We had the good fortune of connecting with Paul Chakalian and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Paul, how did you come up with the idea for your business?
In 2010, I moved from Los Angeles to Olympia, Washington for college. In Washington, I was quickly schooled in the talent of craft beverage appreciation. I soon realized that everything I thought I knew about common food items, like coffee or beer, was wrong. There was a greener pasture, a whole other world of exquisite beverage experiences that awaited my discovery. The space between Seattle and Portland was my Mecca for small batch craft products, each one more interesting, more rewarding than the last. My pursuit of high-quality original food and beverage experiences was born there.
Unfortunately, my enjoyment of craft alcohol was short lived. After months of deteriorating health, in 2011, and only to prove my parents wrong, I stopped eating gluten and dairy. I was sure the gluten-free dairy-free diet they had me on as a child was some nonscientific LA nonsense. As it turned out, they were right. My new diet improved my health drastically, but cut me off from my new craft beer appreciation just as it was developing. It was at this time, that I turned to spirits—things like like vodka, gin, whiskey, brandy, tequila, etc.. However, I quickly realized that this wonderful world of craft food and beverages that I had been living in didn’t extend to spirits. Spirits didn’t have craft options. There were no craft brands, no small batch products I could find. Where were the local experimental new wave spirits?
Realizing the obvious market opportunity, I seriously considered opening a craft distillery right there and then, originally slated for a location in Tacoma, WA. As sure as I knew the sun would come up tomorrow, I knew craft spirits were going to be the next big thing for craft beverages. Ultimately, I left it up to fate: if I got accepted to grad school, I would do that, if I didn’t, I would try my hand at opening a distillery. As it turned out, I was accepted to graduate school. Academia dominated my life for the next nine years as I went from a masters program to a PhD to a research job with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Along my academic journey, I learned how to distill as a hobby, mostly from a friend who learned themselves in a frat house in Missouri. Nothing craft about it for him, just an easy way to make supply the frat parties! Of course, I saw a different potential. In 2019, I decided I wanted a career change. I had been frequently coming to the Joshua Tree, CA area since 2004, when my father, Ralph Chakalian, purchased an old homestead here in Flamingo Heights. I helped him and my uncle tear the place down to the studs and rebuild it. Over the years, I watched as the towns around Joshua Tree grew—quite dramatically. Eventually, I found myself hiking through the park, through fields of California Juniper, thinking about making gin, and that’s when it clicked. This would be the perfect location for a craft distillery. The local artistic culture here was totally unique, completely magical, and I wanted my business to be the same way. There was no one else doing it, and the more I researched the idea, the more I thought it had legs.
I really liked that Joshua Tree, and the surrounding communities near it, were small towns. Everyone knew each other. My father had lots of friends, who had other friends and family in the area. There was a lot of support. Throughout my academic career, I always liked working closely with city governments, local nonprofits, and other community organizations. I like living and working somewhere where I feel like I could actually make an impact, and where I know the people I’m interacting with. I felt like this area could really benefit from, and appreciate, a local company that not only created goods and some jobs, but gave us something to identify with, somewhere to meet for celebrations or community meetings, something to sponsor local events, or donate to causes, a company and a brand that could try and do some good and get involved and really help enable and propel all the wonderful culture that was already here.
What should our readers know about your business?
We’re a small family-owned business with big ambitions. I’ve really leaned on my family and close friends to help build Joshua Tree Distilling Company. I had a vision for what I wanted this company to be—a brand that people could identify with, that could uplift our customers, our industry, and our business partners, and that could make a long-term deep positive impact. Something like that takes more work, more insight, and more experience than any one person could ever have. So, I focused on building a team that could really make my vision into something amazing.
To start, my parents’ previous small business experience is a constant source of support, from the trivial to the most important decisions, they’re decades of experience are an invaluable resource. Through them, I was fortunate enough to be connected with an amazing lawyer and entrepreneurial advisor—Ara Babaian—who has been helping build out the company’s legal presence and guide its strategic vision from an organizational perspective. Our business advisor, Doug Heckmann, was also connected to me through my father: they lived in the same apartment and met at a tenants barbecue. Doug turned out to have helped establish his own distillery nearly a decade ago, and after a few discussions, was happy to jump on board this new project. Doug’s industry knowledge and general business insight has been a huge asset. Most visibly, my first cousin, good friend, and now coworker, Sara Goehner, has done all of our design and been an incredible collaborator. Sara has not only produced extraordinary designs, but her years of marketing experience have been an unparalleled resource. When it comes to actually getting the work done, our products wouldn’t be what they are without the shrewd input of my longtime friend Keith Anderson.
While we have big goals, at our core, we’re a small group of family and friends trying hard to make something great and share it with the world. I think our combination of teamwork, drive, and passion really sets us apart from other businesses.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
This is about Yucca Valley/Joshua Tree? That’s a hard question to answer. Ask me about New York City and I’ll make you a minute by minute itinerary across at least four boroughs. Joshua Tree . . . isn’t quite the same way. Of course, the national park is amazing, and everyone should spend some time in it. Climb on jumbo rocks, go see inspiration peak, get to know the local flora and fauna. Besides the park, there are so many incredible experiences you can have, but many of them are ad hoc, organic sort of happenings that don’t have hours listed on Google. You need to spend some time here to plug in, but once you do, you’ll discover an amazing wealth of artistic expression, kind and interesting people, and opportunities to experience life in new magical ways. If my best friend was visiting, I would take them to some abandoned mines, I would camp on BLM land, I would hike Eureka Peak, I would take them to whatever music was happening wherever it was happening, and I might show them a few other desert gems that I can’t include in this article.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I’ve had huge help and support from my parents, all of whom have owned and operated small businesses their whole lives: Ralph Chakalian, Dina Amado, and David Amado. I also learned a great deal about how to be an effective team member, leader, and general professional from my PhD co-advisor Dr. David Hondula. Day-to-day, I don’t know what I would do without my good friend and co-owner Keith Anderson. Keith’s commitment to high quality production lives deep in his bones, and his ability to discern great from good is unrivaled. I’ve been very lucky to work with someone who has as much drive, and as much willingness to learn new things as myself during our startup years.