I am a fan of spirits in addition to wine and it was a pleasure to attend Bently Heritage’s California launch gala at the eponymously named Bently Reserve in October. The Bently Reserve is the former and classic Federal Reserve Building in the Financial District of San Francisco. This space is used year round for events and a warm inviting place for this launch. Camille and Christopher Bently are owners of this distillery and founded their distillery on their site in Nevada. Bently Heritage is a special operation for spirits where they produce three gins and three vodkas on their estate growing grains for their spirts. Estate distilleries are as rare as rubies and it is not just a rarity but a point of all around difference that makes for an outstanding quality mark of spirits.
I loved the attention to detail of each product and the proof of concept was proven success in tasting each spirit in thoughtful cocktails. I look forward to tasting more of their spirits in the future.
I appreciate John’s interview and hearing about his experience and perspective on spirits. I hope you enjoy this interview as well. Bently Heritage is open to the public for tours and tastings from Thursday to Sunday.
Bently Heritage, 1601 Water Street, Minden, NV 89423
JTWG Q1. Why did you become a master distiller?
JJ A1. I don’t actually use that title. It’s on my job description and it’s something I have there that I’m aspiring to earn. I’ve studied under incredible people, and have had the pleasure of working on some truly amazing projects and spirits. I’ve made so many of the things that can be distilled and worked in all areas of the business…but I’m still trying to be a master. I use Head Distiller.
JTWG Q2. What was the spirits that you find alluring to both consume and to make?
JJ A2. Distillation is one of the alchemical separations, when we were discovering what physical changes, we could make the materials around us and how we could change them into other things. I’m most drawn to barrel aged spirits as the transformations continue throughout the aging process, but I love botanical distillates like gin too.
JTWG Q3. Why has gin, which was once chagrined, now a popular spirit?
JJ A3. I think the new world gins that started coming out in the 80’s/90’s really changed peoples’ perspectives on what a gin could be. It has reinvigorated curiosity in the spirit and made a place for people who didn’t want to focus on juniper. That gave the spirit a new momentum, which in turn allowed us to look back at the classic London dry style and appreciate that as well. I think innovation is what really did that. Today, we have 3 gins in our Juniper Grove Gin line. Juniper Grove American Dry Gin, Juniper Grove Atrium Gin, and Juniper Grove Alpine Gin (which is only available in our tasting room for a limited time.)
JTWG Q4. Spirits culture is so lively now (in this past decade)—what were the reasons for this resurgence?
JJ A4. Variety. The growth of smaller boutique brands and experimental craft spirits filled the shelves with exciting things, rather than exclusively traditional ones. Tradition is wonderful but it also comes with stagnation if no one comes along to test it. Once the field has been opened up a bit with novel approaches, we can appreciate tradition with greater perspective while also reveling in all of the new exciting things to try. I think that’s where we are now. The shelves are exciting again, the traditional producers are making things at a higher level than ever. New to market producers are doing really interesting things with new and old products, digging up ancient recipes, trying new raw materials. It’s a great time to appreciate spirits.
JTWG Q5. Is there a particular region for whiskey that you look up to?
JJ A5. Islay and Speyside scotches, and the growing tradition of finishing bourbon whiskies are places I love to spend time tasting. I think of single malt as being the most subtle and complex whisky in terms of its ability to be expressed in different and lovely ways, and how long it can be aged. The growth in wine-finished-bourbon and rye in the past decade has added an incredible variety to the expressions coming from there. I pull from all spirits traditions, trying to use the best techniques from everywhere but those are a couple of my favorites. At Bently Heritage, we’re working on a ˜American single malt whisky true to the old-world values (which is why we spell it whisky instead of whiskey.)
JTWG Q6. In the US is there a greater curiosity about the broad array of spirits like Brandy, Grappa, Calvados, etc.?
JJ A6. I think there is but they’re still a tiny portion of market share. Craft cocktail bars have done wonders for previously obscure spirits which I think is great. It seems like every year we have a new spirit that’s the new thing and brandy keeps almost being that thing but not quite. These spirits are growing quietly in the background and I hope they have their day. What we think of as grappa is really not what you’d get from an artisan producer in Italy and I think the same goes for the other categories you mentioned. The character of those spirits when they’re made by artists is so different from those that you get from mega producers.
JTWG Q7. Your distillery is certainly looking to the future—it took vision and courage to create an infrastructure and to grow your own rye, wheat, oats and barley—why do you do this?
JJ A7. Christopher and Camille Bently owned a decommissioned grain mill and on that site was a decommissioned dairy plant. They owned the buildings and lots of land in the area that focused on ranching and growing alfalfa for the ranch. They wanted to reuse the buildings and decided on the distillery as a way of bringing life to the buildings, further developing the agricultural aspects of the valley, and making something beautiful that would bring life to the area. During the 4-year process of developing the plan, building, installing, and commissioning we’ve all worked together to make it happen: Bently Heritage Estate Distillery and Bently Ranch are thick as thieves on this.
JTWG Q8. Are there other estate distilleries in the western United States beyond yours?
JJ A8. The other one that I know of in the west is awesomely, also in NV: Frey Ranch Estate Distillery in Fallon. They’re great folks and we’ve worked with them on a couple of projects. Other than that there are a couple out east that I’m aware of that would meet our definition. In many states there isn’t a definition for estate, so you’ll get distilleries that source from only one supplier calling their products estate, but it’s not the same.
JTWG Q9. You have three spirits in your portfolio – Juniper Grove Gin, Sherry Barrel Vodka and Source One Vodka – I can only imagine that you will distill a whisky—if this is your plans – what will be that whisky style?
JJ A9. The Juniper Grove line has our American Dry gin; dry style, Atrium gin; contemporary style, and our Alpine gin; contemporary with a foraged botanical from the Pine Nut Mountains in Carson Valley. The Source One line has our vodka, and the sherry cask rested vodka. We’re currently producing malt whisky, bourbon, rye, and wheat whiskies. We’ll have classic spirits that are built for lovers of each category, and we’ll do lots of experimental releases and more inventive expressions of each of those. One of the major inspirations for the distillery was Christopher and Camille’s love of Speyside whisky so that will certainly be a part of it.
JTWG Q10. Is there a style of gin you find most alluring?
JJ A2. I have a hard time picking favorites, honestly. There are days when a classic dry style gin and tonic hits the spot in the heat of summer, hanging out in the back yard. There are also days when I want something more experimental or challenging in a big robust drink like a Negroni where the dry style doesn’t always hold up. It’s why we have a variety of gins to choose from. They’re all perfect for the moment they’re perfect for if that makes sense.
JTWG Q11. How would you describe your gin?
JJ A11. Well each deserves its own description but they’re all distilled in the same spirit. We use oats in the base spirit because it is viscous and robust. It gives the gins a long silky finish that is hard to achieve in truly neutral spirit. Each of the three gins expresses something unique and lovely. The dry is bright and fun, very clean and summery but has a higher botanical load than many so it’s big. Atrium is complex with a long finish that reveals all 9 of the botanicals in it. Alpine speaks to place. The foraged piñon cones are all about experiencing alpine mountains where we live. We are hoping that we can bring the sipping neat culture of whisky and rum to gin, and have people sipping the gins on their own or with a bit of ice.
JTWG Q12. I am huge gin fan—less so on Vodka—I can only differentiate texture—based on material input—tell me more why Vodka is a great spirit? How can one become an appreciator of Vodka?
JJ A12. Well generally vodka is a backdrop for mixed drinks. In our case we’re using oats in the mash bill. They present some challenges in production which is why they’re not widely used but they also present really interesting mouthfeel. The viscosity of Source One is much higher than other vodkas and it dials down the ethanol burn that vodka is known for. It has a more complex character. One of the most interesting things you can do if you’re open to it is to take 4-5 vodkas side-by-side and sip them neat. It will surprise you how much difference you pick up.
JTWG Q13. I tasted your sherry barrel Vodka at Bently Heritage’s release party in October 2019—was a fantastic base for a Manhattan – what was the inspiration for this Vodka?
JJ A13. We were casting about for ideas around spirits we could release while we waited for whisky to age. Vodka and gin are obvious choices but when the flavored vodka conversation started, we were determined not to go the route that most brands do, and to try to do something to elevate the category a bit. It actually started with us joking around. To quote our Proprietress, Camille Bently: “It was the most delicious joke we ever told”.
JTWG Q14. What is the outlook for fine and well-crafted spirits in the US and beyond?
a. Man, I’d pull a tarot card but…well I think the exciting new spirit of the year will continue to shift between mainstream spirits, and more exotic ones. I like having a rounded portfolio because we can offer some of everything to consumers. We’ll have liqueurs coming out shortly to finish off our year of releases and I think from the producers’ perspective it’s a good move to have a variety of spirits. I think what will happen is the explosion in popularity of spirits will continue until it doesn’t. Then there will be a contraction, and then an expansion again later. As in all things there are cycles. In our case we’re built for the long game. We’re growing slowly and sustainably and will find our place on every shelf.
Salute e molto grazie,
James the Wine Guy
Demystifying Wine…One Bottle at a Time from all wine regions around the world.
Picture of John Jeffrey is courtesy of Bently Heritage.
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