Watch Out: Jason Riley WILL fuck with you
There are two men behind the bar of the tasting room at J. Riley Distillery. These are manly men. Think full beards, bellies, arms that could squeeze the life out of a water buffalo- precisely who you'd want on your side in a fight. The bigger, dark-haired one breaks free from joking with customers and I introduce myself. My first mistake is asking if either of them is J. Riley.
"He's not here. I'm Steve and this is Doug," the big guys says, pointing at his gray-haired business partner. Something is clearly amusing these two, but I'm a little slow. No problem, we move on to the whiskeys, and there's a bunch.
"Steve" lines the bottles up on the bar: 1775 Whiskey, Jeremiah Riley Bourbon, Cask Strength Bourbon, and the recent-award-winning California Clear White Whiskey (sure enough, a bronze medal hangs around its neck).
In order: the 1775 is J. Riley's rye -21% rye, 75% yellow corn, and 4% barley mash- aged in bourbon barrels. It is sour in an enjoyable way. The Jeremiah Riley Bourbon is made from a 51/49 blue corn/barley mash, aged one to two years, and a potent 92 proof but with a very clean taste. Strong notes of wood make their way through.
I'm a little wary of the what the Cask Strength may do to me, since it's poured from an unmarked bottle and this Steve character is proving to be something of a jokester (more on that in a bit). Sure enough, the bourbon kicks at the throat - or leaves a nice burn, as us gathered at the bar decide to call it. Doug chimes in from where ever he's been, surprised that Steve would even concede that much. (It's still very flavorful and full-bodied, to be fair).
Here's where it begins to dawn on me that all has not been cricket in J. Riley town. A new group takes their place next to me at the bar and Steve introduces himself as Jason, as in the "J." in J. Riley. What the hell is happening here?
Steve-now-Jason concedes that the jig is up. The reason he sometimes doesn't let on to who he is, is so his antics won't tarnish the (considerable) merits of the product that bears his name. Fair enough, I guess. But I still can't help but wonder: why name the whole business after yourself only to make such an elaborate play at modesty?
It turns out, Jason is humble. I try to goad out of him some creation myth of "J. Riley," but instead I get the story of a man nearing mid-life who started tinkering with distilling and brewing after a divorce and tour of Afghanistan with the Marine Corps (not certain about that order). He points to a dorm-fridge-sized still, up on the wall for decoration, but at one time his first and only. That is how J. Riley started. Fair enough.
Luckily, I get to chat with Doug on my way out and he fills in the gaps. (You can think of him as the Shirley to Jason's Laverne.) He was a medic for a private contractor in Afghanistan, where he met Jason. They started brewing beer for fun, before realizing the wider appeal of Jason's bourbon.
The distillery has been three years in the making and already hitting markers of success: product carried by three national chains, two medals in the 2016 Los Angeles International Spirits Competition, and soon to be moving to a new 10,000 square foot facility, complete with a full restaurant.
Back to that award-winning California Clear (bronze for flavor, silver for packaging). It's made from the same blue corn/barley mash as the bourbon, but aged for thirty days in used bourbon barrels. It is then brought back to clear in what Jason will only describe as a secret drip process that takes five days to process fifty-five gallons. The result is beautiful. As the subtle banana bread and marshmallow flavors dawn on me, I understand how the medal is well-deserved. I'm sure more are on the way. For "dessert," Jason plunks down a glass of what looks like wood pulp. It's the bourbon mash and tastes exactly like soggy Kellogg's corn flakes.
Besides the quality of spirits they're putting out, one thing that impresses me about J. Riley is how connected they seem to be to the local community. No easy feat for an operation hidden in an industrial park down a nondescript road in Redlands, CA. A neon sign reading "Open" in an otherwise darkened window, is the only marker of its presence.
Seated next to me at the bar was an artist -the real Steve, as it turns out- planning a show in the distillery for that weekend, featuring the work of sixty other artists. (The tasting room is already beautifully decorated in what I'd call 'rickhouse chic' - like if Ma and Pa Kettle were to set up shop in modern-day Silverlake.) Doug tells me they sometimes have bands play the back alley and they will open up the distillery garage doors to one big party. For eco-social responsibility, they conserve about one million gallons of water per year, by recycling the water used to cool the mixer, through a double-pump cooler.
For Seinfeld fans, there's a full-size recreation of the Kramer portrait hanging in the restroom. That should have told me all I needed to know about these two marines-turned-barflies pumping out delicious whiskey in the shadow of the San Bernardino Mountains.