Meet the Head Distiller Who's Shaking up San Diego's Spirits Industry
More women are taking charge as head distillers, a role that’s historically been heavily lopsided towards men. 25-year-old Laura Johnson is one of them.
From Joy Spence to Marianne Barnes, more and more women are taking charge as professional distillers, a role that’s historically been heavily lopsided towards men. 25-year-old Laura Johnson is smack in the middle of the shift.
“I was lucky to find a passion early on. Not everyone is fortunate enough to find something that they really love and convinces them to pursue it,” says Johnson, owner and lead distiller at You & Yours Distilling Co. Her enthusiasm is infectious; young, fresh, and incredibly motivated, even construction delays couldn’t dampen her passion. Now, after two-and-a-half years, You & Yours opened for business in March 2017 in the heart of San Diego’s vibrantly developing East Village.
The tasting room and distillery sit on a busy corner in the rapidly changing neighborhood, sandwiched between luxury condos and blighted properties. Passersby are just as likely to be walking their purebred poodles as they are pushing a shopping cart. Still, the location suits Johnson.
“Other distilleries in the country are a little off the beaten path. I knew that I wanted to have this urban, downtown vibe and have it be a really organic piece of someone’s day.”
Inside, the attention to detail evokes an inviting feeling. Exquisite touches saturate every inch of the space: from the velvety emerald-hued couch lining the wall to the gray and aqua bar tiles.
“There’s not one nook or cranny that I haven’t had my hands in in this place,” confirms Johnson.
That intense scrutiny carries over to the spirits. With only two products so far — Y&Y Vodka and Sunday Gin — You & Yours is starting slow, but by no means stopping there. (Expect to see whiskey in the future.)
“Our vodka is 100 percent grape-based,” Johnson explains. “It’ll eventually be a blend of three distillates, but the grape has a lot of nice mouthfeel and nice texture to it, as well as a subtle floral quality, a little bit of fruitiness, and then tons of vanilla.”
She even charmingly corrects my tasting method during the flight, seemingly unconsciously.
“Give it a gentle swirl — you don’t want to just stick your nose into it like you do wine. It’s a lot higher proof, so you can actually burn the inside of your nostrils, which will throw off your palate. Then blow all the air out of your mouth — you want to get as much oxygen out of your mouth as possible and then take a sip. It softens the heat and the bite.”
Her American-style gin is more complex than the vodka, which comes as no surprise.
“It’s a modern, more elegant style of gin,” says Johnson. “It’s going to be more citrus-forward, thanks to grapefruit, Valencia orange, and some kaffir lime leaf. We have some dried rose hip in there, some fresh elderflower, a little bit of calendula, and then round it out with coriander, which is quite traditional in gin. It just brightens it up [and] emphasizes the grapefruit notes as well as gives it some nice depth and complexity. We finish it off with fresh mint, so it gives it a nice brightness.”
Despite her small portfolio, Johnson brings a refreshing innocence to the industry. She credits a tour of Cuba’s original Havana Club distillery after high school as her future career catalyst.
“I just remember being enthralled and fascinated — I couldn’t believe that’s how spirits were made. At the end [of the tour], they send you off with a little bit of rum and fresh-pressed cane juice that they’re doing right there in the distillery. You’re supposed to mix and drink it. I don’t know if I was just high on straight sugar cane, but I was just blissfully happy.”
After her seemingly auspicious start, it took years for Johnson to translate her zest for spirits into a profession. The push came from her longtime boyfriend (now business partner) Luke Mahoney, who signed her up for an intensive one-on-one Master Distiller’s course after college graduation.
“I literally got my diploma and got on a plane the next day,” laughs Johnson.
Her first distilling course wasn’t quite the experience she expected.
“[It] was led by these two older men who had retired, used their retirement money to start this distillery, and saw that they could make money teaching others how to do it. I was paying a thousand dollars a day to be there. I’d saved up this money to be there. And they took one look at me, laughed, and were like, ‘Oh cute, haha — you want to be a distiller!’”
Still determined to soak up all she could, Johnson shadowed their assistant distiller for the week and presented her “napkin status” business plan to the founders.
“They just ripped it to shreds,” admits Johnson. “They were like ‘you can’t be a great marketer and a great distiller.’”
Undeterred, she shot back, “F*** you, watch me.”
Now, she shrugs it off easily.
“I’ve had so much support and encouragement from males and females alike. As a whole, the industry is incredibly supportive. They are definitely the outliers.”
Despite barriers to entry into the so-called boy’s club, Johnson spent that first year traveling to distillery tours, taking classes, “Anything I could find,” says Johnson.
Her future clarified with the combination of two things, the first being another distilling course: Moonshine University in Louisville, Kentucky.
“The connections that I made there, the knowledge that I gained, and the confidence that I gained just reconfirmed everything. It was awesome,” she affirms.
The second was her refusal to be sidelined at the San Diego Distillers Guild meetings.
“I just kind of inserted myself and would show up to every single [meeting]. No one even batted an eye. No one introduced themselves. Everyone was just like ‘what are you doing here?’” says Johnson.
“But I just kept coming. I listened, I’d take notes, I’d ask what everyone was doing. It was so fun.”
Eventually she had the experience, drive, and vision — a trifecta of opportunity that sparked You & Yours.
“Little by little, I was just like ‘let’s do this. What’s stopping me?’ That wasn’t a decision that I made lightly or on a whim. It went back to that support system and Luke just being like ‘if not now, when? You’re 23 — you have nothing to lose.’ Now, two-and-a-half years later, it’s actually here! [gestures to the tasting room] It’s pretty amazing.”
Her advice to aspiring distillers?
“Ask a ton of questions, and start forming relationships. Travel when you can. I think if it’s a passion, don’t let it go. Also, I would definitely recommend, as much as your budget allows, to develop your palate. If you’re going out to bars and you’re always ordering the same IPA or the same vodka/soda, don’t. Try other things. See what you like and don’t like. Work on your palate vocabulary. Don’t take no for an answer.”
Check out You & Yours' Sunday Gin in this carrot cocktail recipe.