You & Yours Distilling Co.: A California Spirit Lover Distills Her Passion Into a Business
Laura Johnson’s story isn’t one of luck. It isn’t one of perseverance through grueling hardship. It isn’t even a story of massive success or groundbreaking innovation—not yet, that is. Perhaps it could be framed any of those ways, but at 25 years old, the majority of her story has yet to be written.
For now, we’ll tell it like this: Johnson’s journey was burdened by the desire to have a career in an industry that wasn’t particularly interested in giving her an entry point, much less a road map to success. Johnson’s story is about her reluctance to shake off that feeling and the three years she spent confronting it.
A lot of us have a snapshot in our heads that we can think back on as the moment we internalized what would become our passion. Johnson has a literal photograph. In it, she stands outside of the Havana Club distillery in Cuba, an 18-year-old girl on a father-daughter bonding trip before she would leave home for college.
“I’m just beaming,” Johnson says of her expression in the photo. “That was the first time I’d been introduced to the process and craft of distilling.”
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It’s fitting that she has physical evidence of this epiphany. Many of us are lucky to hold on to a similar moment tightly enough to translate it into a gratifying hobby. Johnson can take a look at that photo before she heads to her office at You & Yours Distilling Co., the distillery she opened in downtown San Diego in March 2017.
LINDSEY MARIE PHOTOGRAPHY
Johnson grew up in the suburbs of Dallas with what she calls “very relaxed parents.” At the time of her and her father’s trip it was still illegal for Americans to visit Cuba. The elder Johnsons never emphasized alcohol as taboo. Johnson might be granted a small glass of wine or a sip of her mom’s cocktail. “I grew up with a healthy, respectful relationship to alcohol,” she remembers.
High school parties have had the same ingredients for years: restless teenagers, a house owned by out-of-town parents, an older sibling willing to buy alcohol, and a couple of cases of the cheapest beer money can buy.
“Meanwhile, I’m raiding the liquor cabinet like, ‘Let’s make a cocktail!’ ” Johnson says with a laugh.
She left Texas to attend the University of San Diego, where she would study international business and economics, but the Havana Club distillery memory loomed, begging to be addressed. There would be more distillery tours in the next couple of years. She would participate in the Wine and Spirit Education Trust wine education program as an upperclassman.
The same qualities that might have made her a bit of an oddball in high school were helping her forge an identity in college. She would infuse her own liquors in her apartment, and her repertoire of cocktails was growing.
“Any time there was a party or a celebration, my friends [were] always like, ‘Laura, bring a big batch of cocktails.’ It was my thing.”
With college wrapping up, Johnson was reaching that point in life where society stops telling us what’s next. It’s liberating, obviously, but it can also be scary because that next move is not insignificant. Her passion for spirits had only grown, and her degree could probably land her a job in finance, which could conveniently fund that hobby.
There’s an interesting word. Hobby.
A bit of research on the Havana Club distillery reveals that to become a maestro del ron cubano (master of Cuban rum), one has to undergo up to 15 years of training. Perhaps that’s indulging in Havana mythmaking, but the point is that what Johnson saw in Cuba—what sparked something she couldn’t shake off—was not a group of people dedicated to a hobby.
How does one break into the distilling industry? How does one even become qualified? Your guess is probably as good as Johnson’s was in 2014.
So after completing college, she began her education.
“I created my own distillery education plan,” Johnson says, looking back.
First it was an intensive weeklong distilling program at Dry Fly Distilling in Spokane, Washington; a crash course on the industry: owning, operating and permitting a distillery.
She spent the better part of the next year traveling and researching, trying to strike a balance in her education between the craft and the production side. She knew she wouldn’t learn enough standing in one place. The scary part about chasing your passion is the uncertainty over where to turn next. The nice part is that following your instincts becomes pretty similar to following your interests.
“I immersed myself in the industry for that period of time,” Johnson says. “Any course, workshop, master class, apprenticeship, anything I could find, I just signed up for and did it.”
LINDSEY MARIE PHOTOGRAPHY
She returned to San Diego after that year of traveling, looking for an entry-level position at distilleries in Southern California. Even with all of her new knowledge, she was roundly rejected or ignored by anyone she reached out to. There weren’t enough distilleries that were looking to fill open positions. And the ones that were, well, they weren’t looking for her.
“You definitely don’t think of me when you think of a production assistant or a distilling assistant,” Johnson says. “It’s more so a male-dominated field.”
It was reality check time. She was back where she was a year earlier with another perfect opportunity to play it safe. The possibility of distilling becoming just a hobby was looming.
Instead, she looked inward and asked herself what she was good at. “I know I can write a business plan, and I have a little bit of fundraising background.” The answer was its own solution to her dilemma. “Let’s just go and do this myself.” She worked tirelessly to perfect a business plan for her own distillery. It wasn’t just ambitious; it was specific. It wasn’t open-ended; it was detailed and meticulous. What she didn’t know about starting a business she would turn to the internet for. She used an online service to find a financial analyst in Canada with whom she had weekly Skype meetings from her kitchen.
Then there was another workshop at the Distilled Spirits Epicenter in Louisville, Kentucky, nicknamed “Moonshine University.” As she had been doing the past year, Johnson consciously looked to make friends in the industry. But in Louisville, one name stood out. Don Rodgers spent 34 years working for Jim Beam, including eight as corporate controller. Recently retired, he was consulting for smaller distilleries.
Johnson was determined to land a sit-down with Rodgers. She was persistent, at times begging him to look at her business plan. When Rodgers finally relented, he was caught off-guard by the level of planning and detail this 23-year-old had put into her vision.
Rodgers decided to team up with Johnson as a consultant. His participation gave the venture instant credibility. Within a month, she raised enough capital to meet her financial predictions. Johnson’s Southern accent needs work, but she does an endearingly comical impression of Rodgers’ prediction for her idea.
“I don’t know if this would work in Kentucky, but it would work in California.”
The idea that Johnson brought to Rodgers would eventually become You & Yours, California’s first urban distillery, meaning it is located in a downtown urban neighborhood and open to the public. Such a concept doesn’t exist in Los Angeles or San Francisco.
The two signature spirits are Y&Y vodka, a three-distillate product blending potatoes, American corn and California grapes; and Sunday Gin, which she describes as “fresh, juicy, bright” and fitting for Southern California. The latter was always part of her vision.
“At the same time in my life that I was falling in love with distilling, I was falling in love with gin,” Johnson says.
She bristles at the notion of You & Yours as just a “craft distillery where everything is made by hand with the finest ingredients.” To her, all of that should be a given, or else she wouldn’t have opened it in the first place. She just wants her customers to feel like they can go there to get over a tough day and enjoy each other’s company.
“My whole thing is when you’re drinking our spirits or you’re in our tasting room, hopefully you learn something, whether that be about distilling or craft spirits or the fermentation process, or just about each other, yourself or your partner.”
Bringing the business from inception to physical reality was an almost three-year process. “I kind of blacked out for a couple years,” she says. “I was just working nonstop.”
“It’s been more than three years, and I’m just now doing what I went through all of this work to do.”
Now that the distillery’s open, that won’t change. She runs the business, makes all final product decisions, and does research and development for any future products. Other than herself, there is only one other full-time employee.
It took a risk for Johnson to step into the world of distilling. It took preparation and planning. It took luck and a lot of networking.
But again, why frame it any of those ways when you’re doing what you love?
What’s a risk when you never seriously considered not taking that risk? Networking is much more authentic when you’re dealing with what you love to do. Connections aren’t just swapped business cards. Connections are moments with those who share your interests.
Back in July, finally, Johnson started distilling on her own still in her own facility. The positive feedback has poured in, fizzing up interest like club soda: Honors include being named a “Best Local Spirit” by San Diego Magazine, “Where to Eat and Drink in San Diego Right Now” by Food & Wine and “one of the 14 Best Distilleries in the West” by Sunset magazine. Zagat called You & Yours one of the hottest bars in San Diego, and the culinary website Eater named it one of the best—new or old—in the city while naming Johnson a semifinalist for its Young Gun awards. The cocktail culture blog SuperCall has hailed You & Yours for its mouthwatering Instagram account.
“It’s been more than three years, and I’m just now doing what I went through all of this work to do,” Johnson says.
Spirits are not Johnson’s hobby. But if drinking them is yours, she thinks you’d enjoy stopping by.
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This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.