Interview: Ali and Sam Blatteis / Home Base Spirits

My first encounter with Home Base Spirits was a batch of their namesake bourbon, which I picked up in 2016 through a local store’s whiskey club I was subscribing to at the time. I neglected to jot the batch number down in my notes. But given Home Base Spirits was founded in 2015, it was an early batch and I recall it was aged 12 or 15 months. Too raw-woody in flavor for me, I didn’t anticipate picking up another bottle. But the story behind it made a strong and lasting impression:

Ali and Sam Blatteis, twin sisters born and raised in Oakland, CA, are among the few proprietors of whiskey distilleries fully owned and operated by women. Women work as master distillers at a slowly growing number of major distilleries—e.g. Pam Heilmann, now formerly at Michter’s, and Nicole Austin at George Dickel. And there are craft distilleries run by married couples—e.g. Tom’s Foolery, founded by Tom and Lianne Herbruck in Ohio, and Catoctin Creek, founded by Becky and Scott Harris in Virginia. Even many of the few distilleries founded and owned by women, such as Republic Restoratives, a community distillery and bar in Washington, D.C., employ men in key positions. But whiskey distilleries fully owned and operated by women remain few and far between. In addition to Home Base Spirits in Berkeley, CA, there is Freeland Spirits in Portland, OR, and Delaware Phoenix Distillery, run in every aspect by Cheryl Lins in Walton, NY, to name two of the seeming handful of examples.

So, Home Base Spirits stood out to me.

My second encounter with Home Base came in the spring of 2019 on the recommendation of Edmond Kubein of Bourbon County, a shop in San Francisco. I asked him what was new and exciting on the shelf, and he pointed immediately to a bottle of Home Base Bourbon Batch 10. He also shared with me that he’d passed along an empty Four Roses bourbon barrel—which he’d received with his latest Four Roses single barrel store pick—to the Blatteis sisters for their use. What they were doing with it, he didn’t know. But this too piqued my curiosity.

So I picked up a bottle of the Batch 10. Aged an even 3 years, this was a far cry from its predecessor, belying its youth with lovely layers of pastry flavors like bread, cream, orchard fruits, and ginger. As I slowly made my way through the bottle over the next several weeks, it grew richer with time. Now I was hooked.

And so it was with great pleasure that I sat down with Ali and Sam Blatteis on a recent sunny autumn morning for a wide-ranging conversation about what got them into making whiskey, why they do it, and what their mission is for Home Base Spirits.

Located on a quiet industrial street in Berkeley, CA, Home Base makes its home in a small corner of the Mosswood Distillers facility, itself a very unassuming building with Mosswood’s name printed in tiny letters beneath a lopsided street address:

No real hint of what might be brewing inside!

Ali and Sam met me at the gate and showed me in. The “tour” was quick, given their corner of the Mosswood facility is quite compact:

And so we got on to chatting…

MARK J – What was the spark? What got you going on your whiskey journey?

ALI – Shall I?

SAM – Go ahead.

ALI – It started with a love of whiskey, definitely. And being really curious about something that always interested us growing up in the Bay Area—especially around food. And then, in learning more about the process of whiskey, not only did we really fall in love with it, we liked the idea of it coming from grain and thinking of it as an agricultural product. We had also found it hard to get a lot of details about where a bourbon was being made, and what grains were actually being used. That lack of transparency was frustrating, and led us to not only want to make something that uses local grain and supports local farmers, but also to be totally open about our process. So it was definitely a combination of our passions at the time—Samantha’s being agriculture and mine being whiskey. Also, being two women who are pretty creative and having a big art background, we thought we’d have a very unique take on a unique style of whiskey.

What’s your art background?

ALI – I studied art history and fine arts during school. But we’ve been doing art since we were kids, and I’ve worked as a professional artist for the past eight or ten years.

Painting?

ALI – I did do some painting. Mostly I’ve been working with a public works artist doing mosaics, then recently for an artist doing ceramics.

Ali at work on a mosaic

SAM – I took some art electives in college and now I just hobby with ceramics. Agriculture is where I’ve been spending my career for the last ten years, outside of whiskey. When we were developing the idea to start this company I was working for the Farmers Market Network in New York City. It’s one of the largest producer-only farmers markets, where we actually work with the farmers and inspect their farms to make sure what they’re actually selling at those public markets are what they’re growing on their farms. California does a really good job of that too. But the organization I worked for in New York developed the model and made it successful. So that’s what I was doing—managing farmers markets in the city, but also spending a lot of time getting to know the farms and visiting them…

Sam (R) at the Farmers Market

…A few of the farmers were realizing that alcohol was an incredible value-added product. They were growing the ingredients and could sell a product at a much higher value through the farmers markets, which New York state allowed at the time because they classified spirits made from local products as an agricultural product. To me that was really interesting, and not being done in California quite yet. It was a change to New York state law, which one spirits producer pretty much brought about single handedly by lobbying his local representatives. That changed alcohol laws in New York state and opened up the floodgates to all these new craft distilleries. California was just a couple years behind. It’s undergoing a boom right now. But it’s legislation changes like that, which hadn’t been changed since Prohibition, that allowed some of these smaller craft distillers to get started.

Working together, do you share the same tasks?

ALI – Right now it’s just us two, so we both help with everything. But I’d say Samantha does all of the back-end stuff.

SAM – The computer stuff.

ALI – She did our entire Alcoholic Beverage Control application.

SAM – Ali’s like the head distiller and I’m like the CFO.

ALI – That’s where our interests lie. But we both love whiskey and do all the tastings and blendings and each have a hand in everything. 

SAM – We work pretty closely.

And what is it about whiskey, as opposed to wine or beer? What’s the magic for you in that particular liquid?

ALI – It’s what I enjoy sipping on the most. And the whole world of whiskey.

SAM – And the novelty of it. When we first discovered it as young adults it was this whole new world. It was something that we hadn’t really been into. And also, the industry doesn’t really market to us, right? So it’s not something that’s particularly welcoming to a young twenty-something woman. And so the fact that Ali got into it on her own and then shared that discovery with me was really powerful. Ali started a women’s whiskey club, to create that space to explore and learn and try, and enjoy completely protected—not protected, but, you know, to enjoy it in that kind of space. She shared that enthusiasm with me and that was really delicious.

In terms of whiskey itself, there’s a huge variety within it. The fact that it does bring all these properties from grain was exciting for me, and that you get flavor in so many very small, small, nuanced ways, that was pretty interesting. We knew we wanted to go straight for whiskey, that we wouldn’t make gins or vodkas or other un-aged products that we ourselves didn’t enjoy sipping on. We thought, let’s just go for what we know we love and push the boundaries from within that.

Whiskey is so embedded in the history of our country, and yet there’s a maxim in a lot of whiskey circles that you leave politics at the door. That’s always seemed quite strange to me since our politics are very much based in whiskey—from the first Federal taxes and on. It’s an enjoyment for some people, a tragedy for other people, it has such a mix of impacts in our culture. What do you think it is about America and bourbon?

SAM – I definitely had a small crisis about that when we got started. What value were we bringing to the market, to California, by making more alcohol? Why is that a good thing? And we just kept coming to the fact that this is an art, this is a craft that we feel we have a lot to say through. And it’s a way to support small independent family farms and our environment by extension, so that has impact. And for people who do drink responsibly it is really fun, it is joyous, and we like that aspect of it. We want people to drink responsibly and we hope they always do with our products.

And then also being in California, whereas bourbon is so associated with a certain part of the country. That was another fun thing for us to play with and to push. So, in terms of getting people to think more about the origins of their spirit and what it’s made from, and what it means to drink a whiskey or a bourbon specifically, let’s help them to think about how it doesn’t have to come from Kentucky or Tennessee. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the forty-eight contiguous American states. We joke at tastings that this is our “California” bourbon, even though it’s not an official classification. We like people to think about it that way. That’s part of our mission.

It seems you’re situated in the Bay Area tradition that Alice Waters at Chez Panisse is often credited as having started, the slow-food movement and using local products.

ALI – Growing up here, that’s always something we’ve been aware of. And then you become aware of how that movement rarely gets translated to the bar at a lot of those restaurants.

SAM – Outside of wine, right? For some reason we have this connection of terroir with wine. But that doesn’t really happen with distilled spirits. Maybe it’s because the flavor is so impacted by other factors. But we think it’s important to know the origin of the ingredients and the process of how the product is made.

ALI – The buyers at these restaurants have no idea where the grains in a drink are coming from, how it’s being produced, who’s harvesting and malting it. A lot of distilling companies will not share any of that information. That’s where we saw a disconnect.

Why do you think so many companies aren’t more transparent?

ALI – I don’t know. Bourbon is laid out for you by law: use new barrels, a majority corn in the mash bill… I don’t know what secrets need to be kept. There are some distilleries that are very transparent. Four Roses is one of them. They use all non-GMO corn.

SAM – From the same farm.

ALI – And they tell you where it’s coming from. But a lot of companies won’t even tell you where it’s been distilled. You don’t have to put that on the label. You only have to say which state, I think.

SAM – There hasn’t always been consumer demand for it necessarily.

ALI – But we want people to ask those questions. We want that to be part of the conversation when people think about spirits.

I have noticed an upswing in whiskey drinkers becoming more interested in transparency, wanting to know where things come from, and appreciating it when a bottle has information on its label. It seems a few years ago, finishing whiskeys in secondary barrels became The Thing. But now transparency is becoming the thing people are tapping into.

SAM – We definitely appreciate when craft distilleries do that. We’re not anti-blending or anti-sourcing.

ALI – As long as you’re open about it.

SAM – We completely agree that’s an incredible craft in and of itself. Delicious products come out of that. Our interest is really about the sourcing, so that’s why we’re cheerleading for that.

I’m very curious about the through-line of whiskey’s history in our American culture. There seems to be an ethics embedded in whiskey that has to do with friends, family, but also criminals like Al Capone getting the people what they want when the government won’t. 

SAM – That through-line is actually a part of why we started this company, to break it. Bourbon and whiskey do have this fantastic history. But that’s not us. So we’re not trying to continue that through-line, but rather to make a departure and create something that hopefully people can think of as new and different. Let’s get away from that idea of the risky business you inherited from your bootlegger grandfather.

ALI – We don’t have that kind of moonshiny connection to it.

SAM – Right. Our grandparents enjoyed bourbon, but they weren’t the people making it in their bathtubs. So this was a motivation for us, too. It’s how our label design was born. We’re not this woodcut of an old teeny copper pot-still in a barn. This is a fresh product made with fresh eyes from a fresh perspective. It’s a California bourbon, a slightly different idea, and we want to push people to think about it in a new way.

And the local sourcing and transparency are a part of that politic.

SAM – Absolutely. That’s where I would say our political ethics come in: that yes, we should put our money where our mouths are in terms of how we want to be ethical consumers in this world. Part of that could be buying a product like ours, where you are supporting small independent companies. That’s something we make decisions about for everything—our labels, our bottles, our corks, the grain, the distilleries we work with…

…The choice to use a wine bottle is our homage to California. For the label we worked with an artist, and told her we wanted something people wouldn’t necessarily think of as a whiskey bottle. We wanted it to be fresh and colorful and bright and approachable. So that gave her the inspiration of a rocks glass in front of a California coastline.

ALI – But people see different things. Some people see buttered toast. Some people think this is Samantha with her curly hair. Some people see an oak leaf. All things that are about our business, so, it’s great.

Do you find a connection between making whiskey and the artwork that you do?

ALI – Yes. In terms of a creative outlet and the feeling that you get making art, I get the same thing when we’re tasting or blending or thinking about new products.

SAM – I also think it can often be a very methodical and repetitive task, which reminds me a lot of the art production work that Ali does. That’s why she’s very equipped for that side of the business. It’s something she really enjoys and is excellent at, and she can produce beautiful things. Ali does all the labelling by hand. All that consistency and precision comes from her art background.

And what about when you’re sharing the whiskey with people?

ALI – I think sharing the whiskey with people was another big reason we wanted to do this. It can be a very intimidating spirit to order at a bar. Especially at these speakeasy-styled bars. I remember being so terrified not knowing what to order. And then I joined some whiskey clubs because I wanted to learn more. And being the only female in a lot of these clubs I didn’t feel I was really taken very seriously, and nobody really wanted to hear my opinion about anything. Whiskey is just a spirit made from grain. But most people don’t know what makes whiskey what it is versus other spirits what they are. So part of the inspiration for the business was to educate. Getting to talk to people is my favorite part of it. I love it when people get super into it and ask really tough questions. Those are fun.

What have some of the tough questions been?

ALI – Oh, somebody asked me how long our barrel wood had been seasoned and I had no idea. I’d never even asked. I’d just assumed there was some standard minimum. So I went home and immediately called all our barrel coopers and asked them, along with a bunch of other questions. I like getting those tough questions because then I learn more.

Why do you think whiskey is so intimidating to people?

SAM – Again I think it’s that culture and legacy, right? It’s this bad boy, very masculine image. That’s definitely how it’s marketed. So a lot of people we encounter say, Oh that’s what my Dad drinks, or my uncle or boyfriend. I don’t like whiskey. And they write it off.

ALI – It’s also knowing what to order. Because if you’ve never had a whiskey before and you order a really smoky Laphroaig? If you’re not ready for that, and you walk away thinking that’s what all whiskeys taste like? 

SAM – Or if you order really cheap stuff.

ALI – Or a really spicy rye, when what you might actually like is a sweeter bourbon. Knowing what to try can be hard.

SAM – Whiskey enthusiasts don’t even fully know what the different classifications are, and the variability that can come with it.

ALI – And even we still won’t argue with people from Kentucky! We say, You are right, we believe you!

That intimidation factor is something I notice working in the theater, too. People are sometimes very intimidated by theater, afraid that you have to have a certain education to be able to enjoy it. Parallels like this—or, as you said, how whiskey is both a craft and an art. Theater is as well. And for both, you have to be there, live in person, to experience them.

SAM – And they both require some amount of disposable income, maybe? Depending on what kind of theater you want to see or bourbon you want to drink?

Depending, yes. But the intimidation factor I find particularly at odds with another aspect of whiskey. Whiskey seems actually quite open. It’s not excluding anyone, really. Theater doesn’t intend to do that either, but that’s often the effect it has. With bourbon, the intimidation comes from it being, as you said, this cowboy thing. But that seems to be changing. You’re now running this place, for example. There’s Freeland Spirits up in Portland, another women-run distillery. Where do you see the industry going in this regard?

SAM – The Bay Area actually has a great community of women in the industry, I think, dovetailing from the wine industry, where women are much more present I would say. There’s Caly Shoemaker at Hanger 1. And Lauren Patz is the head distiller up at Spirit Works, with an all-female distillation team. So in terms of a community of rad women in alcohol, the Bay Area is a great place to be. That’s why we’ve built our approach and marketing efforts to be very open and approachable. We want everyone to try it, not any one type of person. While we have a very limited marketing budget—none—we do a lot of in-person events.

ALI – Any time we get into a new bar or restaurant we always offer to do staff trainings. I remember being on the other side, selling beer and wine, not knowing a lot about a product. As soon as I could connect the makers and their story to a product it was so much easier to sell and talk about, and I got more excited about it. And then our women’s whiskey club is a way for people who want to drink it to see if they like it or not. You don’t have to become an expert, it’s just a way to make it less scary to order.

SAM – I think our approach, and the transparency aspect, is part of our idea that anyone can learn about this. It doesn’t have to be shrouded in mystery or masculinity, or a deep history. Hopefully it’s welcoming. That’s our goal. I don’t accurately know how far our reach is in that regard. But hopefully there is a trend that we can help contribute to and make bourbon more approachable and commonplace for more kinds of people.

Where do you see Home Base Spirits five or ten years down the line?

ALI – That doesn’t seem that far away when it comes to whiskey.

SAM – Our goal is to grow into our own production space. Our idea all along was to start as rectifiers so we could invest back in the company, make sure we liked our product, and that others did too, before we went full in. But it’s definitely feeling like we’re going that way. The collaborations we’ve already experienced with the craft community is definitely, we think, the way to go. And we’re a part of the California Artisanal Distilleries Guild, which is lobbying for legislation to keep the excise taxes down, and lobbied for important legislation in the past that’s made it possible for all of us to do this somewhat affordable, yet still very expensive, venture. So, the collaboration aspects, getting more people to try bourbon, and growing into a space where we can invite more people in and produce at a much larger scale, this is all a part of our five- and ten-year plans.

A used Four Roses barrel, now with Home Base bourbon in it…

I’m curious, Edmond Kubein, who runs Bourbon County in San Francisco, passed on a used Four Roses barrel to you. What are your plans for it?

ALI – We put two-year whiskey in there, and it’s been in there for about eight months now. We want to push it a little longer. So we’ll probably… I don’t know. We might use it to blend with something fun. We have some single malts that we’re working on that might go nicely with that.

SAM – I don’t want to blend it.

ALI – We’ll keep tasting it. It could be ready in a couple months, or a couple years.

I periodically ask Edmond about it when I stop by his shop and he says, I don’t know, the twins are working on it.

ALI – Ed’s great. He offered us the barrel and I certainly wasn’t going to say no. I knew we’d find something to do with it. It still had some whiskey in it.

I think he’s delighted that his barrel is out here being put to use.

ALI – We should send him a photo of it.

SAM –The barrel says “hi!”

“Hi Edmond!”

Last couple of questions. Your favorite way to drink bourbon?

ALI – Neat. I also like it in cocktails. But if it’s a new bourbon or whiskey I haven’t tried yet, I always try it neat. I want to drink it how the maker intended it. In the summer sometimes I’ll throw an ice cube in it.

SAM – I love it neat. But I love fancy sweet cocktails as well. I love a hot-toddy. That’s what I’ll be drinking all winter long most likely. 

And a favorite whiskey moment?

SAM – Great question…

ALI – Going to Scotland was pretty amazing. Being at Springbank and Campbeltown. Springbank was my favorite tour. Talk about being transparent and making everything by hand. And then getting to taste a lot of the Cadenhead barrels. We got a pretty amazing tour. And just being in Scotland. They have some of the best whiskeys.

SAM – I’d say my favorite moment with our whiskey was with the malter we used early on. At the time there was no local malt in California because there were no local malt houses. So we found this family estate farm in Oregon called Mecca Grade. They were in Madras, Oregon, which was in the path of totality when the solar eclipse happened in 2017. They decided to throw a party for all their customers—the brewers and distillers that use their malt. They had an empty barley field where they let us all pitch tents. They catered all the meals, and everyone brought their own products. They had several trucks of kegs and we brought a bunch of whiskey. Not only was it a great three-day party, but we all got to see this eclipse in the middle of this huge field, with nobody around. That was a pretty magical moment. It felt special that we got to bring our bourbon to that event.

What do you think it is about whiskey that begets and attracts stories?

SAM – It’s celebratory. There are definitely lots of us who will drink it maybe every night, neat, just as a wind-down. But it’s something that’s brought out for special occasions or to celebrate.

ALI – It’s very warming, too, and it’s associated with the winter months, or evenings, campfires, Thanksgiving—which are all connected to stories. Whiskey in general is very cozy.

People often remember a bourbon because they drank it with this person on that occasion. I don’t associate that kind of thing with beer or vodka.

ALI – Or gin, yeah.

So what is it? What’s happening in that bottle?

SAM – It’s liquid gold. It’s valuable. 

ALI – I think it also has to do with the flavor. It has a lot of those warming spices, vanillas, baking spices, flavors associated with warm gatherings around the hearth, so to speak. And the ritual of it is pretty straight forward. You can just pour it in a glass. It doesn’t necessarily need to be mixed in a cocktail or have anything added to it. It’s really a very easy gathering tool.

SAM – We had one of our whiskey club gatherings the Friday after the 2016 election. And that was one of the most memorable- We drank so much!

ALI – We’ll usually compare two to four at a time, and there’s usually half left and whoever hosts gets to keep what’s left in the bottle.

SAM – There was nothing left.

ALI – We did it at our house and we had to dig into our stash for more. It was the longest, and probably the most unproductive gathering in terms of talking about whiskey. 

SAM – But we talked about everything else. It was heavy, heavy, but memorable.

I was in Poland for a theater festival when that election went down, and it was Jameson I was drinking. 

SAM – No American whiskeys there?

Not too many.

I wanted to hop on a flight back home immediately, not that there was anything I could do to change anything at that point.

SAM – You want to be with people you love.

Although it was interesting to be in Poland at that moment. They have their own conservative government in place, and there were some protests going on. And it struck me, there is so much blood soaked into the soil there, and yet the people I was meeting were all so calm and kind and welcoming. I thought, they’ve earned their kindness. They understand the need for it. Watching that election unfold on CNN, on a flat-screen TV in a Polish hotel room, America seemed so hysterical by comparison.

SAM – Does your blog have a mission?

Going into it I knew I wanted to connect whiskey to larger contexts. There are the darker aspects of whiskey, but also the brighter social aspects that are quite positive. On the one hand it can kill you, but it can also bring you great pleasure and bring people together. The contradictions in whiskey seem very American to me. We’re the great Democracy, yet we only have two political parties. That doesn’t match up. I’m interested in things that have that contradictory mix, whether it’s America or the theater or something as seemingly banal as what we choose to drink. Contradictions have meaning.

So I think the blog is a place of curiosity for me—and, I hope, for those who read it. There are the reviews of various bottles. But even with those, my mind can’t help going to some other aspect of the whiskey, whether it’s this ethical issue of transparency or the question of how we get to know people. How people reveal themselves to us over time, if we’re patient, is like an open bottle of whiskey. With time and air there’s an evolution that happens. A theater performance is like that too. Opening night “tastes” different than closing night. A person you’ve known for a long time, as you get to know them new “flavors” keep coming out.

SAM – They evolve.

Yes, and your understanding of them evolves. You can’t know what’s going to happen to a whiskey in the barrel. And people seem that way to me. My partner and I have been together a long time and it’s surprising how much we still learn about each other. And you, now you each have your kids who are fresh in the mix. Other than changing your schedule, how does having kids dovetail with Home Base? 

ALI & SAM – [they laugh]

Or does that remain to be seen?

SAM – So much of what you’re saying makes sense. The kid thing is just this crazy mystery. Everyone tells you, Oh, you’re going to love it. But there is nothing that prepares you for how you’re going to feel. It didn’t happen instantaneously for me. It’s a whole reorientation. I don’t know if it’s affected how I see our business, except that we love even more that we’re self-employed…

…Well. Here we are sharing stories. It works. Thank you so much.

ALI – You’re welcome.

SAM – Thank you. And if you see Ed again before we do next, please say hello for us.

ALI – He’ll be hearing from us. He has Batch 11 and 12, and as soon as this new corn whiskey is out he’ll be one of the first we call.

[I try a sample of 123-proof, 100% Red Flint corn whiskey they’d pulled straight from the cask.] 

Woah… This is great… Would you bottle it at cask strength?

ALI – We’re torn.

I’d never guess it was 123 proof.

ALI – We’re going to try it again tomorrow. We tried it a month ago and we’re still torn. 

What would you need to price it at to make it possible?

ALI – It’s the most expensive grain we’ve ever used. But it’s such a small batch. It’s kind of a pain if we don’t turn a profit on it. But then again, it was a fun one-off that we did, so it’s not a regular longterm product that we need to sustain us… I’m torn. Maybe we’ll do it at cask strength but still price it at an approachable price, maybe that’s the answer…

Well I’d buy it. Just so you know.

ALI – I know. I’m so torn. We’re going to proof it down again and try it, now that it’s been another month. We’ll see…

Addendum

Two weeks after this interview, The Red Flint Corn whiskey was released—to my delight, at cask strength! Here are the final specs:

HOME BASE RED FLINT CORN WHISKEY
Barrels #1RF and #2RF—used Home Base Bourbon American Oak 25-gallon barrels from Kelvin Cooperage

MASH BILL – 100% Organic Red Flint Corn grown in Woodland, CA, at Tule Farm

PROOF – 123.2

AGE – 2 years 6 months

DISTILLERY – Distilled at Sutherland Distilling Company, CA. Aged in Oakland and Berkeley, CA, at Home Base Spirits.

PRICE – $78

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