Main Course

Sipping the Golden State in a Poppy Liqueur

Golden Poppies, California's state flower, are at their peak bloom season in May. One California distillery hopes to bottle their beauty.

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After a visit to the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve State Natural Reserve, Brendan was feeling enthralled by the bright orange fields – and was shocked to learn that Greenbar Distillery, located in downtown Los Angeles, was harvesting the blossoms (not from the reserve, of course) to make their Grand Poppy Organic Aperitif. He went to visit Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew, the husband and wife partners behind the distillery, to find out about this special spirit.

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Brendan Francis Newnam: Why drown the flowers?

Litty Mathew: Oh, they’re drowning in liquor, it’s all good. They feel good.

Brendan Francis Newman: Why flowers and alcohol?

Melkon Khosrovian: Well, we make a lot of liqueurs that are flower-based – jasmine, hibiscus, for example – and when we thought of poppy, we actually thought it might make a beautiful sweet liqueur, until we tasted it, and realized how hellishly bitter it was. And that’s what led us to think about it as a different kind of product, an Amaro, a bitter liqueur.

Brendan Francis Newman: And the definition of an Amaro is like an herbal liqueur?

Melkon Khosrovian: Generally bitter and sweet, with extensive herbal notes, with some contrast, like oranges or citrus.

Litty Mathew: Actually, in the U.S., we don’t have a tradition of bitter things, including bitter liqueurs. That’s something from Europe and Asia, so it’s kind of interesting to make an Amaro here.

Brendan Francis Newman: I mean, this is the country that puts caramel syrup in their mochaccino. What gives you the confidence that we’re ready to drink bitter liqueur?

Litty Mathew: I think our palettes are changing. There are lots of influences from everywhere. When we just look at our families, Melkon’s side of the family’s Armenian, my side of the family’s Indian. We’re used to a lot more different flavors.

Brendan Francis Newman: And also, don’t people claim that Amaros have a kind of a digestif quality, which to me always felt like code for booze hounds who wanna keep drinking after dinner?

Melkon Khosrovian: That’s definitely true.

Brendan Francis Newman: Which part?

Melkon Khosrovian: The booze hound part, and to some extent, they will give you a little bit of digestion aid.

Brendan Francis Newman: You make a lot of products. This one is a new one. What prompted you to finally put this one together?

Litty Mathew: It really was our walks in the local hills. Santa Monica mountains, San Gabriel mountains, Griffith Park, and the bachelor mountain lion, who we have avoided.

Brendan Francis Newman: The bachelor mountain lion?

Litty Mathew: That’s what we call him. He is solo, and he is mostly in the hills of Griffith Park, away from people, but still, I always think I’m gonna see him.

Brendan Francis Newman: Oh my goodness.

Litty Mathew: He needs a girlfriend. So, along with the bachelor mountain lion, Melkon and I, while we’re hiking, we would pick all these aromatics, especially in springtime when it’s just getting warm and the sunny side of the hills would have California poppies. We’d pick them and think, that’s so beautiful, wouldn’t it be lovely to make something with it?

Brendan Francis Newman: For people who don’t know, can you describe what they look like?

Melkon Khosrovian: They look like orange butter. They’re velvety, they’re small, they’re intensely colorful.

Brendan Francis Newman: And so, why has it taken this long for anyone to make a poppy liqueur? Like, why hasn’t this happened before?

Melkon Khosrovian: It took a while to learn. Technically, Grand Poppy is a very complicated thing to make. We infuse all the botanicals, re-distill it, and then re-infuse it. It’s kinda like how you make absinthe. And that’s a very complicated process to get right every time, batch to batch to batch, have the same sorts of flavors. So, it took a little bit of time.

And then, I think a lot of us are starting to understand that being local is more than just making things here. There’s an aspect of it that reflects our place. We wanted to take some of the things that make our state unique. California, poppy is our state flower, the California bay leaf is a turbo-charged version of the bay leaf. And then things that grow best here, because of our hot-cold climate. Grapefruit, orange, lemons, these are things that make California unique.

Brendan Francis Newman: What about, like, sunblock?

Melkon Khosrovian: You can put that on the outside when you’re drinking it.

Brendan Francis Newman: But that, you know, brings up the question: what can’t be alcohol, then, right? Is it just a matter of finding a way to cut something that’s bitter and surrounding it with enough good things?

Litty Mathew: Just make sure they’re not poisonous. We’ve learned, when we’re foraging, half the time, Melkon will pick something and he’s just about to put it in his mouth, and I just tell him, “Does that smell like almonds? If so, we should put it away, we should throw it away.”

Brendan Francis Newman: He’ll become food for the bachelor lion.

Litty Mathew: Aww, the bachelor mountain lion.

Brendan Francis Newman: Well, let’s sip it, we’re looking at it. Cheers! It’s really nice. It’s actually not that bitter, it’s even less bitter than a Campari, feels like a Lillet, something you would drink with soda in the summer.

Litty Mathew: It’s only 20% alcohol.

Brendan Francis Newman: Only 20% alcohol, so you can use it to clean your hands after touching something.

Litty Mathew: It’s much lower in alcohol. It’s not a hard spirit.

Brendan Francis Newman: I was admiring this label which prominently features the poppy itself.

Melkon Khosrovian: I’ve designed most of our labels.

Brendan Francis Newman: Oh, you designed it.

Litty Mathew: Isn’t it beautiful? It’s a black background with that orange poppy, with just a little yellow ring, and it reminds me of a movie poster from the ’20s.

Brendan Francis Newman: I was gonna say, it definitely has a kind of a movie poster, an old vintage movie poster quality.

Melkon Khosrovian: My biggest audience for, you know, the labels, the liquid, everything we do here, is my wife. So I try to make things that…

Litty Mathew:  Now I feel bad that I thought that he’d be fodder for the mountain lion.

Brendan Francis Newman: Should I leave now?