Trust Your Gut: An Interview with Laura Johnson

Originally published in Mazing Magazine, Issue 4.

In March 2017, founder and head distiller Laura Johnson cracked open the doors and uncorked the first bottles of specialty gin and vodka at You & Yours in East Village, San Diego. From the full production distillery just behind the bar to the marble-studded tasting room that might as well been dreamed up by an Architectural Digest contributor, it’s obvious Johnson’s not a fan of doing things halfway. Her destination distillery and killer online and offline aesthetics have won her interviews with Food & Wine and Imbibe, not to mention got her pegged for the Forbes “30 Under 30” list in 2018 – no biggie. Between the formulation of the latest summer tasting room menu and the release of her brand new canned cocktail collection, we caught up with Laura to talk origin stories, big dreams, and making the hustle happen.

KATHRYN SCHUYLER: WHAT DID YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU GREW UP?

LAURA JOHNSON: Oh gosh… so many things… Britney Spears’s back up dancer, a Food Network star, a fashion designer, a US Ambassador, President… I was all over the place! 

KS: TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR LOVE STORY WITH SPIRITS. HOW DID IT FIRST COME ABOUT?

LJ: I first visited a distillery the summer after high school and immediately fell in love with the process – specifically all the opportunities along it to make your own mark on the spirit, to impart flavor, etc.

KS: WHAT WAS THE DECIDING MOMENT WHEN YOU SAID, “I’M GOING TO DO IT. I’M GOING TO START MY OWN DISTILLERY”?

LJ: When I completed my first distilling course, the summer after graduating from USD.  I knew I had something to give the industry. 

KS: WHAT WERE SOME OF THE MAJOR STEPS YOU TOOK TO PREPARE YOURSELF TO MAKE IT HAPPEN? HOW DID YOU FEEL DURING THE PLANNING PHASES?

LJ: I joke that I blacked out for a couple of years, not from drinking, just from putting my head down and making it happen. It was a long and at times, frustrating, road but ultimately all worth it. The planning phase had its share of fun but also was somewhat isolating. Everyone kind of wishes you the best and tells you congrats, good luck, how cool!, but no one actually knows what goes into creating a business like this. 

KS: WHAT DID IT LOOK LIKE FOR YOU TO ASK FOR HELP?

LJ: I’m lucky to have a partner that I can fall back on with issues or other things I’m struggling with. He would always push me to ask for help when I was too stubborn to do so myself. 

KS: WHAT’S THE BIGGEST LESSON YOU LEARNED IN BRINGING YOUR BUSINESS TO LIFE?

LJ: No one cares about as much or knows your business as well as you do. Don’t underestimate the value you bring to it, just by being its creator. 

KS: HOW HAVE YOU MANAGED THE DAYS WHEN YOU FELT LIKE YOUR DREAM, YOUR PLAN, WAS IMPOSSIBLE?

LJ: I’ve never felt like that, to be completely honest. Road blocks are only road blocks if you let them be. 

KS: WHAT DO YOU THINK PEOPLE LOVE ABOUT Y&Y? WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT IT?

LJ:  I love that we are a hospitality company at our core. Our advantage, our unique angle, is the fact that we put equal thought and effort into not only the quality of our spirits but the quality of the experience as a whole. 

KS: WHEN IT COMES TO BUSINESS, HOW DO YOU MAKE CREATIVITY & PRACTICALITY PLAY NICE WITH EACH OTHER?

LJ: I have to rein myself in a bit in terms of product development, and also schedule time to be creative considering the zillion other things there are to do. It’s not in anyone’s best interest to release a thousand products. I have to remember that what we’ve already created is wonderful and to continue to focus on those spirits, rather than just R&D’ing constantly. I have to find other areas to be creative in as well. 

KS: WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR GOALS THIS YEAR? WHAT’S COMING DOWN THE PIPELINE?

LJ: Excited to bring our canned cocktails to life!

KS: IF YOU COULD GIVE A BUDDING ENTREPRENEUR YOUR TWO CENTS, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

LJ: Trust your gut! It’s the most valuable resource you have. And it’s free.