Meet the micro-distiller who is making California citrus a flavor to be reckoned with

Redbird Garden Cocktails, Tobin Shea, Photo © Stefan Merriweather Photographer

 

Miller Duvall grew up in a farming family going back six generations in Central California. Their Los Banos farm grew row crops like tomatoes, cotton and melons, while in Bakersfield they grew the likes of citrus, almonds, olives. So Bay Area-born Duvall was inspired by orchard aromas and the abundance and innovation that has defined California since the beginning. In his years working in San Francisco bars, including legends like Elbo Room, he dreamed of California produce-based spirits, showcasing the unparalleled bounty of the state.

With his partners, The Spirit Guild (https://thespiritguild.com) was founded as a downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) micro-distillery, sourcing local produce. The flagship spirits — Star Keeper Gin and Vapid Vodka — are both distilled from California citrus, particularly shining through on typically neutral vodka with unique brightness. Both feature a base spirit distilled entirely from clementines, lending a vivid, clean body, while the gin’s botanicals range from the classic (juniper, coriander, angelica, cinnamon, grapefruit peel, orris root) to California glories: clementine peel, pink peppercorn, pistachio, sage, orange tree leaves.

Their limited edition releases focus on seasonal joys like a brandy made with organic Hachiya persimmons, with their sweet, almost custard-esque profile. Sourced from Murray Family Farms during the persimmons’ short, roughly three-week growing season, Duvall and team also partnered with LA bar pioneer, Matthew Biancaniello, to create this release — who I wrote and raved about back in 2011during his early days at The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel when he’d craft beautiful cocktails from farmers market produce he’d picked up daily.

Duvall works with head distiller Andrew Lardy, who graduated from Fresno State’s Viticulture and Enology program in 2013, worked in wine from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles, then in 2017 co-founded Wonderwerk House of Fermentation. After moving to L.A. to apprentice under Spirits Guild founding distiller Morgan McLachlan, Lardy took over in 2019.

With a tasting room and distillery in the Arts District, this ever-developing part of DTLA has been the epicenter of LA’s restaurant and bars renaissance in recent years — where longtime NorCal distillery Lost Spirits sought to expand and experiment, alongside breweries and artisan food producers. Spirits Guild is housed on a site where the state’s first commercial vineyards and orange groves were located, blocks from the Los Angeles River.

In his own words, Miller tells us about his journey to distilling via farming, about surviving pandemic and how he and his team spread the word about their spirits and get them stocked in a saturated market.

Distiller: What led you into distilling?

Duvall: I used to bartend in San Francisco back in the go-go 90’s. On my days off, I’d head to my family’s citrus farm with my friends or for family get-togethers. My family has been farming in California for six generations, so there’s a lot of history there. After being surrounded by the smells and sights and tastes of the orchards, when I returned to the bar, there seemed to be something missing. And the more I learned about spirits, the more I realized that all of the dozens of bottles behind the bar were filled with, more or less, the same thing. It seemed crazy to me that California, for all its agricultural diversity and for all its innovation, didn’t have its own signature spirit. It didn’t happen immediately, but eventually I started experimenting to see what that might be.

Distiller: What is unique or specific about your distilling and production process?

Duvall: We ferment and distill everything from citrus. We don’t purchase neutral grain spirits. We don’t filter anything.

Distiller: How is your business affected by —and surviving — pandemic?

Duvall: We’re delighted to say that our sales grew during both the quarantine and the pandemic, which is pretty good for a brand that skewed heavily toward off-premise accounts. Otherwise, there were miles of supply chain hassles to navigate. We got into the hand sanitizer game briefly. We were happy to help out so many community groups with a WHO-approved formula that we produced and bottled, but it certainly wasn’t a money-maker for us.

Distiller: How does running a distillery in LA define and influence what you create?

Duvall: We’re all about celebrating the flavors of Southern California. We distill our spirits from fruit grown just a few miles from here. Our gin has a pretty traditional profile but it includes white sage and pink peppercorn. There is a beautiful sage plant by my house and also a pink peppercorn tree about a block away from the distillery. Moreover, we’re in a neighborhood — [DTLA’s] Arts District — that has some of the city’s most inspired restaurants. It’s awesome to be able to walk or ride my bike to a number of bar programs and experience how all these genius bartenders are interpreting the work that we do here at the distillery.

Distiller: What do you feel are the key elements of getting your brand placed on and off-premise? And how much has shifted or increased to online sales since pandemic?

Duvall: We’ve elected not to take the pay-to-play approach, so it is really about telling our story and getting people to taste our spirits. Not just by themselves but in cocktails, because that is where great spirits can really make a difference. Sometimes that can take a little time. There is so much marketing razzle-dazzle in this business, so buyers can be, understandably, a little jaded. You just have to be patient, chill out, and share your enthusiasm until they realize you’re not bullshitting them. Regarding online sales, to be perfectly candid, we are still figuring that out. It’s a whole different skill set. For instance, if you make an amazing website with lots of awesome videos, ironically, people are likely to enjoy the vibes but are less likely to actually buy something. But we believe online sales will become ever more important in the future, so we’re putting a lot of energy there.

Distiller: How do you envision the world of small batch spirits evolving in the coming years?

Duvall: The pandemic caused a shake-up in the bar scene. At least it did here in Los Angeles. There are a lot of new faces behind the bar and many of them seem more interested in how spirits are made than memorizing lists of historical cocktails. That’s a good thing. While it’s kind of fun to have an exact replica of a cocktail served at the Savoy Hotel in 1892, I’d rather be enjoying a drink made from distinctive spirits made by real people from a culture and agriculture that is important to them.