Exploring Stark Distillery: How Two met for a Beer and ended up opening a Distillery

The mill snarls continuously as Greg Stark knife-in-hand severs 55 pound bags of barley. The weaved white sacks give like slicing into room temperature butter. It’s only 6:30 p.m. but with no moon in the sky it’s dark as midnight. One after another the sacks are slowly poured into the spout of the mill. In the daylight this Pasadena, California industrial park where Stark Distillery lies erupts with noise from Stark’s neighbors. Now the only noise is the piercing mill dulled only by earmuffs Stark wears. With the last bag poured Stark reaches into the spout, gleefully brushing his hand through the grains like a child toying with sand, grabs a few grains and tosses them into his mouth. His face swells with a large grin. The process of producing Stark’s whiskey has begun—something suggests it won’t be the last time you’d see him smiling.

Stark, a tall weighty man with a sooty white beard peppered with strands of gray, wasn’t keenly pursuing his title of master distiller throughout his life but he was preparing himself for the moniker nonetheless. Freetime in his past career as a software engineer predominantly consisted of brewing beer. By the time he and his partner opened Stark Distillery in 2014 his 30 year long hobby of beer brewing was showered with scores of home-brew beer awards. Even his partner and wife at the distillery, Karen Robinson-Stark, met him after overhearing from friends that Stark brewed fantastic beer.

“We met for a Sierra Nevada, this is back in the day when Sierra Nevada was still an actual microbrewery in Chico,” says Robinson-Stark.

Robinson-Stark, a short scarlet haired woman, at the time was interested in learning how to brew beer and a mutual friend recommended Stark. When she asked if Stark was a warm fellow the friend countered with, “Is santa claus an okay guy?”  

Though it wasn’t the Starks’ momentous goal to open a distillery after retiring, with their relationship beginning with a shared enjoyment of beer and spirits, it had an intuitive appeal.

Greg_checking Level 2 in the Hoga
Stark examines the wash inside his massive still that’s aptly named “Hoga.” Photo: Will Miller Jr.

The Distillery 

The Stark’s small, charming distillery is unassociated with most sprawling distilleries that splotch the rural parts of the United States. Rather than giant barns atop rolling hills, guests step inside the distillery and are greeted by one tall but compact workshop. All 1200 feet of it. 

The choices on the size and look of the distillery resembles the timing of the Starks’ opening. Prohibition laws on distilling were still in place in 2012, which is when they started planning. These draconian laws banned any California distillery to sell directly to guests, so unlike current distilleries being made, the Starks couldn’t plan for a tasting room with a full bar. Furthermore, as opposed to the aesthetic norms of modern distilleries, there wasn’t a need for a giant glass window guarding their bulbous stalagmite copper still that hugs one corner of the distillery. 

With such a small property the Starks utilize every inch, and most things appear portable to fit the needs of the day. The smaller gin still can be taken apart and moved, barrels are stacked to the ceiling and pallets of grain bags are piled in the driveway. 

Their office doubles as the tasting room and there’s just enough room for both to work smoothly.   A desk is in one corner while two armchairs and a table fit at the opposite end. On one bookshelf folders and documents are organized, and on another shelf lies books on distilling and Craft Spirit Competition medals wrapped around the Starks’ display bottles. 

The Tour 

As for the other spirits the Starks produce, guests can expect a tasting of all of them during their hour long tour. Hosted by Robinson-Stark the tour is fun and informal and she’s happy to oblige any questions or needs. 

 The attention to detail drips from each pour. A surefire example of this is their Peated Single Malt Whiskey. With a bold taste and a medium peat finish, this whiskey appeals to both Scotch lovers and to others who wince at the overbearing smoke of some scotches. 

Sunset skyline
The Skyline seen from the distillery\Photo: karen Robinson-Stark

Whiskeys, rums, gin, brandy, aquavit are among the other spirits during the tasting and all are worth a purchase. Robinson-Stark formulated their Skyline Gin that was named after the impressive sunsets seen at the distillery. The smell of the gin is peppery blast that is grounded with citrus, coriander and cumin, perfect for a spice-filled martini or gin bloody mary. 

Stark created his Aquavit as a homage to his Scandanavian background, in which shots of aquavit were taken during smorgasbords. The process of making aquavit is similar to gin, where juniper berries and other ingredients are infused with the alcohol through distillation, but instead of juniper berries being the forefront aroma, aquavit distinctly smells of caraway seeds and dill seeds. Though it’s traditionally taken as a shot, this aquavit is perfect for mixing into a cocktail and is enchantingly great in a Bee’s Knees. 

Stark Distillery is truly a unique experience. In a time when it’s less likely for the average distillery going guest to have a conversation with distillers and the owners, attendees get both. They hear the hours of work and the immense amount of attention in the spirits from the ones who know it the best. They might touch the peat that Stark uses for his aged whiskey. They can imagine the smell of citrus parading out of the palettes of oranges that are brought to make the Orange Brandy in their glass. And time after time, guests will see the Starks beaming with smiles. 

K_Oranges sm
one of the several pallets they scrub when making their brandy. Photo: Karen Robinson-Stark

Stark Distillery

Upon request they offer free tours and tastings  of their full catalog of spirits to guests on weekends.

Location:

1260 Lincoln Ave #1100, Pasadena, CA 91103

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