Taste, Tradition, and Technology
Bently Heritage Estate Distillery
takes the farm to the flask
By Barbara Twitchell | Photos by Asa Gilmore
Once simply a sleepy little hamlet in the Carson Valley east of the Sierra, Minden, Nevada, was long known for two structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places:
The old Minden Flour Mill, formerly one of the largest milling operations in the state, presided over the town’s main thoroughfare for more than 114 years with her four towering silos. A stone’s throw away, her humbler sister, the 104-year-old Minden Creamery, was once the largest butter producer on the West Coast. Despite the creamery’s small stature, her excellent pedigree can still be seen in her façade, which was designed by renowned Nevada architect Frederic DeLongchamps.
Neither building had been operational for many decades in 2019 when the opening of Bently Heritage Estate Distillery changed that and also put this little town on the nation’s radar.
A Boy Lives His Dream
Go back 40 or so years, and we find a little boy playing in these shuttered buildings owned by his family. Through the years, he nurtured a dream that someday he would give them both a wonderful new lease on life. But as what? He couldn’t decide.
Christopher Bently was closing out his fifth decade when he and his wife, Camille, determined they would make that childhood dream come true.
“We knew we wanted to do something beautiful with the mill and creamery buildings,” Bently says, “but we also knew it had to be something that would sustain the local economy as well. During our travels, we developed a great affinity for Scotland and the fine scotch we enjoyed there. So we just thought, what if we did a distillery?”
It’s not just any distillery. Christopher Bently, a visionary, entrepreneur, environmentalist, conservationist, and founder of Minden-based Bently Ranch, is a paragon of sustainable agricultural practices and renewable resource innovation. Anyone who knows Bently knows that he doesn’t do anything in a small, ordinary way.
Reminded of that, he just laughs. “It was originally going to be a bit of a pet project,” he admits. “But it ended up being the biggest project of our lives.”
Indeed. Five years of planning and research, three full years of renovation and construction, and $130 million spent (plus another $20 million set aside for future expansion) only begin to describe the magnitude of this undertaking.
With so many distilleries popping up around the country, the Bentlys knew they had to distinguish theirs, so they looked into becoming an estate distillery. That designation didn’t exist until 2017, when the Bentlys helped lead the legislative fight in Nevada to establish it. To qualify, 85% of the raw materials for the spirits have to be grown, processed, and bottled on the property. It’s a rigorous standard and certainly a rarity among distilleries, as few grow their own ingredients.
It was the tremendous agricultural resources of the 65,000-acre Bently Ranch that made the concept ideal. The ranch supplies 100% of the sustainably grown and harvested grains required by the distillery, including barley, wheat, oats, rye, and corn. All are grown from non-GMO, heirloom seeds using organic practices.
The Bentlys did not care to see this as just a place that manufactures spirits, but rather an experience—a place where people can enjoy a certain ambience, learn about the history of the property and the processes through public tours, and have an opportunity to taste and enjoy the spirits.
Transforming the mill and creamery buildings into highly functional, modern distilleries without destroying their historic charm was no easy task. Bently was no stranger to renovating historic buildings, and his penchant for seamlessly combining preservation and innovation was well demonstrated.
As much as possible, original materials, right down to the bricks, lumber, and trusses, were retained and, often, carefully removed, cleaned, and reinstalled. It was rather like disassembling and reassembling a giant jigsaw puzzle.
The four steel silos of the mill were left standing, their interior walls removed, creating a unique, clover-shaped distilling room that houses the single-malt whisky and brandy operations. Two huge, gleaming copper stills, custom made and hand crafted in Scotland, are the stars of this show.
The lobby space welcomes the public with its lofty ceilings and magnificent, winding, three-story staircase. A multistory glass wall separates the distilling room from the building’s brick, public portion, allowing visitors full view of the distilling operation from the public tasting rooms housed on the upper floors.
The creamery building has three additional stills—two custom-made copper ones imported from Germany and one from Montana—dedicated to making a multitude of clear spirits, liqueurs, and American whiskies. That building also houses the bottling operation.
The buildings and distillery operations make for an impressive amalgamation of tradition and state-of-the-art technology. The Bentlys not only restored the historic buildings, but did so by bringing them up to the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold standard, an almost impossible feat for such an energy-intensive operation.
Getting into the spirit
Let’s face it. When it comes down to brass tacks or, more appropriately, copper stills, a distillery truly is all about the spirits. According to master distiller John Jeffery, Bently Heritage Estate Distillery is creating the finest premium spirits, all handmade from local, sustainable ingredients, utilizing a combination of traditional and modern sustainable practices and technology. And by no means, he admonishes, do we say “booze” or “liquor” here. They are spirits!
As for which spirits, it’s pretty much everything: American single-malt whisky, brandy, vodka, gin, liqueurs, all the traditional American-style whiskies (such as bourbon and rye), and some nontraditional ones made from wheat and oats.
Jeffery insists that using Bently’s own grain is an integral component of the distinctive spirits they are producing. The grains grown here have extraordinary flavor characteristics that produce tastes that couldn’t be made anywhere else. And the Bently Heritage team is constantly experimenting with test plots of new grains.
They don’t just grow their own grains; they also malt them, which few distilleries in the nation do. In simplest terms, malting grain develops the enzymes required for modifying its starches into the fermentable sugar necessary to make beer and whisky. No malted grain, no beer, no whisky.
Bently uses state-of-the-art malting equipment called AutoMalt, an all-in-one steeping, germination, and kilning system. A small amount of grain is processed through a hands-on, labor-intensive, traditional technique called floor malting, which involves spreading grain six inches deep on the floor of an environmentally controlled room and turning it every six to eight hours. Although most distilleries find this process unnecessary and too costly, Bently disagrees.
“It relates to how things were traditionally done,” Bently says, “and it produces a quality in the grain and certain unique characteristics that you can only get through that process.”
“We’re dedicated to creating spirits that taste of the terroir of the Carson Valley,” Jeffery says, explaining that this goes beyond just the grain. “We even foraged local forests seeking traditional botanicals for which there were local analogs.”
For example, he and his team created Alpine gin utilizing resins from pinyon cones harvested from Minden’s nearby Pine Nut Mountains. Similarly, Atrium gin is made with botanicals foraged in the Sierra Nevada’s Hope Valley and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.
Other notable spirits include a Riesling brandy and a gewürztraminer brandy aged in barrels. Is your mouth watering yet? The distillery’s Source One Vodka, Source One Vodka Rested in Oak Sherry Casks, Juniper Grove American Dry, and Juniper Grove Atrium Gin are all available in the Bay Area, and will be sure to complement the recipes featured on the previous pages.
“We want to be known for creating some of the finest hand-crafted spirits in the world,” Bently says. “And I really hope it’s a catalyst for the town, inspiring entrepreneurs to open shops and restaurants and businesses that will complement the distillery.”
That last part is important to Bently. He’d like to see his beloved mill and creamery, and his hometown, become a prosperous destination location while still maintaining the character and charm he’s always cherished. That would be a real dream come true. ♦
Note: Upon arrival of Covid-19, the Bently Heritage Distillery shifted focus to support their local communities by donating sanitizer. Over 3,000 gallons had been donated as of June 2020.
Bently Heritage Estate is located 45 minutes from Reno and 25 minutes from South Lake Tahoe at 1609 U.S. Hwy. 395, Minden, Nevada. During normal times, visitors can take a tour, sample products in Bently’s elegant tasting rooms, or relax over bespoke cocktails, small bites, and spirits pairings. For the time being, visit bentlyheritage.com or Bently Heritage on Facebook.
Reno-based writer Barbara Twitchell is an unabashed fan of restoration, renovation, and reinvention in almost any form—whether it be buildings, things, or people. And the older she gets, the more she embraces the idea!
Asa Gilmore is a commercial photographer from the great state of Nevada. He specializes in food, architecture, and product photography as well as tintypes and historical projects. asagilmore.com
Bently Heritage Recipes
This cocktail incorporates a series of unique flavors that harmonize beautifully. On the front, you’re faced with a bright floral note from the lavender-based gin. As the cocktail progresses across the palate, you begin to identify herbaceous bitter notes complemented by fresh tarragon. Lemon juice, coupled with the orange and cognac of Grand Marnier, round out the mix, and you’re left with a clean finish. Perfect for enjoying on the deck under the summer sun.
1.5 ounces Juniper Grove Atrium Gin
0.75 ounce Grand Marnier
0.5 ounce Aperol
0.75 ounce lemon juice
1 sprig tarragon
Add all ingredients with ice into a shaker and shake vigorously. Double strain into a small coupe or Nick & Nora glass. Garnish with fresh tarragon.
Summer in Venice
1.5 ounces Source One Vodka Rested in Sherry Oak Casks
0.75 ounce Aperol
0.75 ounce amaretto
Muddle strawberry in shaker. Add Source One Sherry Rested Vodka, Aperol, amaretto, and ice. Shake hard and strain into a small coupe glass.