The Spirit Guild


The Spirit Guild

Photos: Mike Selsky
Words: Adam Johnston

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

There are not that many proud hipsters like there are proud Marines or proud Trump supporters. Like racists, hipsters are the rare population where you don’t as much identify with as you are informed you are one. It's strange — no cardcarrying members, no manifestos, no guilt beyond the occasional game of charades we call gentrification — because they won.

One of the signs or legacies of any dominant culture is manifested in new language, in words and phrases once unfamiliar to the tongue but now we couldn’t imagine living without. Among the ironies of a population that has been largely defined by its irony is that hipsters helped popularize a sincere concept, something productive, something we could build an industry around: farm to table. You know where your food comes from because you saw some pictures and read some words.

Miller Duvall and Morgan McLachlan are the couple behind the Spirit Guild, a distillery based in Los Angeles. Together with their friend Max they produce gin and vodka distilled from clementine oranges grown on Miller’s family farm, the Rio Bravo Ranch along the Kern River just outside of Bakersfield. There is some fascinating history and botany and biography a little less laziness would allow me to tell but suffice to say they have a nice little operation going on there.

Up in Berkeley, Alice Waters gave the world farm to table, and now Spirit Guild offers farm to glass. Sometimes copy writes itself. But it’s not that simple. It presupposes a linear line, from the water to the fruit to the still to the drink. Yet consider the Rio Bravo Ranch: farmland, once ranchland, with water rights to the river running through it. It only exists because of the Kern, its water pumped up to a high pool, then dispersed amongst the fruit trees via drip irrigation and gravity. The pumps that power the drips are in turn powered by a large solar array, a miracle of technology that looks exactly like the future.

So you’re creating a nature and taking from it, then creating technologies that take from it and create more nature. Like tributes taken from peasant to king, from country to city, feeding the city, with the city protecting the country so it can make more for the city. Not a straight line, but a circle. Is history a straight line or is it a circle? Yes, the liquor consumes water. Sure it takes, but it gives too, and hey that’s California. You could sell the land if the price is right or develop the land if the timing is right, or you could look back to what the land meant before. What purpose it served. What it gave. You could make agriculture local and relevant and valuable; it always has been. These ideas are really old. Same as it ever was.

Back in LA, Morgan and Miller and Max distill the citrus inside an anonymous barrel vaulted structure in the Arts District. This industrial neighborhood is white hot; think Williamsburg in the early part of this century, with LA being so LA: Blue Bottle! Fashion bloggers! Gluten free options! But this long stretch of low slung buildings cut by the concrete LA River was once a blanket of vineyards fed by a winding mess of water that gave birth to this city of ours. History is a circle. Farm to table, farm to glass. It’s a catchphrase, it’s a cliché, it’s complicated. But it’s also a truth. People caring about where their food comes from is here to stay, as Miller told me over Modelos.

There among the shining machines working their clear magic you can feel a purity of process that brings you back to beginning. Picture yourself driving through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, hills like a sun bleached Windows desktop with the chalk lines of cattle trail tracings from another, older California. The orchards appear over the last hill, an island of green in a rolling sea of brown. Among the lines of clementines, rabbits and roadrunners race underfoot. Silence, only a crow’s caw and a camera shutter. There are things you don’t know the names for, but you know they’re beautiful. It is the golden hour, and it keeps giving.

After I’m gone, after Trump’s gone, after the hipsters are gone, there will still be people who need a drink. I like to think there will still be water flowing down the Kern and there will still be California and there will still be Astral Pacific Gin. One could do worse than be a maker of booze.


More Spirit Guild over on their website.