throughout his life but he was preparing himself for the moniker nonetheless. Freetime in his past career as a software engineer predominantly consisted of brewing beer. By the time he and his partner opened Stark Distillery in 2014 his 30 year long hobby of beer brewing was showered with scores of home-brew beer awards. Even his partner and wife at the distillery, Karen Robinson-Stark, met him after overhearing from friends that Stark brewed fantastic beer.
“We met for a Sierra Nevada, this is back in the day when Sierra Nevada was still an actual microbrewery in Chico,” says Robinson-Stark.
Robinson-Stark, a short scarlet haired woman, at the time was interested in learning how to brew beer and a mutual friend recommended Stark. When she asked if Stark was a warm fellow the friend countered with, “Is santa claus an okay guy?”
Though it wasn’t the Starks’ momentous goal to open a distillery after retiring, with their relationship beginning with a shared enjoyment of beer and spirits, it had an intuitive appeal.
Knocking the craft
Lightheartedly cracking at distilling, Starks says, “It’s all about food preservation, I’m taking a beer and I’m preserving it into its purest alcoholic form. I’m doing food preservation to the highest order.”
Though his distilling operation is much more complicated than he jokes, it can deconstruct into that process. Distillers toss a fermented liquid, commonly called a wash, into a still and heat the mixture while collecting the pure alcohol that evaporates out. What results is a spirit. Then a distiller can bottle it, barrel it or toss it back into the still.
The kind of sugars used in the fermented mixture are the defining differences to the kind of spirit one creates. Whiskey is made with the sugars from grains. Cane-sugar creates rum. As for the Stark’s brandy, it’s created from the natural sugars in hundreds of pounds of valencia oranges.
From mashed grains to gold
The mashed barley Stark joyously sampled earlier will refine through two distillations before it’s aged in bourbon and new american oak barrels. Contrary to a common misconception, whiskeys brownish caramel color originates from these barrels and not the spirit itself.
“You can see a change in color after a few weeks,” says Stark.
The benefits of aging in barrels stretch further than the change in color. Whiskey also extracts flavors and smells from the barrels. As for Starks’ whiskey, they uses new american oak barrel to add toasted flavors and finishes aging in Bourbon barrels to include charred tastes to the spirit.
“What you put it in a barrel and what comes out is similar to seeing the difference of an elementary kid to a college graduate,” says Stark.
By the time the spirits in the bottle, it’s sat at the distillery for years, and those toasted notes from the barrel are parading out of every sip and smell.
As for it’s exact flavor, Stark’s Single Malt Whisky gushes out with tastes of chocolate and roasted coffee bean. The years undertook to make the spirit landed it a silver medal in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
As for striking gold, Stark’s Peated Single Malt Whiskey has done so at the ADI Craft Spirits Competition. Peat, the soil-like material that ingrains the smoky aroma and flavor that defines Islay scotch whiskies, are added among other ingredients to produce this spirit.
For anyone taken aback by awfully smoky scotches—for myself some bring to mind the act of licking an ashtray—they should consider giving Stark’s peated whiskey a taste. It’s beyond smooth when reaching one’s palate, and the peat doesn’t overbear but works in tandem in creating a heavenly spirit.
Sunshine in a bottle
Robinson-Stark is responsible for their Skyline Gin. Different from traditional juniper berry forward gins, a sip of Skyline releases subdued scents of citrus and spices. She imparts that the inspiration for the gin occured from watching the beautiful California sunsets presented outside their distillery.
As for the Starks’ Sunshine Orange Brandy there are no machines preparing these oranges for fermentation. Sprayed on wax gives fruit that supermarket shine but causes harsh flavors when distilled, so the two wash and scrub the wax off of each orange by hand. A daunting task to say the least, it’s why they only produce the brandy once a year, but their personal touch radiates through the spirit. The sweetness from the juice of the oranges are balanced with bitterness from the orange peel. But it’s not one-dimensional brandy, there are notes lavender and clove that balances this intensely fresh spirit.
California dreaming on such a regulated day
The Starks, similar to every distillery in California, encountered a litigious minefield when opening their business. The perils originate from prohibition laws that persist on state legislatures throughout the United States. In California A law passed in 2015 finally permitted distilleries to sell their own spirits at their distillery. Before then customers had to rummage through liquor store shelves to find a micro-distillery’s spirits, they couldn’t just go to the distillery.
Problems with these archaic laws don’t end there. Stark reveals that compared to other alcoholic industustries, “where you can go to a brewery and buy one, two, three an infinite number of kegs, and at a winery you could buy cases of wine, at a distillery you can only sell 3 bottles per customer per day.”
The Starks understood these laws when building their distillery, but the two aren’t ildly tolerating them. They’re major figures in the Southern California Distillers Association which advocates for distilleries on issues like the 3 bottle maximum limit.
When asked the two say it’s difficult in pinpointing an exact moment that stands out for the accomplishments they’ve made. It could be measured by all the medals that adorn their spirits lying in their front office. Quantifying the thousands of gallons they sell every year is also an effortless estimation of it. But as Stark says, “There’s so many little aspects that are enjoyable it’s not just one singular thing.”
Stark says when it comes to making spirits, “if you’re not having fun, you’re either not doing it right, or there must be something better to do,” and that’s where one of their biggest accomplishments that can’t be quantified lies. After spending time with the two it’s clear that there’s nothing better they’d desire more than what they are already doing.
Upon request they offer free tours and tastings of their full catalog of spirits to guests on weekends.
1260 Lincoln Ave #1100, Pasadena, CA 91103