Aspiring distillers have been known to take big risks to get into the industry. For husband and wife team Marsh & Jan Mokhtari, that moment came in 2016, when they sold their house to finance Golden State Distillery and start a new gin brand. After hundreds of batches, they launched Gray Whale Gin with a focus on California botanicals: juniper, kombu, almonds, limes, fir tree, and mint.
For Marsh — who has hosted shows on Food Network and the Travel Channel — the drive to create a standout gin actually came from a coastline camping trip, along with a chance wildlife encounter.
Drinkhacker sat down with Marsh to talk about the couple’s early risky gamble, inspiration for both the name and botanicals, and lessons for others hoping to break into distilling.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for readability.
Drinkhacker: Tell me a little bit about where the gin space is right now and the role you think that you all are playing in it.
Marsh Mokhtari: I think America is going through what I like to call gin-aissance. We’re finally realizing that gin is just vodka with flavor. And what have I been doing all these years? *laughs* Back in 2016, my wife and I sold our house to start Gray Whale Gin. We’re big gin fans, huge gin fans. Plymouth was my go-to. I love Hendrick’s. I love what the old school gins brought to the table. And then the new school gins have kind of taken over and started innovating much like any other industry. So where do we play? We set out to make a gin — an American gin — that had a point of differentiation that wasn’t an afterthought, because we happened to be putting some liquids in barrels waiting for them to age so that we could pay the bills. That was never the intention. Our intention was 100% to create a gin that was something we could be really proud of. That was a taste of America and a glass. We live in California. That’s why this gin truly is a taste of the Pacific in a glass.
Drinkhacker: Let’s talk about the development of your gin. How did the flavor profile evolve from what you first imagined to what the product actually became?
Marsh Mokhtari: There were so many twists and turns. We actually have it documented: 152 recipes to get to this point, and two years of R&D. You have to go back to 2016 for a quick second. My wife and I were on a camping trip in Big Sur, overlooking the beautiful Pacific Coast, without kids. I’m hosting a TV show on Food Network called Extreme Chef. My wife is a creative director in advertising. And you have those big conversations like, “What do we want to do with our lives? How do we take care of our kids?” And in our infinite wisdom, out pops, “Hey, we should make a gin.” They’re going to turn out just fine. The kids are going to be great.
Our superpower is to bring people together over good times. Food and wine typically fall into that place. And we were wondering why there wasn’t a quintessential Golden State distillery. And that’s really where Gray Whale was born. We saw a little whale on its migratory journey, and I didn’t know much about these whales. I just knew that they hugged our coastline. Four months later we sold our house and went all in on this crazy idea. So getting right back to your question, what did we think the flavor was going to be like? That’s a huge question, because how do you taste your way along the Pacific coast?
This gray whale has her babies in Baja, Mexico, and she migrates to the Arctic. And then for the rest of their life, they will migrate up and down our beautiful coastline and hug the Pacific Coast. I was born in England, and when you ask me what does England taste like, oddly enough, I’ll go fish & chips and curry. Those are my two things that I grew up eating a lot. The whale is from Baja. So our initial thought was that it should be like jalapeños!
It should taste like Big Sur, right? That’s cumin, paprika, poblanos. We distilled everything and started playing with it. We distilled over 150 spirits, and I mean different botanicals with a grain neutral spirit. And then we started using pipettes and putting it into tasting glasses and writing down recipes. And if they kind of somewhat tasted balanced and good, that could be a thing. Then we’d distill it altogether on a London dry technique on a small little pot still. And then we kind of whittled it down.
I wanted jalapeños in that, I thought it needed it. And Jan on the other hand thought it needed lavender, and neither of them ended up in our final recipe. It was a lot of trial and error. We have a beautiful fat component with our almonds. When you’re a chef, the first thing you do is put fat in a pan, and then you can build your flavor profile. So we went at this in a very different way than most gin distillers would.
Drinkhacker: What do you think your gin is not right for?
Marsh Mokhtari: I think it’s not right for a classic Negroni, it gets lost. That said, I have a five gallon barrel in my basement where I’ve got some amazing barrel aged Negronis with Gray Whale. I change up the recipe. I go two parts Gray Whale, one part Campari, one part amaro. And you can kind of fill in the blank there, but I play with several different ones, and it’s just getting better and better over time when it’s sitting in that barrel. But what it’s not right for, I would say probably a classic Negroni. It might get lost, but if you are going to go that route, use a grapefruit peel with ours.
Drinkhacker: If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice, from a more seasoned distiller to a brand new rookie distiller, what might it be?
Marsh Mokhtari: It would be, “Relax, man, don’t be too hard on yourself.” We overthought everything. The threat of being homeless was a real one for us. We put everything on the line. I mean, literally, we sold our house to start this. I put this in front of probably 30 different high level sommelier and chef friends of mine that I knew had great taste. My wife and I would sit there, and there would be five nondescript glasses in front of you. They’d all have a number on them. And I would say, “Which one do you like?”
Once it started to become more and more clear that Gray Whale was getting picked from among world class gins, we would relax a little, but we didn’t stop. We set a goal for ourselves in our first year that if we sold a thousand cases, this would be a really big deal. I’m very proud to say we sold a thousand cases in three months, and our first year was outrageously successful.