By Emily G. Peters
Stark Spirits is the first certified craft distillery of its kind in Pasadena. Its course to existence has been anything but smooth—but shares that characteristic resilience with its owners, Greg and Karen Stark.
“There’s just the two of us to run this distillery, and our products are entirely handcrafted,” said Karen Stark, who handles gin production while Greg oversees their artisanal rum, aquavit, whiskey and “Sunshine” orange brandy. “Our company motto is ‘The strength is in the character’ and has been since day one.”
That day was technically in 2013, but the Stark Spirits seed was planted decades before when Greg and Karen met by chance at a sandwich shop. “He was at the bar and noticed I had ordered a Sierra Nevada, which was still considered a microbrew at the time,” she said. “He ultimately invited me to a party of his beer club to learn how to make beer—and that was it.”
Fast-forward to present day and Stark Spirits has become emblematic of everything that’s great and galling about starting a business. Their products have made a splash in the craft spirits world, winning multiple medals and getting picked up by local sellers—albeit slowly. That’s where details matter: the “Sunshine” brandy is 100 percent oranges, no sugar added; the barrel-aged whiskey smoked with peat straight from Scotland. And when they say handcrafted, they mean it.
“There are no machines that do our work—we are completely traditional in our ingredients and the way we make our spirits,” said Karen, holding an oversized Mason jar containing her proprietary blend of grains, spices, and botanicals for Stark Spirits’ gin. “We grind our grain, measure our proof, juice our oranges—even the labels are pressed to the bottle by hand.”
Despite their burgeoning popularity, Stark Spirits has faced some community opposition, namely in blocking their ability to sell to visitors—which is legal in the state of California, but prohibited by The Lincoln Avenue Specific Plan. The plan exists to revitalize the area into a “vibrant, neighborhood-oriented” district, including space for retail and service businesses. To Karen, Stark Spirits aligns with that vision.
“I empathize with my neighbors’ desire to have a lovely, safe neighborhood. There’s concern about gentrification, and frankly so have I. But there’s nothing about Stark Spirits that interferes with that desire,” she said. “Stark Spirits is an asset to the area. People have come here from all over the world and the U.S. to see us. We can be the stepping stone to attracting others to create places for our neighbors to shop, go to restaurants and attend events right here [on Lincoln] instead of having to go to Old Town.”
For now, Stark Spirits can be found in limited supply at a few nearby liquor stores like Mission Wine & Spirits, Total Wine, and on the shelves of savvy restaurants and bars. As a small account with distributors, Stark Spirits’ sales are still rocky—but if we’re talking about spirits, Karen’s is indomitable.
“I got my first degree at 28, second at 32, and then my PhD as a single mother of two,” she explained. “I didn’t give up then—and we’re not giving up on Stark Spirits now.”
Stark Spirits is located at 1260 Lincoln Avenue, #1100 in Pasadena. To do a tasting, schedule a tour at www.starkspirits.com | (626) 798-1377 and follow their updates on Instagram and Facebook @starkspirits.