Photos by Asia Morris. The interior of Portuguese Bend Distilling at 300 The Promenade North shown during an unveiling Wednesday night.
Luis and Brenda Navarro, owners of popular Long Beach eateries Lola’s Mexican Cuisine and The Social List, have recently announced that they’ve taken on a third local endeavor, to open the city’s very first distillery in downtown, called Portuguese Bend.
“We’re treading into uncharted territory,” Luis Navarro told the Post. “With the experience that we have and knowing Long Beach and our customers and the community, we felt that it was the right time to do this.”
The couple didn’t have to search far for a name; the Portuguese Bend area of Palos Verdes was central to rum-running activity during Prohibition. Now frequented by hikers as the Portuguese Bend Reserve, smugglers would use the area’s caves and crevasses to store all kinds of spirits brought from Mexico, Canada and even New York.
The name itself derives from an Azorean shore whaler, José Machado, who brought the hunting practice to the coastline bend following the closure of the San Pedro Bay whaling station on Deadman’s Island around the 1860s, according to the Navarros’ research.
“We want to identify with Long Beach and Long Beach does have a history of alcohol, so we have some heritage,” said Simon Haxton, a friend of the Navarros, now a Portuguese Bend investor and “rocket scientist” distiller with a background in engineering. “Plus I’m one-eighth Portuguese, part of my family came here from Madeira, so it has a nice tie-in to our identity.”
As far as what will be distilled, Haxton said the program will start off with white spirits, including a couple of gins, then varying types of rum and American sour ryes and they’ll start putting the whiskey into barrels as soon as they can. Plans also include showcasing other little-known California distilleries.
Simon Haxton and Luis Navarro.
“We’ll have some things that basically reinvigorate some of the ways we used to make alcohol in this country before Prohibition,” Haxton said.
“We’ve been doing a lot of research, more or less for about three and a half years and everything we’ve done when we’ve gone to visit distilleries, [we’ve found that] nobody does it right, they’re always missing the food element,” Navarro said.
And that’s likely to no fault of their own. Up until 2006 only breweries and wineries were allowed to have a restaurant on the premise, said Haxton. And it wasn’t until the Craft Distiller’s Act (AB 1295) passed in 2015 that distillers could sell their product directly from their distillery. Now customers can purchase up to three bottles, and sip on tastings and cocktails onsite.
On top of the range of spirits to be produced future distillery patrons can also expect a full bar, a restaurant dubbed Willmore Yards Eatery serving 1920s-inspired American fare, cocktail-making and spirit acumen classes, a whiskey club and more.
The future design of the interior is sure to attract some attention on its own, as well. Michael Bohn, senior principal at Studio One Eleven, sister company to Retail Design Collaborative (RDC) whose massive 34,000-square-foot headquarters is adjoined to what will be the distillery, said the plan is to create a glass wall between their lobby on 3rd Street and Portuguese Bend, so both distillery patrons and RDC clients can get a good look at what’s going on while in either space.
“So the idea of office and retail become blurred, and that’s really what’s happening with the future of retail,” Bohn said. It’s also about ensuring that the North Promenade area be an activated space.
There’s also a vision to create a members-only speakeasy out of RDC’s second-story conference room, which Bohn says they call the Perch. Guests of Portuguese Bend will be able to enter through a mezzanine and walk through a secret door that connects both spaces, entering a room normally used for meetings during an RDC work day, to taste different spirits after dark as they look over its workplace.
An interior shot of what will be Portuguese Bend Distilling in 2018.
It's taken a village and over three years of research and development for the Portuguese Bend team to reach this point of unveiling their plans to the public, as well as potential investors, Navarro said.
“It seems like everybody’s really hungry for something like this,” Haxton said, referring to the support they’ve received from the Downtown Long Beach Alliance, developer of The Streets Tony Shooshani of Shooshani Developers and other city leaders and organizations. “We’ve been getting a lot of help and we appreciate it.”
And come January, Haxton and the Navarros are going to hit the ground running in a major effort to open the Portuguese Bend Tasting Room, Willmore Yards Eatery with Portuguese Bend Spirits in production to be sold onsite and through wholesale distribution by summer 2018.
Portuguese Bend will be located at 300 The Promenade North.