Booze

Ian Somerhalder on the Journey to Creating His Own Bourbon

The Vampire Diaries actor and environmental activist talks to us about the joys and years of hard work that went into creating Brother’s Bond Bourbon with his on-screen brother Paul Wesley, their decade-long friendship from one of the most-watched series in TV history (in 2020, it was still the 15th most-streamed show in the world); and everything from regenerative agriculture, healing the world through soil, growing up in the bayous of Louisiana stealing mint juleps, and how new millennials embracing bourbon means it’s no longer just an old white man’s drink.

LEO: Talk to me about what sparked the idea for the Brother’s Bourbon venture?

Somerhalder: Today, believe it or not—and I coined this after one of our Vampire Diaries episodes—but today [February 11th] is “Founders’ Day”. It’s exactly a year from the day that we finalized; we found the blend. We found this exact profile. We shook on it, we toasted on it, we tested it everywhere. I was like, “Try it at your house!” “Try it outside in the woods!” And, “I tried it in my garage, Paul!” 

We called it into the team. We had a chemical analysis. We decided this was the one. This was the gold standard that we created; that is our baby. So it’s pretty amazing that we’re talking about this now, on this day. It’s pretty special, man. 

This has been a decade in the making. Paul and I have been talking about it for 10 years. The reality of it is, we were on a television show, and we traveled every week pretty much. So Paul and I were together 60-80 hours a week, and we could never have started this company then. I also knew in the later years of the show that Nik [wife Nikki Reed] and I would be having a baby soon. So the last few years, right when we got off of the show, we realized this is the time to strike. 

It takes a lot of patience. It takes four years to make this. Minimum. And the blending process—some of the bourbon in here is over four years, but we have to start where the minimum is. I would never go below that. 

Obviously the brothers [on The Vampire Diaries] bonded on screen with bourbon; Paul and I bonded off screen with bourbon. We always make the joke that the only way we could tolerate each other was to consume tremendous amounts of bourbon. And there’s some truth to that, because you spend 11 years with someone—and we have this company together; it’s like a marriage. Paul and I have this joke, “It’s my longest relationship.” And so that’s how we got here. Dreaming, dreaming, dreaming. Putting together a team of experts. Every person on our executive team has 20 years of experience in this business at the highest of levels. It’s just a dream. 

I grew up really poor in Louisiana… [but] because you’re so rich in food, family and culture, you don’t even really know that you don’t have much… Mint juleps are what my family would make on Sundays, after church, with the crawfish boiling and the shrimp dip. 

But I mean, it’s been hard. I’m up at 4:30 every morning to get stuff done early for the baby. And my executive team is on the East Coast, and I have partners in Asia, so it’s one coast or the other; but these calls happen at these crazy, crazy times. My soul, our souls I should say, are in this bottle.  

We ran a first production of tens of thousands of cases. We bottle this in Portsmouth. We have 20,000 cases of Bourbon sitting in this cold filter—when you dump these barrels, it’s cloudy. It’s called turbidity. Some people like it, but we want ours to be pure and golden and clear, so you run it through this chill filter and it takes out all of this cloudiness. Can you imagine how many gallons that is?  I was driving through Portsmouth last week, believe it or not, driving back to LA from the Memphis airport. And just knowing that it was there—I just wanted to go by and touch it. But it was almost three in the morning.

That’s a tough drive right now during Covid.

You know, I was there to see my Dad for his 80th birthday, and I felt like one of those people that I sort of judge for traveling. And I said, “I’m doing this the best I can.” And obviously it was hard being away from my family and my little one, but driving through this country reminded me of how special it is; and this is an agricultural country. 

The giveback of this company is going to regenerative farming because regenerative agriculture is what’s going to save us from, stop, and reverse climate change.  

So just driving across this great country, it brought me back to being closer to it. I grew up in the bayous of southeast Louisiana. My family, my grandparents, aunts and uncles are all farmers. My aunt and uncle were actually huge farmers in Arkansas, so I spent so much time there on those farms; and now as an adult, building this company that is going to be feeding this huge regenerative initiative is really special.

How long did it take from the moment of inception until now, when it is ready for online sales?

Years. You have to have four years in the barrel. About two and half years ago, something like that, we started the blending process. It took 14 months to get that blend. It was February of last year to today when Paul and I were sitting out by my fire tasting this. What’s so crazy is that it has gone by so fast. 

When I got up this morning, I was on the phone with our trademark attorney because we have a trademark issue in India. We’re building a global alcohol brand, and the intricacies that go into this, especially because alcohol is a very controlled substance in the world, and the legislative bodies and all of the compliance issues— it’s unbelievable. 

Some evenings, when we’re done with all our meetings and stuff, I’ll go sit by my fire outside, and Paul will sit by his. We’ll say, “Let’s recap, let’s take a sip, take a deep breath. Today was amazing.” And we do that another day, and another day, and what we realized is that every day we sit down to recount in the evening, we go, “Holy shit, what an incredible day.” Every single day something is happening in this brand that is monumental, or another milestone, or oh, we shattered that sales record, oh we destroyed that sales record.

When you’re on a television show, you never talk about the business side. It’s not your business. You can love your show and support the studio, because they’re like family and that’s your thing—but this is our company. 

We put 5,000 bottles out before Thanksgiving on reserve bar. Within four hours they were gone. So we said, alright, let’s put the full 10,000 bottles we have on there, and within 16 hours they were gone. And the reason it was 16 hours was because there was a big lag time since people were sleeping. So we came back around and got another small run of production, and we said, listen, let’s put 24,000 bottles on. Within 15 minutes, the first 5,000 bottles sold, and within the first 40 minutes, the first 10,000 were gone. Once we cut it off, so many other people kept trying to buy and buy and buy. 

That just gives us so much hope and confidence and gratitude, because it means that people not only want to support us, but they want to be a part of the story.

What sets bourbon, for you, apart from other liquors?

Everyone, when you get into the bourbon business is like, “Are you sure? Are you sure you don’t want to do like a gin or a vodka?” Tequila is hard to come across, because you have a supply issue, but you know gin and vodka you can make like nothing. White spirits are easy. This is the most capital-intensive and laborious thing that you can do in the spirits space. 

Bourbon is in my blood, man. I’m a kid from Louisiana and I remember stealing my parents’ cocktails. I remember the talk over bourbon, and the smell of bourbon in the air. 

Living and working in Atlanta on TVD, and being Damon Salvatore, and basically living with Stefan Salvatore—we lived drinking bourbon all day. I’d get to set, and I’d be shooting our first shot; Damon is such a lush, he’s actually drinking bourbon. Obviously it was [actually] tea there. But by the end of the day when we wrapped, [Paul and I] would be like, “Dude, we have to go sit down and have a bourbon.” And we’d run over our lines for the next day. We would sit outside in Atlanta, or when it was cold we would sit and hunker down by the fire, or in one of our favorite bars, and we would run through our stuff and drink bourbon. And this went on for years, man.  

So there was a level of authenticity built into a brand with an ethos that was not just about, “let’s just sell this and make money.” The ethos is about community, about bringing people together. Because, at the end of the day, [it’s about] togetherness. In a time now in which we need togetherness more than ever in history. That to me is so authentic, and it’s such a no-brainer. 

What is your favorite way to enjoy Bourbon?  Do you have a favorite cocktail?

The way I drink this bourbon is just rocks, preferably. Just ice. It’s lethal in a way, like, it goes down. We’re fortunate because we get to develop this drink strategy with one of the most sought-after mixologists in the world. When you really go to the mat, and you sit and make these drinks for people, it blows their fucking mind. Paul and I wanted to create a bourbon that, whether it was for a millennial guy or gal, or even my mom—my 80-year-old dad will literally take this bourbon, pour it into a glass and just drink it. That’s how smooth and complex it is. But 80 proof, you can do that. At a 90-proof bourbon, it’s just too difficult. 

The reason we made it 80 proof, and not 90, is so it’s approachable. You want to be able to get into it. I want people to be able to sip it and not wince. Life kicks you in the teeth; your bourbon doesn’t need to.

But mint juleps are so close to my heart. I grew up really poor in Louisiana. The thing about growing up in Louisiana was, there were never any socioeconomics, because you’re so rich in food, family and culture that you don’t even really know that you don’t have much. You just know that you have nothing but family and friends and food and fun around you at all times, even in the hardest times. Mint juleps are what my family would make on Sundays, after church, with the crawfish boiling and the shrimp dip. I remember the smells, all the wild mint that grows everywhere. At my grandparents’ house, you could just go and grab huge chunks of mint and bring them into the house and wash it off and chop it up. Muddling that mint with fresh sugar cane, which we also had on the property—you would just cut it down, roll that shit and squeeze it—and boom, you were in heaven. That smell is just heaven.  

As a little kid, even without the bourbon, we loved it. Those are such incredible, fond memories. You don’t have to make them very sweet, but man, mint juleps are the bomb. But make no mistake about it, it’s pure bourbon. The great thing about having all that ice, and if I don’t have access to crushed ice—you have to be careful with counter tops, but I will take ice and wrap it in a dish towel and beat it over a chopping board with a huge spoon or muddler. That dilution of the water mixed with the mint and a little bit of sugar… *whistles*. 

I don’t go to the Derby anymore, because there’s a lot of controversy around the treatment of racehorses. But I grew up on a racetrack, and I got retired racehorses. One of my most favorite memories is when I took my dad to the Kentucky Derby, years ago when that stigma wasn’t really there yet. It was just such a fun day. I was sitting with my dad, and he just said, “How cool is this? How far we’ve come.” And we’re just sitting at the table and we’re a bottle in, drinking mint juleps. I used to steal their mint juleps as a kid; run behind the shed and take a sip, and run back and hope they didn’t notice.

So, is that your favorite Bourbon memory?

Yeah, but I have to tell you, going back to The Vampire Diaries, the memories that Paul and I have with bourbon are incredible, because we spent so much time drinking this gold brown liquid. And even when we would wrap our show on a Friday, even if it was two in the morning, pretty much the whole cast and most of the crew, we would end up at the same bar in Atlanta.  

For people who spend 60 hours a week together, on a Friday at two in the morning, and just want to go sit together again, let the week dissipate, just to share a drink—it’s pretty special. To have that kind of connection, that kind of family for that many years, that’s connective-ness, that’s community, that’s bonding. Get together, share memories, strengthen bonds; new ones, old ones, reminisce… it’s nice to remember where you come from, and it’s great to appreciate where you are. 

Bourbon is well-known as the only spirit that is native to America—what relevance does that have to you?

That’s a really great question, and I am a total mad scientist geek about this shit. My mother’s family is Irish, her family came from Dublin, and the other side of her family is Choctaw Native American. Native American and Irish are two body chemistries that react very differently to alcohol. My Father’s side is French. 

So, you’ve got a French name of the most famous political powerhouse in France, The House of Bourbon, and then you’ve got this new frontier of making whiskey the way they made it in Ireland and Scotland, but using what was available in the United States. 

What you get out of it is something incredibly different than Irish Whiskey and Scotch. You get this sweetness, this inviting nuance of corn and wheat, complemented by the spice of the rye and nuttiness of barley. It’s been part of my heritage forever. I have pictures of me as a little kid running down Bourbon Street. So, I’ve never not known this name, Bourbon.

Back in 2013, there were a slew of articles about Bourbon being considered a men’s spirit and how Bourbon and Whiskey brands were trying to broaden their customer bases. Do you think the spirit has become more fashionable and something that appeals to a wider audience?  

I have this conversation all day every day. Bourbon does typically have the stigma of being an old, white guy’s kind of drink. That’s not the case anymore because there are a lot of craft distilleries coming into the fold. What’s amazing is what the data tells us is that a tremendous amount of millennial females are not only excited, but are buying our bourbon, which is a very different demographic. Millennials want to try new things.  

The reason we made it 80 proof, and not 90, is so it’s approachable. You want to be able to get into it. I want people to be able to sip it and not wince. Life kicks you in the teeth; your bourbon doesn’t need to. There hasn’t been a new injection of energy into the bourbon category ever. Brother’s Bond is that thing that is going to come in and do that. I say this with all humility and because of the data. That gets me out of bed early in the morning, before the sun comes up every day. What the data is telling us is that young, millennial females are appreciating spirits. 

You and Paul have now had a friendship that has run over a decade. Talk about what maintaining a working relationship and friendship that long takes?

We always joke that it’s a crazy balance. Paul makes fun of me and says that I am the eternal optimist. I am the geeky one that is coming in with passion and light and wanting to change the world with this company. I want to make something really special, and we will. Paul always says, “I’m the glass half empty guy.” Sometimes I will come in with these massive ideas and Paul settles things back into reality. We’ve had that thing for so many years, and it’s really cool, and by the way, it’s why that Stefan and Damon’s relationship worked. It was up and down, it was Yin and Yang, and that’s it—shared passion and mutual respect. 

We’re lucky because we had the shared passion of our show, and shared desire and necessity to continue on as level-headed leaders to continue working like work horses. A shared work ethic. We had to show up, no matter what the weather was, show up with a smile and make it happen. That work ethic had to keep going from the very first shot to the very last shot, even in the snow, ice, rain, sleet at three or four in the morning. We had mutual respect for one another, because we’ve been through it all together. We can say the most incendiary thing. When you know someone so well, sometimes you can just know what one another is thinking, and other times, you keep each other in check. I can say things to Paul that no one else could say to him, without him thinking that he’s being wildly disrespected. And he can say things to me where I’ll go, “Oh, you’re right,” whereas if someone else said that to me, I would say, “You’re an asshole.  Don’t talk to me that way.” It’s pretty incredible. And this is our passion now. This is what we’re doing. For something post-Vampire Diaries, this is the most authentic no-brainer. This is all those years coming together.

Have you thought about the fact that many of your younger fans from The Vampire Diaries are now, if not soon, hitting legal drinking age?  Do you hope to bring them on this journey with you?

To build a special brand, for it to be successful, and I don’t mean in just a monetary sense—I mean to build a real community—you want a diverse group of people and ages. I think that young people coming into the industry in what we call LDA, Legal Drinking Age, that sense of community is not based on fraternity or sorority parties. It’s about sitting, talking, reminiscing and bonding. It’s not just about guzzling. This is something we made so you can sip it neat and sip it over ice and actually be ok.  

I can only think in scale, because our show was broadcast to hundreds of millions of people… And the only way you can do something that actually changes the world is at scale… How do you bring something that’s craft and quality, but that’s at scale? Let me tell you something, it is not easy… We want people enjoying this all over the world. This is an un-exclusive situation. This is an inclusive situation… I’m not going to charge people a bunch of money, just because our name is on it. I can’t do it.

It’s a huge blessing for us to have that fanbase and demographic that is just growing a bit and coming into it. As producers of spirits, we do have a responsibility to give back to the community, and regenerative agriculture is what we are focused on, but mental health really comes into the fold—which is communities, talking about it, getting people out onto farms. Food is also what brings us together. We can heal the country and heal this world by healing our soil. It’s the same. We’re the same biological process. The same microbiome of soil is a direct relation to the health of that soil. The health of the human being is a direct relation to the gut microbiome of the human stomach. So we can all heal by healing the soil and healing ourselves. And a lot of that mental health comes from feeling like you are a part of a community. These are all big things we are doing. These are not small things. 

I remember having this conversation with Elon Musk years ago—and what an amazing brain and powerhouse; I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to spend so much time in my life with someone like that. I can only think in scale, because our show was literally broadcast to hundreds of millions of people every episode. So the saturation of hearts, minds, households is at scale. And the only way you can actually do something that actually changes the world or humanity is at scale. So that’s how my brain thinks. But to bring something to scale, for me, it’s got to be quality. And how do you bring something that’s craft and quality, but that’s at scale?  Let me tell you something, it is not easy. And this is what I’ve spent the last two years straight of my life figuring out. I will not compromise on quality, and honestly, we just slashed our margins because we want this to be affordable to people at scale. We want people enjoying this all over the world. This is an un-exclusive situation. This is an inclusive situation. For better or for worse, that’s what we are doing. But we will not compromise on quality or price. I’m not going to charge people a bunch of money, just because our name is on it. I can’t do it.

A conversation has been had about using non-GMO corn for environmental purposes.  Bourbon has to be more than 51% corn, per its definition.

This goes into a conversation that a lot of people don’t want to have. A lot of GMO corn and wheat is used in alcohol products. Obviously because there is so much of it. On land, you have a lot of issues with GMO’s. It goes back to regenerative agriculture, which is in Kiss the Ground [the new Netflix documentary narrated by Woody Harrelson, which Somerhalder exec-produced and stars in, alongside a bevy of superstars, including the Bradys]. Modern agriculture does not develop for the betterment of the soil. The soil is what gives us our life. So, by going back to a regenerative growing industry, we will heal our soil, our planet and ourselves.  

Bottom line, that’s the way that this cycle is going to work. GMO in corn or wheat in bourbon, from a molecular standpoint because of distillation, things get completely deconstructed; so you’re not getting anything in the human body that is going to be dangerous. But feeding millions of people GMO-agricultural products is just not a good idea. For us as a company, moving into a space where we are a non-GMO and carbon negative company, and securing and storing and saving more water than using is where we are going. It’s a big conversation. You would be blown away by the cost difference. Non-GMO, organic corn is quintuple what GMO corn costs. It is so sad why that has to be. As we build as a company, it is our goal and our ethos to continually put more into our regenerative practices where our grains come from. That’s a really big deal because millennial consumers want to know where they are spending their money—the companies that are giving back. That’s where we are headed.  

Knowing that you are such a proponent for green living, and knowing that Bourbon barrels can only be used once, what do you do with your used barrels?

There is a tremendous amount of wood used in bourbon making. To be bourbon, legally, the barrels have to be new virgin white oak. So they get shipped to Canada to make Canadian whiskey, or they go to Europe for Irish whiskey. Some of them go down to South and Central America for rum, also Jamaica. So those barrels go all over the place and are used over and over and over again.  

When did your call to action regarding the environment start?  What was the moment? You’ve been involved in many causes under that umbrella over the years.  Is there one that sticks out to you the most?

Everyone can say that they want to do something good in the world, and I applaud them for that because it does take a tremendous amount of focus and finance and structure. I say this like a badge of honor. My parents and grandparents taught us how destructive humanity can be. You have to give back as much as you take, otherwise there is an imbalance. I saw it through the Lake Pontchartrain crisis—the lake that separates New Orleans from the North Shore. All of the biodiversity was dead, and that was because of the idiocy of humanity. People don’t realize that a part of the ocean the size of Texas is dredged every year. So, all the biodiversity was dead, and I remember growing up it was all about, “Save the Lake.” They ended up saving the lake, and it’s flourishing now. But for us, our food came from that lake. We lived off of this food. My family were hunters. We lived off of all that food, and so did so many other families, both rich and poor. 

I’ve never not had a connection to the earth. So, for me, realizing that there was a very sizable, scalable disconnect between humanity and the environment, particularly after the gulf oil spill—I knew it was time. That will never be completely fixed. 

I had a very profound conversation with Deepak Chopra. He reminded me that we are the same biological process as the earth. It’s all the same. The trees are the lungs of the earth. If you cut them, you prohibit the organism from breathing. The oceans, streams and river systems are the cardiovascular system of the earth, carrying all the vital nutrients to the organism so it can survive. Well, if you pollute and damn and destroy all of those systems, what happens? The organism starts to die. And it makes sense. We need to remind the public that we are not separate from the environment. If you ask someone what the environment is, they are typically going to tell you, “the natural environment that surrounds us.” And I offer up this: that is not what the environment is; the environment is within us. We are the same biological process. Once you grasp that, and put your feet in the ground, you realize you’re not different. So, what you do to the earth, you do to yourself.  Bottom line. And we are seeing that more now than ever with our industrial food systems and fossil fuel use. It’s really coming to bite us in the ass, and now is the time for the change, and it’s going to happen. So, teaching my kids and watching people grasp this concept is really powerful, and it has changed my whole life.

SOMERHALDER BREAKS DOWN REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE

Regenerative agriculture is the way to reverse climate change. Climate disruption can literally be stopped and then reversed with regenerative agriculture. Using planned grazing methods of hoofed herbivores, cattle, wild buffalo, to regenerate grasslands. It’s creating a polyculture, more than one single crop. Using multiple species at one point, and not tilling soil, which destroys soil, it releases carbon dioxide. When I realized this years ago, my heart sank and my mind exploded. How can the one thing that we do every April in this country, at scale, we till? When we’re tilling, all you see are these massive carbon clouds in the atmosphere. And it goes away, into the plants. So regenerative agriculture is using growing, living plants and food to draw the carbon dioxide out of the air and storing it in the ground where it belongs. That goes into the ground and becomes what is called a “carbon glue,” and it feeds the micro-organisms in the soil, which is the microbiome. It’s the surest way to get us out of this climate crisis, and to build a regenerative food industry that is the biggest, industrial operation in the world.  

When China, Russia, the EU, India and the United States change to regenerative agriculture, the world will shift on its axis. Climate change will literally be in our rear-view mirror. That, to us, being able to give back to that and put our money where our mouth is, which also leads to education and farmer prosperity, and just like the old understanding of food bringing us together, people coming together over the dinner table… that’s how we change our world. And you can make a direct relationship between the health of the soil microbiome and the health of the gut microbiome. It’s the same biological process. Healthy soil means healthy plants, healthy planet, healthy people.

Brother’s Bourbon will be available in 15 states as of May 1st, in stores and online. The rest of the states will follow later in the year.

CHECK OUT IAN

OUT NOW

As himself and as executive producer of Netflix’s climate change documentary Kiss the Ground.

COMING SOON

The release of Brother’s Bond Bourbon on May 1st.

BEST OF

As Boone Carlyle on JJ Abrams’s long-running series Lost.

As Damon Salvatore on the CW’s The Vampire Diaries.

As himself in Showtime’s climate change docuseries Years of Living Dangerously.

As Paul Denton in Breat Easton Ellis and Roger Avary’s The Rules of Attraction.

As Josh in the Oscar-nominated Life as a House.

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