It’s a hard job but someone has to do it! It’s technical, physical, mechanical and involves manual labor and other skills traditionally associated with a “man’s job.” None of this phases Morgan McLachlan, the petite head distiller at The Spirit Guild Distillery in the downtown Los Angeles Arts District.
Coming from another, traditionally, man’s job as a camera operator in film and television, Morgan says there is a lot of crossover between the two occupations. And with her background, she hasn’t felt intimidated by it, but rather is fascinated by the art and craft associated with distilling, never having any doubts she could do the job.
“Any trade or craft has to be something you are passionate about,” she asserts. “It’s romantic but I appreciate the challenges [distilling] present.”
Remarking on the crossover between the two jobs, she said both present similar challenges. There are always ways to improve and expand her expertise. As a cinematographer, she explains that every job or show has its own aesthetic, each time a new challenge, with new locations, lighting and equipment. Distilling requires experimenting and learning new skills, whether it’s a new piece of equipment or the addition or subtraction of an ingredient for a new product. Both are a combination of art and craft.
Morgan insists she is what she terms a formalist. “Some distillers do things very traditionally and follow formula. Others are very experimental.” Describing her philosophy, she falls somewhere in the middle. “Be a formalist, know the rules and production methods of what you’re making, the traditions of them. Know them very well and when you break them, know why you’re breaking them or break them on purpose.”
“I like to experiment and do things differently – I like to explore a little more,” she says with a laugh.
The Spirit Guild definitely is different and unique.
As Morgan opened the hatch of the Carl 1000-liter copper still, a soft, sweet aroma wafted out, complementing the golden light streaming through the unique stained-glass windows fronting the street. “Mmmm,” I thought, “Marmalade.” Not exactly! What I was smelling was the fermented juice of California clementines, depicted in the stained glass, the unusual base used in TSG’s Astral Pacific Gin and Vapid Vodka.
Morgan explained how they came to be using this unusual base for their products.
Miller Duvall, her business partner’s family has farmed in California, on the banks of the Kern River near Bakersfield, since the 1860’s, producing citrus, including clementines. On a memorable evening several years ago, as they sat in a bar, surrounded by regional spirits from far off parts of the world, they pondered why there were no California spirits.
“Historically, distillate is made from any agricultural product with an excess. This was the genesis of the distillery, and with it came the curiosity to learn to distill and figure it out.”
Completely at home on the distillery floor, her passion is obvious and that includes her admiration for other distillers.
She does note, however, that there is a bit of a cliché surrounding distillers, that they tend to be isolated, technical and introverts, and mostly men “of a certain age and ethnicity.” Morgan decries the lack of diversity within the industry and encourages women and other minorities to get involved.
And politics? As a self-described “Canadian left-wing witch,” she has found that the distilling tradition in this country runs deep and levels the playing field. “People I felt that on the outside (of the distilling world) I would have nothing in common with, we connect, even with different backgrounds and belief systems.”