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You &Yours Distilling Co.:A California spirit lover distills his passion into a business

Laura Johnson's story is not luck. It is not about perseverance through grueling trials. It's not even a story of massive success or breakthrough innovation, yet. Maybe it could be phrased one of these ways, but at 25, the majority of his story has yet to be written.

For now, we'll put it this way:Johnson's journey was hampered by a desire to have a career in an industry that wasn't particularly interested in giving him an entry point, let alone a roadmap to success. Johnson's story tells of her reluctance to let go of that feeling and the three years she spent coping with it.
Many of us have a snapshot in our heads that we can think back to when we internalized what would become our passion. Johnson has a literal photograph. In it, she stands outside the Havana Club distillery in Cuba, an 18-year-old girl on a father-daughter bonding trip before leaving home for college.
"I'm just radiant,” Johnson says of her expression in the photo. “It was the first time I was introduced to the process and the art of distillation.”
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It is normal for her to have physical evidence of this revelation. Many of us are lucky enough to hold onto a similar moment enough to translate it into a rewarding pastime. Johnson can take a look at this photo before heading to her office at You &Yours Distilling Co., the distillery she opened in downtown San Diego in March 2017.
Johnson grew up in suburban Dallas with what she calls "very relaxed parents." At the time of her trip with her father, it was still illegal for Americans to visit Cuba. The elder Johnsons never pointed out that alcohol was taboo. Johnson could be granted a small glass of wine or a sip of his mother's cocktail. “I grew up with a healthy, respectful relationship with alcohol,” she recalls.
High school parties have had the same ingredients for years:restless teenagers, a house owned by out-of-town town, an older brother eager to buy liquor, and a few 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 memory of the Havana Club distillery loomed large, begging d to be addressed. There would be more distillery visits over the next two years. She would attend the Wine and Spirit Education Trust wine education program as an upper class.
The same qualities that might have made her a little weird in high school were helping her forge an identity in middle school. She would infuse her own liquors in her apartment, and her cocktail repertoire grew.
“Whenever there was a party or celebration, my friends [were] always like, 'Laura, bring a big batch of cocktails. "That was my thing. »
Related: 5 Steps to Turning Your Passion into Your Profession
With college graduation, Johnson was reaching that point in life where society stops telling us what the next step is. It's liberating, obviously, but it can also be scary because this next move is not trivial. His passion for spirits had only grown and his degree could probably land him a job in finance, which could easily fund this hobby.
There is an interesting word. Leisure.
A little research on the Havana Club distillery reveals that to become a maestro del ron cubano (master of Cuban rum), it takes up to 15 years of training. Maybe it's myth-making in Havana, but the fact is, what Johnson saw in Cuba — which sparked something she couldn't shake — wasn't a band of people dedicated to a hobby.
How to get into the distilling industry? How do you even become qualified? Your guess is probably as good as Johnson's in 2014.
So after finishing college, she started school.
“I created my own distillery training plan” , Johnson explains looking back.
First it was an intensive week-long distillation program at Dry Fly Distilling in Spokane, Washington; a crash course in the industry:owning, operating and enabling a distillery.
She spent most of the next year traveling and researching, trying to balance her upbringing between craftsmanship and production. She knew she wouldn't learn enough in one place. The scary part of pursuing your passion is the uncertainty of what's next. The good part is that following your instincts becomes quite similar to following your interests.
“I immersed myself in the industry during this time,” says Johnson. “Any course, workshop, master class, apprenticeship, anything I could find, I just signed up and did it. ”
She returned to San Diego after a year of travel, looking for an entry-level position in Southern California distilleries. Even with all her new knowledge, she was flatly rejected or ignored by everyone she contacted. There were not enough distilleries looking to fill vacancies. And those who were, well, they weren't looking for her.
"You certainly don't think of me when you think of a production assistant or a distillation assistant," says Johnson. "It's more of a male-dominated field.
It was reality time. She was back where she was a year earlier with another perfect chance to play it safe. The possibility of distilling becoming a hobby is looming.
Related: 7 Ways to Persist When Everything About You Wants to Give Up
Instead, she looked inside and wondered what she was good at. “I know I can write a business plan and I have a bit of fundraising experience.” The answer was his own solution to his dilemma. "Let's go and do it myself." She worked tirelessly to develop a business plan for her own distillery. It wasn't just ambitious; it was specific. It was not unlimited; it was detailed and meticulous. What she didn't know about starting a business, she would turn to the internet. She used an online service to find a financial analyst in Canada who she had weekly Skype meetings with from her kitchen.
Then there was another workshop at the epicenter of distilled spirits in Louisville, Kentucky, nicknamed "Moonshine University". As she had done last year, Johnson consciously sought to make friends in the industry. But in Louisville, one name stood out. Don Rodgers spent 34 years working for Jim Beam, eight of them as corporate controller. Recently retired, he was a consultant for small distilleries.
Johnson was determined to land with Rodgers. She was persistent, sometimes begging him to look at her business plan. When Rodgers finally gave in, he was caught off guard by the level of planning and detail the 23-year-old had put into her vision.
Rodgers decided to team up with Johnson as a consultant. His involvement gave the company instant credibility. Within a month, she raised enough capital to meet her financial forecast. Johnson's southern accent needs work, but she makes an appealing and comedic impression of Rodgers' prediction for her idea.
"I don't know if it would work in Kentucky, but it would work in California."
The idea Johnson brought to Rodgers would eventually become You &Yours, California's first urban distillery, meaning it's located in an urban downtown neighborhood and open to the public. Such a concept does not exist in Los Angeles or San Francisco.
The two signature spirits are Y&Y Vodka, a tri-distillate product blending potatoes, American corn and California grapes; and Sunday Gin, which she describes as “fresh, juicy, bright” and befitting Southern California. The latter was always part of her vision.
“At the same time in my life that I was falling in love with distillation, I was falling in love with gin,” says Johnson.
She bristles at the thought of You &Yours as just an "artisanal distillery where everything is handmade with the finest ingredients." To her, this should all be a given, otherwise she wouldn't have opened it in the first place. She just wants her clients to feel like they can have a tough day there and enjoy each other's company.
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"All I'm saying is that when you drink our spirits or are in our tasting room, I hope you learn something thing, whether it's distilling or making spirits or the fermentation process, or just about each other, yourself or your partner. ”
Getting the company from inception to physical reality was a nearly three-year process. “I kind of passed out for a few years,” she says. "I was working non-stop. »

"It's been over three years, and I just did what I did all this work. »

Now that the distillery is open, that won't change. She runs the company, makes all final product decisions, and does research and development for all future products. Besides her, there is only one other full-time employee.
It took a risk for Johnson to enter the world of distillation. It took preparation and planning. It took luck and a lot of networking.
But then again, why frame any of these ways when you're doing what you love?
What's the risk when you've never seriously considered not taking that risk? Networking is much more authentic when dealing with what you love to do. Connections are not just business cards exchanged. Connections are times with those who share your interests.
Last July, Johnson finally started distilling on her own, still in her own factory. Positive comments poured in, sparking interest like club soda:Honors include being named 'Top 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 San Diego's hippest bars, and culinary site Eater named it one of the best — new or old — in town while nominating Johnson as a semi-finalist for its awards. Young Gun. Cocktail culture blog SuperCall hailed You &Yours for their tantalizing Instagram account.
"It's been over three years, and I just did what I did all that work," says Johnson.
Spirits are not Johnson's hobby. But if you drink them, she thinks you'd like to pass.
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This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.