Spirits Are High For Distillery Co-Founder, Creative Entrepreneur
Spirits move her.
Litty Mathew is co-founder at Greenbar Distillery in Los Angeles, maker of a growing portfolio of small-batch, organic spirits that combines her love of family, cooking and entrepreneurship.
“It is an artisan’s job, that is the fun for me, the aspect of doing everything, and we get to create new products,” says Mathew, who co-founded the distillery in 2004 with her husband, Melkon Khosrovian, whom she met in graduate journalism school at the University of Southern California.
“We create a lot of these spirits together, it’s like a perfumery. There is one—not fully created by us—inspired by our walks and hikes in California, called Grand Poppy. It is a bittersweet liqueur. Another is our City Bright gin, and our inspiration was all the immigrant restaurants in Los Angeles, pulling all these ingredients together into a harmonious culture,” says Mathew, who married Khosrovian in 2002.
Born to South-Indian parents in Ethiopia, Mathew and her family, including her two older sisters, grew their own fruits and vegetables in each country they lived. At age four, the family moved to Jamaica, then to the U.S. when she was nine years old.
At the University of California—Riverside, Mathew majored in Political Science and Economics with a French minor, and after graduate school, worked in public relations and marketing for a beauty company.
Not satisfied with that career direction, Mathew attended Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, honing her lifelong love of food and cooking. She returned to the U.S. to work as a freelance travel and food writer for major publications like Maxim and Saveur.
When she began dating her Armenian husband, Mathew says every family gathering had spirits at the table. “I would hate what they would serve,” she admits. So he husband went about concocting spirits that she might like.
“He was doing interesting infusions with layered flavors of flowers, fruits, vegetables, herbs. Some of them were truly terrible and some were fabulous,” Mathew says.
In 2003, because many of their friends began asking to taste and share these new spirits, they decided perhaps this could be a business. In 2008, they took the business in an organic direction and now have the world’s largest portfolio of organic spirits.
“It was for taste, not a political decision,” says Mathew, who has published a novel, The Musician’s Secret, about the Armenian community in Glendale, Cal.
They began using local farmers and changed the bottle, reducing the amount of glass used, with labels not-plasticized. For every bottle they sell, they plant a tree in Central America. So far 700,000 trees have been planted.
Traditionally, the liquor, alcohol and hospitality industries have been male dominated with few women in leadership, though Mathew says she has found the spirits community to be inclusive and accepting.
“I think we are more aware as an industry and starting to see a positive change in the spirits industry in terms of gender balance,” Paula Glickenhaus, vice president & Women in Leadership global lead for Bacardi, tells AM New York.
“In the U.S. alone, women make up half of all spirits drinkers and account for one third of the volume… so the gender balance not only makes business sense, but successful marketing of spirits today is dependent upon appealing equally to women and men,” Glickenhaus tells AM NY.
“Women in the beverage world and in the beverage consumption sphere are increasingly a force, occupying all levels of C-suites at companies around the world. The majority of all wine purchases for the home are made by women. The Wine & Spirits Education Trust told us that in the 1970s, women made up 10.6 percent of their Diploma graduates; today, 42.8 percent of WSET Diploma graduates are women. In the University of California, Davis, Department of Viticulture and Enology, 20 out of 35 people in the program are women. That’s all good news,” writes Wine Enthusiast Executive Editor Susan Kostrzewa.
“It is changing,” says Mathew. “Now we see a ton more women as owners, makers, not just in marketing but as entrepreneurs.
According to Advertising Age, “’All-male management teams are cutting themselves off from half the talent in the world,’ Sanford C. Bernstein said in a report in February that examined the gender and ethnic composition of major global alcohol companies. The consumption of alcohol was historically dominated by men, and in some countries still is. However, in much of the world, women represent an increasingly significant portion of the consumption base.”
Advertising Age reports, “The alcohol company with the highest percentage of women leaders is Diageo, where 40 percent of executive directors are women, according to the report. Diageo’s global chief marketing officer is a woman—Syl Saller has held the job since 2013.”
“This is a full contact sport,” Mathew says. “It has to be a passion because it takes so many hours. It’s part of the hospitality industry so there is a lot of going out, seeing customers, plus all the nitty gritty.”
Her advice to anyone thinking of jumping into the spirits business, or for any entrepreneur is to be flexible.
“You always think you have all your ducks in a row. So you put in your plan, try to execute your plan and it never goes according to the plan,” Mathew says. “If you have rigidity, you will not be happy in the world of entrepreneurship.”
Here’s to flexibility.
About the Author
Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldonwww.micheleweldon.com