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photos Ashley Horne

J. Riley Distillery

by Eric Peterson on August 13, 2018, 07:35 am MDT

www.jrileydistillery.com

Redlands, California

Founded: 2013

Privately owned

Employees: 5

Industry: Brewing & Distilling

Products: Spirits and canned cocktails

Founder Jason Riley balances tradition and experimentalism at his upstart craft distillery.

"I love whiskey," says Riley, a retired Marine. "I've always liked the flavor of it. Some people think it's harsh. I drink 130-proof whiskey and it's smooth to me."

It's no surprise he started making it.

After retiring at age 24 in 2001, Riley grew his construction business to about 40 employees before the recession hit in 2008.

While contracting with the State Department as a helicopter gunner in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2014, a newly divorced Riley sowed the seeds for the next chapter in his career: distiller. "I'm missing my kids," he remembers. "I'm thinking, 'What am I going to do?'"

He got licensed in between stints overseas in 2013, then started focusing on the distillery full-time in 2015. "By January 2016, I had 5,000 or 6,000 bottles of California Clear," says Riley.

The spirits had aged for just 30 days in a barrel. "That really does impart some flavor," says Riley. "Then we filter it clear again. You can taste the difference."

The learning curve was a tough climb. "I couldn't find one piece of literature," says Riley, noting that his education was based on "trial and error" and a few brewing books. He'd distill five gallons of mash at a time. "That's a lot of work," he says. "You end up with a pint of 100 proof."

He took inspiration from the whiskeys from St. GeorgeFour Roses, and Balcones, but was also informed by less expensive brands. "For flavor and price point, you can't beat Evan Williams," he says. 

For a bourbon, he settled on blue corn as his key ingredient. "It's only found in the United States really," says Riley, ”I said, 'I'm going to do the most American bourbon I can.'" The result is Jeremiah Riley Bourbon, with a 75 percent blue corn, 21 percent rye, and 4 percent barley that's aged in barrels for two years. It's named for Riley's son, and the distillery also bottles the seasonal Aeva Mae's Apple Spice Whiskey, named for his daughter. "I just found a recipe for apple pie moonshine and tweaked on it," says Riley.

The distillery sources corn from New Mexico, and utilizes open fermentation in a 500-gallon mash tun, then distills on a 350-gallon still. "There's a huge difference with the yellow corn and blue corn," says Riley, who uses yellow corn in his 1775 Whiskey, likewise a two-year whiskey.

Two years of aging is a good match for Redlands’ humidity, or lack thereof. "We're such a dry climate we lose about 20 percent of our barrels to evaporation," says Riley, who uses swamp coolers to boost his space to 60 percent humidity.

He expanded into gin and vodka in 2017, and also has some experimental barrels. "I have a bunch of weird, one-off stuff," says Riley, noting that breweries often give him unpalatable batches. "I've got a 53-gallon merlot barrel of hoppy whiskey. It's got a pink hue to it."

Riley says the distillery sold nearly 10,000 bottles in 2017, but his primary goal is sustainable growth. "I'm not looking to blow up and be the biggest brand right away," he says. "I don't want to be a flash in the pan. . . . We're growing very nicely."

Half of the sales were direct from the tasting room, a channel that wasn't even legal when the distillery first opened. "If the laws didn't change in California [in 2016], you probably wouldn't be talking to me right now," says Riley.

Challenges: Distribution, and California's three-tier system makes it even harder. "It took me forever to find a distributor," says Riley. "You can't go with a big guy. They'll take your products and bury them."

He's now on his third distributor in three years, Redlands-based Co Hop Beverages, where J. Riley is the first spirits brand in the catalog. The distillery has about 100 accounts, including Total Wine & More throughout California.

He says it would nice if distilleries could self-distribute within 100 miles "I think the biggest challenge for craft distilleries is that you can have a great whiskey in a year, but nobody will buy it because of the age," says Riley. "We can't do an eight-year like Tennessee, or a 15-year like Scotland, where it's always cold and wet."

Opportunities: "The wave I'm trying to jump on is canned cocktails," says Riley. The distillery released its first, the copper-canned California Mule with J. Riley's California Clear, in partnership with Cock'n Bull Premium Sodas in July 2018.

A honey-based rum will hit the market in October -- "It's got this amazing honey note to it," says Riley -- and a 100 percent rye whiskey is due out in 2019.

Riley is looking at out-of-state distribution for the canned cocktails, but the bottle market is local. "I have 22 million people within 80 miles of me. That's a lot of people if I can advertise right."

"My end goal is to open a restaurant," says Riley, and pour spirits from "obscure craft distilleries" from all over the country. "I don't have an ego. I don't need to be the man. How do we shape the whole craft spirits movement together?"

Needs: Space. "We're trying to move," says Riley. "We have our production facility and tasting room in the same spot." He's in talks with developers for a 10,000-square-foot space at a new project. "It's about 18 months out," he says.

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