In 2016, Jan and Marsh Mokhtari packed up their kids and drove to Big Sur for a family camping trip. The trip was a much-needed break from their demanding work schedules — Jan an advertising creative director, and Marsh a producer and host for TV networks such as Food Network and National Geographic.
The trip would serve as more than a peaceful time away with their daughters. After seeing a little gray whale on its migratory path in the serene setting of McWay Falls, the couple was inspired to create what they hoped would be the next great American gin.
“When you distill it all down, we both had a deep desire to want to protect and serve our beautiful oceans. It’s why we moved here,” Marsh says. “Gray Whale Gin is our way of celebrating and sharing all that we love about California.”
Ahead, the couple chats with VinePair about their inspirational trip, thirst for the preservation of American marine life, and inclination to make a uniquely American gin.
What drew you from your previous roles to seek a career in distilling spirits?
Jan: We were both successful on paper and had worked so hard towards those goals throughout our lives. But when we sat down and really thought about what success meant to us, we realized it was less about money and more about meaning. While we were on that camping trip, we sort of looked at each other and thought, “What are we doing with our lives?”
Marsh: Along with wanting to protect the ocean and the animals that inhabit it, we wanted to create a legacy business that we could potentially pass on to our kids. At the end of our trip, we decided to buy URL for Golden State Distillery. That really kicked everything off and four months later we sold our house and went all in on this crazy notion of becoming gin distillers.
J: We always joke that we started a booze company to make our daughters proud. But what’s really cool is that here we are four, almost five years later and they are really proud of the impact we’re having on ocean conservation, so we’re really happy with the decision we made.
Did you notice any similarities between your previous industries and the drinks space?
M: For me, it was all about storytelling. In the beginning, we listened twice as much as we spoke because we wanted to learn as much as we possibly could. As an actor and TV host, research was a fundamental part of my job. The spirits/distilling industry was completely new to us but we knew we wanted our gin to taste like the Pacific in a glass. Something that was casual and sophisticated at the same time. Jan actually came up with the reference of a tuxedo and vans, which perfectly described what we wanted Gray Whale to be.
J: It always comes back to one singular idea and something that resonates with people in a unique way. I think that was one advantage our previous “lives” provided us coming into this.
What’s your personal connection to the marine environment, and how did the philanthropic efforts of Gray Whale come about?
M: We live right on the beach so we’re in the ocean a lot and our daughters are both lifeguards, so it seemed only fitting to honor the beautiful gray whale that we had come to love. When looking for non-profits to partner with, Oceana stood out. Soon we began working with their director of marine biology change to tackle one of the biggest threats to the gray whales: drift gill fishing nets. In most states, these nets are banned so we looked into implementing a similar system in California. With the governor’s help, we are now proud to say that we were able to make a lasting legislative change that will keep these whales safe.
What sets Gray Whale’s botanical blend apart from other gins?
M: Despite using the one-shot distillation technique, our gin was never intended to be the “typical” gin. We’re not using the same botanicals as everyone else. Instead of outsourcing, we’ve gathered the best ingredients from California. The juniper we use comes from Big Sur and has much more of a cedar component than the piney flavors you’ll find in other juniper berries. We were also one of the brands to utilize sea kelp as a botanical. After having the opportunity to hand-forage a few different types, we settled on kombu because of its earthy and umami flavors that added a nice salinity quality. Our goal was to distill California in a glass and with these aromatics, you truly can taste your way along the pacific.
J: Kombu was actually one of the last ingredients we added. We were at a really good place with our taste when Marsh and I came back to our storyboard and decided we needed to have something from the water. That’s when we discovered the kombu and I’m so glad we did. It’s absolutely one of the most distinctive botanicals that we have.
How would you describe the flavor profile?
M: It’s extremely balanced — bitter, salty, earthy, umami, with just the right amount of sweetness. Having a bit of each [flavor] profile was a conscious decision in order to make it versatile for a range of cocktails.
J: It has won awards and experts have revered its taste, but one thing that we’re quite proud of is the response we’ve received from non-gin drinkers. People who are accustomed to drinking tequila or vodka are enjoying Gray Whale in a similar way, and that’s a cool thing.
What is your favorite way to enjoy Gray Whale Gin?
J: My favorite Gray Whale cocktail is the Whale Hello There, it’s 2 ounces Gray Whale Gin, half-ounce fresh lime juice, half-ounce fresh lemon juice, half-ounce agave syrup, shaken and poured over ice. It tastes like summer in a glass and is one of our most popular cocktails at our events.
M: My favorite way to drink it is a three-to-one ratio with Dolin Blanc and nice lemon peel garnish. I love the botanicals in Dolin and this ratio allows the flavors of Gray Whale to really shine and punch through.