Morgan McLachlan, Founder and Master Distiller, Amass


"I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, which left me with an interest in nature and botany. I just feel really at peace in nature. That being said, I come from a family of artists—my grandfather is an artist, my uncle is an artist, my father is a cinematographer. I always thought that I would follow in their footsteps, and I actually did. I worked in the film business for about a decade, shooting music videos and indie films. I discovered my interest in spirits when I was living in the Czech Republic working on a research project. The Czech Republic is known for absinthe, but traditionally the smaller producers in the region make what you’d call schnapps. That turned me on to this idea that every area has its own regional spirit tradition. You know, like if your friend goes to Mexico, they’ll probably drink mezcal or tequila. If they go to Scotland they might drink scotch.

The career switch happened when I moved to southern California. I fell in love with the landscape down here—it has very beautiful and diverse terrain, and there are a lot of microclimates. I started thinking, well, what would a regional spirit from California be like? My interest in botany brought me to gin, because gin is really an expression and celebration of botanicals. There’s a little bit of cognitive dissonance when I say Los Angeles gin because I think we associate gin more with British drinking culture. Twenty years ago, basically the only gin you could get was Beefeater, Tanqueray, Seagrams, Bombay Sapphire… you know, London dry gin. Most gins have maybe a third of the number of botanicals that Amass includes, which makes it taste very different. It’s really like perfumery—you’re adding base notes and top notes, and they all need to serve a purpose in taste, and mouth feel, and finish of the gin.

My interest in botany brought me to gin, because gin is really an expression and celebration of botanicals.

As a camerawoman I knew that I had an aptitude for technical things. Film and distilling are actually similar in that they’re both trade professions, and I wasn’t intimidated by the idea of learning a new trade. There aren’t really places where you can study distilling, so I took a lot of trips to the library and did a lot of online research to learn the genres and rules of thumb. Eventually I ended up building a still. It’s hard, and it was a lot of trial and error, but I taught myself how to make all sorts of things. I put a few of them out there, and brands started approaching me to develop spirits for them. By the time I started working on Amass nearly a decade later, I had developed a number of gins and kind of had my technique figured out. From inception to completion the gin probably took about a year. Our vodka launched about a year ago, and now we’re working on botanical hard seltzers, non-alcoholic drinks, and an aperitivo. We’re also expanding into personal care products.

When I tell people I make personal care products and booze, they're like ‘Huh?’ But there’s really a lot of crossover. The way that I conceptualize Amass is in terms of modern ritual. Social ritual is our drinks, and our personal care products would fall under personal ritual. COVID forced my hand in starting on the products. I was seven months pregnant and getting on a plane, and I couldn’t find hand sanitizer in any stores—this was in February, when it was hard to get. I already knew how to make hand sanitizer from my time in the distillery, so I just made some for myself. My business partner suggested we make some commercially to see if anyone wanted it, and it ended up taking off. I’m not making eye cream or anything. But rather personal care products with aromatic botanical experiences to add to your rituals.

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The cool thing about spirits is that everybody has their own preferences. I personally like fairly simple cocktails, and I think that’s actually best for the home bartender. Our gin makes a wonderful gin and tonic. The gin and vodka together make a wonderful vesper martini, which is a combination of gin, vodka, lillet, and the zest of a lemon. That’s what James Bond famously drank in the movies—it’s an elegant, lighter martini. A negroni is a boozier home cocktail, and it’s great because the recipe is so simple. It’s equal parts gin, campari, and sweet vermouth. I usually try to keep it simple for the home bar, but I’ll always have those things. There is a wonderful store here in Los Angeles called Bar Keeper that I buy a lot of my barware from, and online there’s a store called Cocktail Kingdom that I like. They have beautiful barware too.

My skincare routine is fairly rudimentary, and it’s taken me a long time to dial in what’s good for me. In the morning I start with Milky Jelly Cleanser. I have combination skin, and I find that it gives me a very thorough cleanse without drying my skin. It’s sort of a better Cetaphil. And then I use a rose water toner from Fresh, which is very hydrating. The Ordinary Niacinamide serum is next, which has a nice, hydrating feel to it as well. If I’m staying in I’ll moisturize with Embryolisse, but if I’m going out, Cetaphil has a moisturizer with SPF that’s great. At night I start the same way—Milky Jelly, toner. Then I alternate between treatment products. The Ordinary has a 7% Glycolic Acid Toner, and I’ll either use that or Nancy K. Brown’s Aloe Vera toner. It’s a Canadian brand I discovered through my mom 15 years ago—they have beautiful, natural products, and you can buy them online. Depending on how tired I am, I might also put on this moisturizing mask from Embryolisse on top of everything. If I’m feeling really indulgent I might use a Neutrogena Hydro Boost Overnight Mask. When I use that, my skin is super dewy and fresh in the morning.

As I get older I actually wear less and less makeup. I think in a funny way, as our skin ages, makeup becomes more noticeable. I’m also just really bad at putting it on. My joke is that I put on makeup for the hard of seeing—I can’t put on makeup without looking like Donatella Versace. I do wear mascara, either the Dior one or the L’Oréal Voluminous X Fiber, which is the one I really love. I think it’s new.

I think in a funny way, as our skin ages, makeup becomes more noticeable.

My hair is ridiculously low maintenance. Davines Melu shampoo and conditioner, a little bit of It’s A 10 detangler… and a lot of the time I fall asleep with my hair wet. Now that I have a baby, I shower at night after he goes to bed. I have a lot of hair but it’s all very fine, and my natural texture is slightly wavy so when I sleep with it wet, I end up with beach waves. I actually have a funny story about my hair. Once I was in Vegas for a girlfriend’s bachelorette party, and the 12 women I was with all wanted to do that thing where you drink champagne and get ready for hours. I didn’t do my hair, just because I’m bad at it. And then we went out to a nightclub. My hair was really long at the time, and I must have been standing near a candle—it just caught fire! If I had done my hair, with hairspray and all that, I would have been in the hospital. So, I guess that’s an upside! [Laughs]

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I’ve been getting blonde highlights for probably about five or six years now because I think people find me less threatening as a blonde. I get those done at a salon called Perry McGrath that’s near my house. I use purple shampoo to tone the blonde from time to time, but I find what actually works best is a bit of Punky Colour or Manic Panic purple mixed into conditioner. I find it’s less harsh on my hair.

I’ve always taken a lot of baths—I feel like my natural habitat would be a hot spring. But having a little baby is hard on your back, and baths help me relax. Plus we’re coming out with a line of bath salts, so I’ve been taking more baths than usual to test the products. The first one that’s coming out is called Forest Bath. It’s a combination of a lot of different types of mineral salts and it’s fragranced with coniferous essential oils of fir, spruce, cedarwood, and a bunch of others. Honestly I just wanted something that smelled like the woods where I grew up. It’s a very therapeutic bath. Other than that, the L'Occitane lavender bath is divine. They also make a milk bath that’s incredible. I’m a fan of body oil instead of moisturizers, and usually I make one myself with sesame oil, a little bit of apricot kernel oil, sweet almond oil, and some essential oil concoction. It’s another old classic, but I really love the Aveda body oil, too.

I’ve always taken a lot of baths—I feel like my natural habitat would be a hot spring.

As a distiller I’m working with my hands a lot and also with high proof alcohol. The thing about high proof alcohol is it takes nail enamel off your nails, so the only way that I could have a nice manicure is if I did gel nails. That’s what I did before COVID. Now, with COVID and a baby, all I really do is massage some apricot kernel oil into my nail beds and cuticles. The one thing that has been an absolute miracle game-changer for my nails is collagen hydrolysate. I started taking it for overall health, but the byproduct was that my nails got really strong and long. People started asking me if they were artificial. I get that from Great Lakes Gelatin, and it’s not vegan. I’m also a big fan of omega-3, which obviously comes from fish. Omega-3 has really great benefits for your brain, and it also helps with my mood and mellows me out. But I’ve also noticed that when I’m taking a significant amount of omega-3, my skin is so much better. I buy jars of fish oil from Carlson, and I just drink it. They have a lemon flavored one and it’s not that bad. And finally, I take prenatal vitamins all year round. Prenatal vitamins have pretty high levels of vitamin B which is why I like them—it really helps with mood and cognition. I take some from Ancient Nutrition that I got at Whole Foods. I work full time and have a baby full time, so I just want to make sure that I’m getting all the basic nutrients that I need.

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Meditation is the main thing that keeps me straight. I started studying meditation about 20 years ago. I normally do a 15 to 20 minute long meditation that I just sort of personalize. I think apps are great, but for anyone interested in mediation I really recommend this shivananda guide to meditation. It gives a really good introduction. I think what goes into our minds is truly as important as what we put into our bodies—if not more important. So meditating is kind of like being on a healthy diet. For me, it’s a way of being self-aware and detoxing the negative thought patterns which we all, as human beings, are kind of wired for. It's something that everybody would benefit from...You’re probably starting to understand that I’m a bit of a hippie.”

—as told to ITG

Morgan McLachlan photographed by Felisha Tolentino on November 13, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.