The world’s first nomadic distillery is on a quest to rethink the way we produce alcohol.
Bottles of Four Thieves and Basilisk’s Breath have been flying off the (virtual) shelves at Los Angeles distillery Amass. So great is the demand that a third edition, the equally tantalisingly-named Pseudo Citrine, with notes of lemon, vetiver and sandalwood, was launched. Despite the same high-proof (70 per cent) alcohol that’s also used to make the company’s gin, however, these bestsellers aren’t what you think – they’re hand sanitisers.
These vials are the creation of master distiller Morgan McLachlan, who was feeling vulnerable in the face of Covid-19 while pregnant earlier this year. “We developed the textures and aromas to be pleasant, and to have a calming, uplifting quality because people need this right now,” she says.
McLachlan brings this same intuitive approach to her work on Amass, which launched last year and bills itself as the world’s first nomadic distillery. This means that although it’s based in Los Angeles, its creative team moves globally, collaborating with different distillers to create gins that reflect diverse creative, cultural and geographical contexts. Its debut product, the Amass Dry Gin, is a fitting – and impressive – paean to Californian terroir and LA’s vibrant multicultural communities.
Crafted in small batches in a copper pot still, the gin features a prodigious number of botanicals – 29 to be exact – that include several indigenous ones like California bay, citrus and cascara sagrada, a local herb. Hibiscus, cardamom and ginger allude to California’s rich cultural tapestry, while the oh-so-LA adaptogenic additions of ashwagandha, reishi mushroom and lion’s mane mushroom provide subtle, earthy, umami notes.
Amass has a “grower-to-glass” approach that uses sustainably-grown, nonGMO ingredients of which key botanicals are grown particularly close to home. “I’m looking at the tree our bay leaves come from right now,” says McLachlan during our call, adding that her lush backyard in LA’s Echo Park neighbourhood also supplies the gin’s rosemary, lemon and grapefruit.
“It’s a gin with a very big personality,” says McLachlan, who worked as a camera operator in Hollywood before her distilling days, and describes herself diametrically as a “punk rock distiller” and a formalist who knows distilling conventions like the back of her hand.
It explains why, despite its idiosyncratic profile, Amass Dry Gin – the first American gin to be picked up by the renowned American Bar in London’s Savoy Hotel – plays well in classics like a negroni or the Gibson. It’s also good in experimental mixers. A series of weeklong collaborations starring the gin kicked off here last month at Junior The Pocket Bar, where it was paired with genmaichainfused vermouth, sparkling sake and grapefruit bitters in a bamboo cocktail.
Earlier this year, Amass released its first vodka, which was distilled in Copenhagen and uses an Aquavit still to create a light, elegant spirit with marigold, chamomile and lemon notes. It will continue its botanical-focused approach with a nonalcoholic gin that will be due in time for the holidays, and which McLachlan says will invoke the “primordial rain, cedar trees and incredible wildness” of Sooke, a village on Southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Also imminent: a low-alcohol aperitif and a range of botanical hair and body products.
Meanwhile, Amass is looking abroad for its next collaboration once Covid-19 restrictions ease, with possible candidates including Kyoto and Cambodia, where it’s eyeing a rum distillery. Until then, McLachlan is using her Covid-enforced downtime to experiment with tricky ingredients like vetiver (common in perfumes, less so in spirits) and turmeric, which she says “has an earthiness that’s very hard to capture in alcohol form”.
But breaking the rules has never fazed McLachlan, who’s part of an ongoing gin renaissance in which distillers are getting creative and experimenting. “It’s a balance between [alcohol] auteurship and creating a gin that’s multidimensional and evokes different aspects of the flavour spectrum. It’s good to know the rules before you break them. So you know exactly why you’re breaking them.”