You & Yours’ Laura Johnson creates scholarship to help women enter distilling field
You & Yours Distilling Co. owner and founder Laura Johnson has accomplished quite a bit since opening her distillery in 2017. She was named a 2018 Eater Young Gun, made it onto the 2018 Forbes “30 Under 30” list and has won various other local awards for the craft distillery located in San Diego’s East Village.
Now, Johnson is aiming to help other women enter the notoriously male-dominated distilling industry with a scholarship to attend Moonshine University’s Six-Day Distillers Course. Moonshine University, located in Louisville, Kentucky, offers the course as a way for students to gain a hands-on distilling education.
The scholarship is valued at over $6,000 and offers students the chance to gain technical spirits training and business management education from experts in the field. The course is designed for those who are passionate about entering the distilling world.
“I think back to myself and where I was four, five, six years ago. I knew that I wanted to be a distiller, but I didn’t know how to get there,” Johnson said during a phone call. “There’s not really a clear education process or career path to being and working in this industry. And I have always thought, I really wish that I could have had a little bit of a leg up or some guidance or a mentor. I wish there would have been a bit more of a blueprint for me rather than just figuring it out on the fly.”
The inaugural scholarship recipient is Danae Schuster, a San Diego native who now lives in Paradise, Calif. Schuster and her family plan to open Burnt Barn Distilling on her in-laws’ property, which was devastated by the Camp Fire in 2018. Schuster is a military veteran and a mother with a passion for distilling.
She’s attending Moonshine University with her mother-in-law, Melissa Schuster.
Johnson says she started the scholarship as a way to help women navigate the distilling field. She had also attended Moonshine University’s distiller course and knew the education she received there was priceless.
“I’ve always thought when the time came, when I felt ready to do so, I wanted to do something to give back to aspiring female distillers,” she said. “That’s what this is all about. And the reason to do it in conjunction with Moonshine is because that education was by far the most crucial, helpful, beneficial, wide-ranging, in-depth, and so I thought, well, why not give someone else that opportunity.”
She launched the scholarship in late 2020 and was flooded with applicants, but Schuster stood out to Johnson and her team.
“It was so much harder than I thought to pick someone for this first spot. There’s obviously so much pressure. There were so many amazing candidates,” Johnson explained. “But I think the reason that my team and I were like, no, it’s Danae, was that she checked the most boxes. The big thing for me was that it wasn’t just about her getting to where she wanted to go. She very clearly put in her application that she wanted to take her education and what she was going to get from Moonshine and then give that back, to continue investing in her own community and to continue the path of women helping women in this industry.”
Schuster and her husband, Taylor Schuster-Steiner , had always dreamed of opening a family distillery, but the timing never seemed to be right.
“Distilling was always something that we were passionate about,” Schuster said during a phone call. “We just didn’t think it was in our cards. We had young kids. It just wasn’t a top priority. But when the Camp Fire happened, we decided it was our opportunity.”
The Camp Fire destroyed over 90% of the small town of Paradise. Schuster’s in-laws lost almost everything, except for the chapel where Schuster and her husband were married. It might not have seemed like the time to open a new business, but Schuster and her family felt differently.
“Originally, my parents – or my in-laws, but I call them my parents – had a massive property where they hosted weddings and parties. Though the town is very small, they’re very tight-knit, so these parties, we’re talking hundreds and hundreds of people at this one property,” Schuster explained. “And then when the Camp Fire of 2018 hit, they lost everything.”
Part of the property loss included the family barn, which served as a central space that hosted art shows, weddings and other events.
After the fire, Schuster’s family encouraged her and her husband to pursue their distilling dreams. Symbolically, they chose to construct the distillery at the spot where the barn once stood.
“And that’s how Burnt Barn got its name,” Schuster said.
Schuster and her family have big plans for Burnt Barn, which is set on 16 acres of land that’s “absolutely gorgeous.” Schuster also hopes to bring more diversity to the area.
“For me being a woman of color, I had always thought it was important for us to try to encourage more younger crowds and more diverse crowds to come up from, like, the Chico area. And so we think that that will be something that can contribute to that,” said Schuster.
It was this emphasis on community that drew Johnson to Schuster. That, and of course, the fact that Schuster was a fellow female interested in distilling.
“We’re the minority in this field. You know, it’s just a bunch of good old boys. There are amazing female powerhouse women in this space that are doing a lot and I love that. But it’s really hard, even on a local level, especially if you’re not in one of the larger markets or cities for distilling. Like, maybe it might be different in Kentucky, but here in San Diego, it was really hard for me to find – it was impossible, I mean, I still haven’t found a fellow female distiller to connect with and to champion me and likewise,” said Johnson.
“I want there to be more female distillers out there. And then my personal reason is pretty matter of fact: it’s scientifically proven that our palettes are better and more well-developed, and so I think that what the craft spirits industry could also greatly benefit from is not only more women in our space, but higher quality products and better flavor profiles. I think that if more women are at the helm in front of stills, the range to choose from and the quality of product on shelves will continue to get exponentially better.”
And so, Schuster and her mother-in-law signed up for the course with the help of Johnson’s scholarship. Johnson has committed to offering the scholarship twice a year, but hopes that with growth, she’ll be able to offer it on a quarterly basis.
For Schuster, the opportunity has proven to be vital to herself and to the women who will come after her.
“I think it’s incredible because representation matters and this scholarship is going to be massive. It will change the way I think women are viewed in this industry. It’s going to change the foundation a little bit, it’s going to solidify it a little bit more. It’s invaluable. It’s going to push us forward. Like what Laura said, she wishes that there had been a blueprint and this is the best that we would have,” Schuster said.
For more information on You & Yours and upcoming scholarship opportunities, visit youandyours.com/scholarship.
Sign up for the Pacific Insider newsletter
PACIFIC magazine delivers the latest restaurant and bar openings, festivals and top concerts, every Tuesday.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Pacific San Diego.