With their Modern Love gins and vodka, Tony and Milena Hazell lean into the cocktail culture of Palm Springs, where they plan to open a distillery and tasting room.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NATE ABBOTT
The story of how Tony and Milena Hazell came to live in Palm Springs has a familiar ring: The Vancouver couple started vacationing here more than a decade ago, bought a home in Vista Las Palmas a few years later, and eventually moved in full time. “We fell in love with it,” Tony says. “We love the midcentury modern aesthetics, the indoor-outdoor living, the weather. We used to travel to Europe, but we haven’t gone back since we started coming here.”
The Hazells relocated their longtime business, Heritage Upholstery, which manufactures upholstery products for European classic cars, to Palm Springs. Now, it hums in an industrial space near the airport, shipping custom-made orders to clients around the world.
However, their work gave them little chance to interact much with other residents. “We’re kind of isolated with our business,” Milena explains. “We’re business owners, but we weren’t dealing with other local businesses, and we liked the idea of having a truly local business.”
They turned to booze — a no-brainer in a destination synonymous with cocktail culture.
“If you think of all the things we can sell, I thought, ‘Well, this is one I’m pretty certain will work here,’” Tony recalls. “It started with that thought, but we also know there’s a big movement worldwide for distilled spirits that are local.”
It’s a good time to be in gin, one of the fastest-growing categories in the spirits industry, driven in part by major players and small-batch makers offering niche versions. “There’s a huge movement around gin in particular, especially with younger people,” says Tony, a native of Wales. “In the U.K. last year, it outsold beer, and lots of countries that are not traditionally gin countries have become fanatics.”
Modern Love spirits are a salute to Palm Springs.
A longtime gin enthusiast, Tony knew what he liked and what he wanted to create, leaning toward what’s known as modern American or contemporary gins — which dial back the juniper and put more emphasis on other botanicals chosen by the producer, deviating from the classic London dry style synonymous with brands like Beefeater and Tanqueray.
Tony attended a distillers’ convention and gin summit in Portland, Oregon, in 2018 where he chatted up distillers from around the world, listened to industry speakers, and sampled educational tastings. “I was saying, ‘It’s day one. I know nothing, but I’m going to know more at the end of the day than I do now,’” he says. “I do enjoy jumping into the deep end and figuring it all out.”
Before they even began the process, the Hazells landed on a name for their business, The Palm Springs Spirits Co., and a brand for their liquor, Modern Love, an ode to their midcentury modern home and a painting with the same name that they bought at an Uptown Design District gallery and hung in their living room. They also hired a designer to create an eye-catching set of labels with colorful, gold-laced geometric circles, a nod to the 1960s mod vibe that prevails in the city.
Next, the Hazells spent five months on recipe development, consulting with master distillers out of Oregon, where they leased equipment and created their copper-pot distilled wheat-grain vodka, which serves as the base for their two gins: a flagship and a barrel-aged reserve. Both include a light amount of Tuscan juniper (to legally be considered gin, some amount of juniper must be used) and incorporate a different combination of botanicals like coriander, lavender, cassis, and orris root, along with the rinds of California citrus, including lemon, lime, orange, and grapefruit, some plucked from the Hazells’ own backyard.
“It’s like gourmet cooking,” Milena says. “You’ve got so many choices of botanicals and how much to use of each one.”
Modern Love gins dial back the juniper to emphasize other botanicals. The barrel-aged reserve makes a “killer” Negroni and Bee’s Knees, Tony Hazell says.
The barrel-aged reserve version, which is orange forward with notes of pink peppercorn, remained in oak pinot noir barrels and the distillery crew would send the Hazells samples to taste every few weeks. They decided it was right after almost 10 months, when the liquor was a little (but not too) oaky and had achieved a golden hue.
Batches of both gins and the vodka — enough for 9,000 bottles total — were sent to The Palm Springs Spirits Co.’s facility to be proofed, using reverse osmosis with Palm Springs’ mineral-rich city water, and later bottled and labeled.
While standard gins hover around 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol, the Hazells chose to go “hotter” with 45 percent alcohol. That’s a trend among small-batch makers, Tony says, using less water and more alcohol so that the actual gins and their distinctive flavors shine through in cocktails.
“Think of gin like wine,” Tony says. “That’s how many variations of gin there are. When you’re a gin person, you might say, ‘I kind of fancy one of these tonight, just like you might be in the mood for a rosé. Different gins go with different things. Our blue label is great for gin and tonics or the base of a martini, while our barrel-aged makes a killer Negroni and a killer Bee’s Knees.”
Earlier this year, Tony started visiting local venues, allowing owners and managers to sample his spirits. (He had met many of them early in the pandemic when he donated hand sanitizer that the Hazells’ facility produced to area businesses, nonprofits, and the police and fire departments,) Many of them immediately decided they were in. Modern Love’s spirits now sit behind the bar at plenty of Palm Springs venues including Workshop Kitchen + Bar, Bar Cecil, Jake’s, Johannes, Eight4Nine Restaurant & Lounge, Paul Bar, Rooster and the Pig, and 1501 Uptown Gastropub and are sold at retailers including Jensen’s, Total Wine and Spirits, and Las Palmas Liquor.
“I’ve always been a big proponent of supporting other local businesses,” says Tai Spendley, owner of Rooster and the Pig, where he’s been incorporating Modern Love spirits into recipes that will part of a new cocktail menu this fall. “Their brand aligns with ours since they built themselves from the ground up like we have. It’s also important that we actually love the product. It’s delicious.”
Since its launch, Modern Love has won industry awards in the United States and Europe, while also growing a local following. “You can tell that people genuinely like it,” Tony says. “It’s hard to fake that. We’re always excited about anyone who knows gin because we know it’s phenomenal.”
Next, Modern Love plans to create a line of to-go cocktails and produce a signature limoncello using locally grown fruit. (Palm Springs residents will be welcome to donate their excess lemons to make it a community project.)
Within the next year or two, the couple plans to break ground on a distillery and tasting room on North Palm Canyon. The design includes a firepit-dotted garden and rooftop deck for events. It will also offer tours to educate locals and visitors about the gin-making process.
In addition to creating a product they’re passionate about, the Hazells have achieved the goal of experiencing community camaraderie.
“We moved, left our home, left our country, and came here and wanted to find a way to connect with people and make new friends and kind of start over,” Milena says. “This has been a way to do that. If you’ve got to pick a business this is definitely a good one. It’s really fun. We love it.”