Work on yourself tirelessly — your confidence, your leadership skills, your steadfastness. Companies and products, big or small, will always benefit from having a leader who is mentally fit and emotionally intelligent. While you’re working on growing your company, don’t forget to invest in yourself as well.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Johnson.
With a passion for distilling, a natural talent for building and highlighting flavors, and her innate hospitality and business prowess, Laura is a strong voice and advocate in the spirits industry. Opened to the public in 2017, You & Yours Distilling Co. is California’s first urban destination distillery. With You & Yours, Laura strives to not only provide high-quality, transparent spirits made with sustainable practices and top-notch ingredients, but also a welcoming and enjoyable tasting experience for all, which she also felt was missing from the craft distilling industry as a whole. A line of canned cocktails became available at the end of 2018 and today all You & Yours products can be found not just behind the bar and in retailers in California, but also throughout the United States.
Since launching You & Yours in 2017, Laura has been named an Eater Young Gun (2018) and Forbes “30 Under 30” (2018), and has awarded by San Diego Magazine: ‘Best Local Spirit’ (2017–2019), ‘Best Distillery’ (2016–2020) and ‘Best of San Diego 2020’ for her canned cocktails. Laura has also become an invaluable resource and inspiration for other new small businesses looking to penetrate the beverage and hospitality industries.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
Though I mostly grew up in a few suburbs around Dallas, TX, we moved around quite a bit when I was younger. A different neighborhood / school district almost every other year or so until I was in high school due to moving a lot for either my parents’ business or my older brother’s budding golf career. Thanks to constantly having to make new friends and settle into different environments, I became quite independent and content with entertaining myself from a young age. I also grew up in a very entrepreneurial family, as mentioned. When I was younger, my mom and dad were growing their business and traveling a lot. Instead of getting me a sitter, they would just take me with them everywhere, which I’m so grateful for now. I saw a lot of the world by the time I was 18 and was very comfortable traveling alone. But the main thing I appreciate from how I grew up was the ability to hold conversations with adults from a very early age. I can remember always kind of feeling ahead of my peers, emotional maturity-wise and mentally. This all helped tremendously later on when I created a business plan and raised capital for You & Yours straight out of college.
You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
In October, I launched my Moonshine University scholarship program (a separate initiative from You & Yours Distilling Co.) where aspiring female distillers can apply to attend Moonshine University’s distinguished 6-Day Distiller Course in Louisville, Kentucky. I graduated from this same program in 2014 and it was without a doubt the best education I completed in my quest to become a distiller.
With females being a minority in the spirits industry, I wanted to encourage aspiring women who are enthusiastic in furthering their distilling education by offering them guidance to a career path that can be vague and challenging. I hope that by continuing to provide these types of opportunities, I can not only help females keep the momentum and growth of crafting high-quality products in the spirits industry, but also close the gap between males and females in the space.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
When I was fresh out of college and trying to find my way into this industry, I found it was extremely difficult to obtain the knowledge and experience necessary to become a distiller. Tack on the fact that I was a young female trying to get into a male-heavy line of work where there were very few took my ambitions seriously. Ever since, I’ve always wished that I had a mentor or some sort of “leg up” during that time in my career and have always said that when I was able to, I would be that “leg up” for someone in my place. The path to becoming a distiller is murky at best and I’m hoping that this education plays a vital role in that path for an aspiring female distiller.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I hate to say the pandemic, but it kind of was just the product of sitting down with myself and trying to think about ways that I could help during this time. And although it’s not necessarily pandemic relief-related, I thought “there’s no time like the present,” to finally launch this scholarship.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
Being a scholarship program, the steps to get started felt rather straightforward. First I connected with my contacts at the place of education, Moonshine University, to see if they had done something like this before and somewhat to my surprise, it hadn’t. That made it even more exciting to launch something like this. From there it was simply a matter of aligning my team, their team and our collective promotion efforts. The most difficult part has been selecting our first awardee!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
This year alone we’ve seen a lot of interesting things happen at You & Yours! We turned three this past March and once we hit June/July things started to finally feel like they were taking off. I think Covid played a part in that, seeing as canned cocktails have obviously skyrocketed in popularity thanks to the pandemic. Beyond that, we’re having a lot of conversations this year that feel more exciting and real than they have in years past.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
As mentioned briefly, the most difficult part — though not necessarily a mistake — has been the difficulty in choosing our first recipient. I just assumed the right candidate would stand out clearly, but we received some really really great applicants this first round.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
My final semester of college I had a professor who scheduled standing one-on-ones with each graduating student throughout the semester just to talk about our dreams and goals for our future. He encouraged us to think about what we wanted from life, not just career-wise, but what we really wanted from life as a whole and to imagine what that dream looked like without any constraints. That was a huge moment for me because I had all these reasons in my head NOT to try to start a distillery straight out of college but to him, it was like “well, why wouldn’t you?” and “what do you have to lose, Laura?” This is the same energy and motivation I want to give off to aspiring female distillers who are also looking to break into the industry!
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
We’ve only just announced our scholarship program so I don’t have much to share just yet, but I’ve been really touched at how many applicants have mentioned one way or another just how appreciative they are of this opportunity. Even if they’re not chosen, they’re encouraged to see this type of scholarship exist in this industry, which makes me feel extra proud to be able to offer it. I’m excited for readers to meet our first scholarship recipient, which we’ll be announcing on our social media soon.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- I would love to see state governments, particularly here in California, adjust labor laws so that we are more easily able to offer educational apprenticeships and internship programs. The current laws make it more difficult for employers (small businesses in particular) to offer these types of programs, especially when it comes to hiring people in largely educational capacities. I would love to be able to offer aspiring distillers the opportunity to learn our processes on a regular basis throughout the year, while still having the ability to reinvest in our business and further grow our company.
- A complete overhaul of the distribution rules and regulations related to liquor/high proof spirits at the federal and state levels. This is obviously a lot easier said than done, and I don’t necessarily know what the answers are but the enormous barriers to entry for small brands to break through the large liquor conglomerates of the world are doing a huge disservice to the growth of our industry and those aspiring to grow within it.
- I would love to see more distilleries and production facilities — especially the larger operations who have the means to do so — offer education programs like those available at Moonshine University.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Trust your instincts.
- Always call references. Making hiring decisions as a 23–24–25 year old when all the candidates are older than you is intimidating. I unfortunately allowed some people into the business during those first couple of years I really regret. People who didn’t have the best intentions and/or didn’t deserve to be there in those roles.
- Don’t make decisions from a place of desperation, only from a place of power — even if you have to fake it. So many examples, but especially when it comes to investors especially. You’d rather have no investors than ones who aren’t right for you and your vision.
- Own what you don’t know and don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help. Somewhere in the first year we had issues with our distilling equipment, specifically our electrical load and build out issues. I was in such a dark place, but finally forced myself to reach out to a fellow distiller in San Diego who was so happy to help. I didn’t expect that. Being the youngest, let alone the only female distiller, in the San Diego Guild, I was just so intent on proving myself. There’s no shame in asking for help. My stubbornness got the best of me for the last time there.
- Work on yourself tirelessly — your confidence, your leadership skills, your steadfastness. Companies and products, big or small, will always benefit from having a leader who is mentally fit and emotionally intelligent. While you’re working on growing your company, don’t forget to invest in yourself as well.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I simply think it’s so important to give back. When you’re in a place of power or in any capacity to do so, I think it’s our duty to follow through with paying it forward. No matter what point you’re at in your career or with your business, I always encourage you to ask yourself “what CAN I do?,” no matter how small the answer may be.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers can stay up to date on all things You & Yours Distilling Co. by following the brand on Instagram — @youandyourssd for local San Diego happenings and @youandyours for national updates — as well as my personal Instagram page at @laurakayjohnson!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!