Bender’s whiskey marks a decade in good spirits

When Christopher Cohen was working on his first batch of Bender’s whiskey more than 10 years ago, he could be frequently seen in bars around southern Marin.

“We tested our original formulations at many local bars here in Marin,” he says.

That first batch, launched in 2013, came together after 50 iterations. Originally a seven-year-old Canadian rye, it had been bottled at its facility on Treasure Island. These days, bottles of that batch No. 1 go for more than $200 a bottle on the internet (it was originally $30).

Tastes and markets have changed in those 10 years.

“When we first launched, everyone was trying to out-proof each other,” Cohen says. “Mine’s 96 proof, mine’s 106, mine’s 110. Now we are going in the other direction.”

He found that people, if they weren’t savvy aficionados, were taking shots when they should have been sipping and savoring on the edge of their tongues.

“That was not the experience that we wanted for our product,” Cohen says.

Bender’s latest rye is batch No. 6 rye ($60), a 90-proof blend of five-year-old rye and five-year-old corn whiskey, distilled on Treasure Island and aged in high char barrels, making it both rich and unctuous.

“We still use corn whiskey in our rye,” Cohen says. “The batch 6 was actually distilled on Treasure Island and put in char 5 barrels, so the color is incredible. I don’t want there to be any doubt that the distillation of this product took place on Treasure Island.”

Bender’s also has available a batch No. 2 of Old Corn, a 100% corn whiskey ($50) which at less than 2,000 bottles really puts the “small” in small batch (which is a legally ambiguous term in regard to whiskey. Single barrel means something, but small batch is open to interpretation). Age designated at eight years, it has some older whiskey in the blend, too.

Bender's Whiskey Co. celebrates its 10th anniversary. (Photo by Nancy Rothstein Photography)
Photo by Nancy Rothstein PhotographyBender’s Whiskey Co. celebrates its 10th anniversary.

“We had some 13-year-old corn whiskeys, aged in used bourbon barrels. But we then re-aged them again in our new Hoffmeister barrels (a respected cooperage in Missouri) and were able to get some interesting woody and maple notes,” Cohen says. “It’s like the Lagavulin of corn whiskeys. It’s very distinct. You can put it in a cocktail, but it’s going to keep coming through.”

The newest soon-to-be-released batch entry for Bender’s came about as a result of buying rye in a competitive market. To get the amount of rye they wanted, Bender’s had to buy some wheat whiskey, too. Its premier batch No. 1 wheat whiskey is a three-year-old 100% wheat whiskey ($45). And while wheat whiskey doesn’t typically have as much character as corn or rye, by aging it three years — a year longer than the legally required minimum for “straight” whiskey — it gets the punch needed and offers some unique character even at a slightly lower 84 proof.

“It ended up tasting like an Irish whiskey,” Cohen says. “Even though it’s a completely different mash bill it still has that smoother characteristic. We are very proud of it.”

Bender’s original vision hasn’t changed, but the market and the industry has certainly changed around it. But Bender’s has never lost sight of what got the company started in the beginning.

“The local market is so important to our success and Marin has always been supportive of Bender’s. The Buckeye Roadhouse, Andronico’s, Ludwig’s Fine Wine and Spirits and the Tiburon Lodge were some of the first places to bring us in,” Cohen says. “I’m especially looking forward to sharing our 10th anniversary expressions with bars, restaurants, and stores in Marin and Sonoma.”

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