Toasting tradition – Old Minden Mill repurposed for cultured tastes

The exterior of the century-old Mill Building at Bently Heritage Estate Distillery offers little indication of the breathtaking restoration that’s taken place within. On one side of a glass wall is a multi-level retail store, bar and public tasting room. Showcasing beautifully reclaimed wood, it’s framed by iron girders that support the well-weathered original brick walls of this long-abandoned mill.

On the other side of the glass, a pair of Forsyths stills rise three stories, alongside spiraling catwalks. Cast in Scotland from hand-hammered copper, their old-world craftsmanship stands in stark contrast to the state-of-the-art control panel that sits between them.

It’s a beautiful mix of old and new. And nobody understands the history on display here better than Christopher Bently.
He and his wife, Camille, built the interior from scratch in order “to do a single malt whisky that was on par or better than Scotch whisky.”

Long before that, however, Chris played here as a child.

“I always thought something needed to happen to this building because it’s really a monument in the valley,” says Bently, whose late father Donald E. Bently opened the Bently Nevada Corporation in Minden with three employees in 1962.

Nevada-born, globally influenced

Chris, who was raised in Minden, about an hour outside of Reno, and Camille now split their time between the small town and San Francisco. About seven years ago, he began raising cattle and grain here. So when the couple decided to open a distillery, they made it the base for not just the tasting room and still, but the entire operation. From the planting of crops in Minden to the opening of a bottle in Las Vegas, Bently’s spirits are almost entirely Silver State creations.

Bently Heritage Estate Distillery’s first gin already is widely available at Las Vegas bars, restaurants and liquor stores,
with several other varieties and spirits on the way. “Initially this was just going to be a whiskey distillery, for single malt whiskey,” explains Chris. “And then, as the project took shape and we started talking about it, we decided we wanted to
do other spirits as well.”

The estate distillery is a labor of love for the couple, which mirrors their relationship. The pair met in nearby Lake Tahoe and married in Scotland, which is where they fell in love with the art of crafting spirits.

“We started touring around Scotland and doing a lot of distillery tours there, and really (discovered) the beauty of them, and the heritage of the place, and the way that their distilleries are handed down from generation to generation,” says Camille. “We sort of fell in love with that. So when we started exploring the idea of a distillery, we wanted it to honor that tradition.”

For Chris, whose other ventures include renovating a landmark building in San Francisco’s historic Nob Hill neighborhood, the place to honor this tradition was Minden. And since sustainability has been a guiding principle of his philanthropy and business, he says repurposing this old mill was a no-brainer.

“Construction is one of the prime examples of where there’s terrible, terrible waste. And in this area, where they overbuilt and have lots of vacant buildings, rather than build a new strip mall outside of town, why don’t we take this cool, interesting building that’s downtown and do something with it.”

In keeping with those principles, the renovations on the Mill, and several other buildings on the ground, were done to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)certified standards.

Estate of mind

The location has the added benefit of being on the same 50,000 acres that houses the Bently ranch. So there was plenty of space to grow and malt their own grain. But finding grains that met their standards and were suited to the northern Nevada climate presented a bit of a challenge.

“We want everything to be how we eat, and that’s non-GMO, all natural, good for the environment, good for people,” explains Camille. “So sourcing non-GMO corn, we had no idea, it’s (almost) impossible. So we had to source some pretty interesting heritage varietals that took forever to get.”

Touring Bently Heritage can take the better part of a day. Looking past the grazing cattle and the butcher shop, which sells their products, nearly every step of spirit production can be found on the grounds. There are the fields where they grow the grain, along with the alfalfa that’s sold to dairy farmers. There are the silos where the harvested grain is stored, and the malthouse where it is germinated. Water comes from a well on the grounds into a private pumphouse. And there is the larger of the company’s two distilleries, The Creamery, where the vodka and gin are produced in a facility where butter once was pasteurized. That’s also where labeling for the bottles is designed and printed.

When the spirits reach barrels, they’re aged in an extraordinary pair of facilities known as rickhouses. The one in which the single malt is stored is synched with a monitoring station in Ballindalloch, Scotland, to precisely duplicate, around the clock, the temperature and humidity its Scotches are encountering in their own aging facilities. Another, where the bourbons are stored, is wired into Bardstown, Kentucky. The hope is to offer tastes of the Highlands and Kentucky without leaving Nevada.

While some spirits may benefit from imitating other environs, the Bently’s are infusing some local flavors into their gins. The team is constantly experimenting with botanicals from the woods around the ranch in an effort to create something original.

“We go out and forage things that aren’t traditionally in gin,” says Camille. “We have (a plant called) brush rabbit that’s everywhere, it’s kind of a weed. And we used it in a gin and it was beautiful. And we also went out in different seasons because different things are blooming.”
The end result, says Camille, are spirits that are meant to be savored, not buried.

“I would say definitely we’re going more for the craft cocktails and mixology scene. Because although it’s fine by the pool, too, I think that we’re making spirits that you’re going to recognize a little bit more. They’re not going to disappear into a cocktail. They’re going to stand out.”