Desert Nectar

The first legal distillery in the Coachella Valley proves that research, faith, and a little luck can make a tasty cocktail.

July 1, 2016
desert distilling
John (seated) and Neil Lotz sample their own wares in front of their gleaming pot still.
DRINK

111 West

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Desert Distilling’s Small Batch Vodka is surprisingly smooth, with slight citrus notes, and maybe even a hint of caramel. It’s the kind of vodka you’d serve neat and on the rocks with just a twist of lemon or orange peel.

Thank heaven the Lotz brothers’ date vodka idea failed to bear fruit.

“We thought we were going to use fruits and dates and make vodka out of it,” says John, a San Diego native and theatrical lighting director who has made the desert home for the last decade. “Nobody else was doing it. We did the first batch of dates [and] it came out beautiful. The next batch … totally ruined. Come to find out, [stone] fruits are hardest because it takes so long to ferment.”

More important, John and his brother and partner, Neil, a mechanical engineer, found that a date pit “is poisonous.”

Oops.

desert distilling

Steam is used to heat everything in the giant cooking pots.

To say the brothers Lotz started from scratch in their Palm Desert likker bidness is putting it mildly. There was no Harlan County moonshining legacy behind their decision about six years ago to look into the craft distilling movement taking root around the country, but particularly in California. Being inventive, inquisitive guys, they did a little research and began to experiment. Like the date vodka, there were missteps, such as the time they tried to ferment a treeload of tangerines with some yeast and sugar in an 8-gallon bucket. What they got was a veritable tower of mash that might have yielded half a jar of spirit.

They enrolled in classes, one of which was put on by Kothe Distilling, a German still manufacturer, that cost $1,400 per week per student, but “they take you through all the laws,” says Neil, “[and] teach you the basics of how to run a distillery without losing your butt.”

In 2013, the brothers found their present location in an upscale industrial park on Gateway Drive in Palm Desert and began the slow, methodical, and staggeringly expensive creation of Desert Distilling.

desert distilling

Desert Distilling’s spirits are unique for their subtle, herbaceous notes.

John and Neil talk with tremendous pride about every piece of gleaming machinery on the distillery floor. While the right side of their brains were experimenting with coriander, juniper, and orange peel to infuse their vodka, gin, and rum with ethereal, herbaceous hints, the left side of their collective brain was obsessively researching the most efficient and cost-effective machinery to make the magic.

Walking over to what looks likes a gigantic pressure cooker (which it is, essentially), John explains the basic process. “We’re a flour-in distillery,” he explains. “We take the flour, grind it up, put it in our mash tun here, which is nothing but a giant cooking pot that has a steam jacket on the bottom. We use steam to heat everything so we don’t have a problem with fire. Once you get into the higher proofs and you have an open flame … boom!”

Into the mash the brothers add enzymes that break down the starches and convert them to sugar. The mash is eventually cooled, yeast is added, and the concoction ferments. Eventually, a Slurpee-like liquid is pumped into a giant pot still. As students of the great American tradition of moonshining no doubt know, the fermented mash in the pot still is heated up, and as the steam rises, it is channeled through a chilled coil and the collected liquid is alcohol. The Lotzes’ process is incalculably more involved (and safer) than anything you’d find in the hills of West Virginia.

Reverse osmosis reduces the powerful elixir by half — from 190 to 80 proof. It’s cooled to 4 degrees Fahrenheit, carbon filtered, and then forced through 22 filter plates. If vodka flowed from a glacier, it might be as pure as what the Lotz brothers are creating.

The Lotzes were up to their necks 
in debt, their credit cards were maxed out, and there was no one to whom they could legally sell their 
growing stock. At one point, Neil sold his truck to keep creditors at bay.

Earlier this year, they struck a deal with a small San Diego-based distributor to supply their vodka and rum to some of the better restaurants and markets (locally, Jensen’s). Thanks to the California Craft Distillers Act of 2015 that went into effect this year, they’re able to sell three bottles (750 ml) per customer from the distillery’s showroom.

Until Gov. Jerry Brown signed that legislation last year, the Lotz brothers weren’t sure their enterprise would ever come to fruition. Three years ago when they started out, there was a lot of momentum for just such legislation, and many other states had adopted it.

So it was somewhat of a shock when the original craft distilling bill failed to pass a couple years ago. The Lotzes were up to their necks in debt, their credit cards were maxed out, and there was no one to whom they could legally sell their growing stock. At one point, Neil sold his truck to keep creditors at bay.

Now that they are nearing their break-even goal of selling 60 to 80 cases per month (the new law allows craft distillers to produce as many as 100,000 gallons per fiscal year), they can relax a bit and focus their energies on the next steps, such as marketing.

John displays the simple, elegant Desert Distilling Original Vodka with its classy glass stopper. “The people who were making the labels had put something like ‘plain vodka’ and Neil asked them if they could put something more original on the label … so they put ‘Original Vodka.’

Neil laughs. “We saw it and we thought, ‘Mmm. That works.’”