We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Chris Mielke of Southern Distilling News to talk about our process and approach. You can see the entire interview here but we’ve also posted it below for posterity’s sake as Chris had some great questions that give some insight into what the hell we’re doing out there on Treasure Island.

 


 

I recently made a trip out to San Francisco for business and decided to try to visit as many distilleries as possible, but I noticed that one of the places that Google classifies as a distiller was actually a blender of fine aged spirits. Not familiar with how a blender operates I contacted Bender’s Whiskey Company and asked for a tour. Carl Bender was nice enough to respond and said they did not offer tours but would do an interview.

After doing some research on their operation it was quite fascinating what Carl and Christopher Cohen were building using sourced aged Alberta Rye whiskey, water from the Sierra Nevada mountains and some blending/bottling help from a Treasure Island distillery. With 3500 bottles or less being produced from each blended batch they definitely have a small distiller mentality and determination!

Questions for an operation like Bender’s Whiskey Company took some time to research and produce since they aren’t like your typical distiller, but I think their passion and dedication to creating artisan craft spirits is evident.

Christopher Cohen

What decisions did you need to make to determine that you wanted to source your product?
First, we wanted an aged whiskey. Something with the depth and character that only time in a barrel can create. And having just started, we wouldn’t have been able to make it ourselves. Our skill set is nosing, tasting, blending, design and finding great partners. Not distilling (at least not yet). My partner Christopher and I started Bender’s as a passion project, because we both loved whiskey but weren’t tasting anything in the market that was approachable and had the qualities of an aged rye whiskey that we were drawn to. With Christopher’s Canadian connections, we were confident we could source something that fit the bill and didn’t kill us financially. It really started out as the two of us trying to create something that we liked. Actually selling it was more of an after thought especially in the beginning.

How did you find the vendor you source from? What was your criteria?
We were looking for an independently owned distillery that had a rye whiskey that was at least 5 years old. We wanted something with a different perspective, so we started looking to our neighbors in the north. Christopher was really drawn to the fruit-forward style of whiskey from the area where he grew up, so it was an easy decision to start our search there.

As mentioned Christopher had connections up there, which helped out a lot. They’ve been really great to work with–while dialing in our initial batch, they gave us access to their barrel room to pull and try out various rye and corn whiskeys at various stages of aging. Once we got into the barrel-strength stuff that was over 5 years aged and started experimenting with different combinations, we quickly saw that we’d be able to work with them.

In the end it really came down to the quality of the whiskey. I don’t think we’d have any problem sourcing from anywhere else if we could get a hold of great whiskey.

With the proceeds of your product do you plan on opening your own distillery?
That’s the long term goal. In the short term we’d love to work with our Treasure Island distillery partner to get a small still to start experimenting with on the island, but I’d imagine that until we can distill and age whiskey for at least 5 years, it will be sourced.

Do you blend the final product? If so, can you describe how you blend it and what you blend it with?
Indeed we do. Each batch has varied slightly (you can see how each breaks down on our website), but to date we’re blending rye and corn whiskeys of varied ages to get our final product. To proof, we’re also introducing water from Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in the Sierra Nevadas. Being from San Francisco, we are pretty thankful to live in a major metropolitan area that has such an incredible pristine mountain water source. Myself and my future wife take a month off each year to go backpacking up there, and experiencing that environment first-hand really makes you appreciate it that much more every time you turn on the faucet.

Can you describe the experimentation process on how you came to your final blend?
We take various barrel samples and combine the rye and corn in different amounts and at different proofs. It’s gotten more complicated as we’ve acquired our own barrels and do additional aging on the Island, but that has paid off in terms of integration of flavors and complexity.

Do you age the final product? I know the product says seven years, but it may be aged longer. If so, what is the barreling proof and how long do you age it? What was the process to figure out what age to give to the final product?
The product is aged before it comes to our warehouse, but we do additional aging after it arrives, taking parts of certain stocks and adding them to new barrels. We’ve been working with barrel maker Joe Hoffmeister, using his barrels for the aging we do on Treasure Island. Our last batch (#3) was blended with a 9-year rye and a 13-year corn. The rye was 64.6% abv at barrel strength and the corn was 79.1%. If you’re interested you can see more details of that batch here.

As for deciding how long to age the final product, it came down to preference. When we started tasting samples from our current source, we were getting rye that was aged for 2 to 3 years, and we just weren’t getting the complexity we wanted. It wasn’t until we started tasting samples that were aged for over 5 years that we felt we had something we could work with. In terms of labeling, the age on the bottle reflects only the minimum age from our source. We don’t add the additional aging we do on the Island to the final tally.

What is your philosophy when creating spirits?
It starts with making ourselves happy. We didn’t start out trying to create a style that we thought would sell in particular. We’re just creating something we like. Part of our process for each batch is taking it out for tasting with a handful of trusted bartenders and bar managers that we’ve been going to from the beginning. These are the people who have been behind us from day one, and they help keep us from getting too far off track with each batch. To be clear we’re not trying to maintain exacting consistency with each batch but really embrace the idea that each batch will be different. Coming into the process with that idea in mind really opens us up to experimentation.

That said, we do aim for some consistencies because we’re personally drawn to them: a rye dryness and spiciness in the finish with subtle sweetness on the front of the palate, dried fruit, spices like nutmeg or cardamom, orange peel and a higher than normal proof for the benefit of cocktail creation. All that with a pricing that allows for bars to make it part of their cocktail program has been a sweet spot for us so far.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?
We’ve been experimenting with barrel aging lately and have found some great things happening. That kind of stuff is exciting. I’d say in general that learning and being able to experiment are the most rewarding aspects of what we do. Plus, being in this industry is a lot of fun. There are so many characters that you come into contact with and a lot of folks just looking to have a good time. We’re into that.

Carl Bender

Who do you look up to in the distilling world today?
I’d say we’re excited to be a part of the spirits scene in whatever capacity in the Bay Area. There’s so much great stuff coming out of San Francisco and Oakland right now. Being as we’re sourcing and blending our whiskeys at this point in our journey, we’re more inspired by final products with a distinctive points of view than specific distillers. That said, right now we’re both really enjoying applejack and the resurgence of apple brandy. There are also tons of interesting things going on with rum right now. Both of those are fun categories to watch. In our liquor cabinets you’d find Arkansas Black Straight AppleJack, Smith and Cross Rum, Spirit Works Sloe Gin, Yellow Spot Irish Whiskey, good old Beefeater for a gin and tonic, and any number of Amari.

What is one thing you feel people should know about the spirits industry?
As an outsider coming into it, I’ve loved how personal it is. Lots of face-to-face and a lot of good will in general. It probably has something to do with the booze, but I think you get to know the people you’re doing business with in a way I haven’t experienced in some of my past pursuits.


What is the best bit of advice you have ever had for creating the product you are making?

I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but do what you love and don’t worry too much about what others will think. Get it done! Take the idea from dream to some level of reality. That was the attitude going into it for us, and it’s paid off. We’ve also been and continue to be very open to feedback, but trust our gut and our palate and try to create something unique. This is all easier said than done of course, but they’re good mantras to be driven by.

Are there any other products that we could look forward to in the future?
This year we’ll be releasing a 13-year-old straight corn whiskey which we’re extremely excited about.

What product do you want to be known or in 10 years?
Aged rye where the particular “batch” mattered. We’d love to hear people complaining that they never got to try a certain batch because it’s gone. I love that about what we do. Once we’re sold out of a batch it’s gone. If in 15 years we hear about someone who has held on to an unopened bottle of batch 1 or 2 for a really special occasion, I’d be happy.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions Carl and I am looking for a bottle of your aged rye whiskey! People can order it (when it’s available) from Bounty Hunter Rare Wine and Spirits. They are busy bottling and boxing up batch number four that should be on shelves in certain locations soon.