Talking to Neil Giraldo, the Grammy Award-winning musician behind Jackson-based Steel Bending Spirits
By Katherine Martinelli
Featured photo courtesy of Three Chord Bourbon
Neil Giraldo has had an illustrious career. The Grammy Award-winning musician, producer and songwriter is behind some of the biggest hits of the past few decades. (The epic guitar solo in Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl”: all Giraldo.) He and Pat Benatar — his wife and collaborator of 38 years — are to thank for belt-out-loud classics like “Love is a Battlefield” and “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.”
And while Giraldo is still deeply involved with music (he and Benatar continue to tour together every summer), he has branched out into writing books and screenplays and at least one venture that seems farther removed from his artistic pursuits: making bourbon.
Since 2018, Giraldo’s Jackson-based company, Steel Bending Spirits, has been churning out the Three Chord Bourbon line of blended spirits, which includes a bourbon whiskey, a rye whiskey and a straight bourbon. The products are available in restaurants, bars and stores in 15 states and available to ship nationwide.
Though it might seem like a leap from music making to booze production, Giraldo sees the two as parallel. The way he explains it, a song starts with an idea that grows as you pen lyrics, perfect the melody and add musicians. Similarly, a bourbon or whiskey is made up of different components and stages that come together to create the final product. “You put all these things together and you blend just like you do music and instruments and melodies,” he says. “And then you taste and you listen. The ears interpret the music and the palate interprets the flavor.”
The idea to start Steel Bending Spirits began in 2016 when Giraldo’s friend suggested getting seed money from a spirits company to make a trailer for a screenplay he was working on. “The ironic part is that the spirits company started, but the screenplay never got finished,” laughs Giraldo, who comes by booze-making naturally — as a kid growing up in Ohio, his Italian grandfather “would put me on his knee and give me homemade whiskey,” recalls Giraldo. “He’d be like, ‘Neilo, drink this!’ I got him to blame for my love of spirits.”
Giraldo, who spends most of his time in Los Angeles, knew he needed to find a distiller to help bring his vision to life and set out on a nationwide search for the right person. “I wanted to find someone young, fresh, disruptive like me,” he says. “I’m a disrupter in my musical career. I want somebody to shake things up.”
He went around the country meeting potential candidates. On a lark Giraldo ended up in Ann Arbor, which is where he met master distiller Ari Sussman, whose resume includes winemaking in France and four years training at Michigan State University’s Artisan Distilling Program. (He also co-founded Ann Arbor Distilling Company and has consulted on more than a dozen new distilleries across the country.)
“One of the things that Neil and I connected on was this idea about music,” recalls Sussman. “What really struck me was when he was talking about the process of producing a track and mixing a track and finding the right balance of everything.” It reminded Sussman of his bartending days, when he would make his own unique blends of single malt scotches. “I realized that you could make really interesting, compelling, different character profiles and put your own imprint on it.”
To make Three Chord bourbon and whiskey blends, Giraldo and Sussman start out by sourcing “the best of the best” spirits from Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana, then get to work figuring out their ideal ratio to create a worthy blend. “You can get something that’s really greater than the sum of its parts,” says Sussman.
The duo also re-barrel their blends and age them further to enhance the flavor, which Sussman says is common with cognac but not American spirits. Next they add their proprietary process of “rhythmic disruption,” which has to do with vibrations — not, as they’re quick to point out, playing music into the barrels. They’re tight-lipped about their exact methods — their atypical process is one of the things that set them apart, says Giraldo — but he will say this: “We don’t go around playing music into the barrels, because barrels don’t have ears.”
Although some people do a double take when Giraldo says he’s making bourbon blends in the Midwest — the operation ended up here because he saw no need to uproot Sussman — it only adds to his vision of doing things differently. “That’s why we’re disruptive. We don’t care where we’re from,” he says.
Besides, Sussman says, “if you’re a distiller and you live in Michigan, you kind of stumbled across a goldmine.” (Indeed, there are nearly 80 distilleries statewide.) For one, there are diverse agriculture offerings from grains to fruits. And though the weather can be a pain, “that vast swing in temperature and humidity is really great for the aging of whiskey,” says Sussman. “It swells the barrels and then contracts them and the spirit gets sucked into the wood and gets pushed out of the wood. You’re getting different rates of extraction than you would get in a place like Kentucky because of a really interesting climate.”
Despite Three Chord’s unique distilling process, Giraldo and Sussman are mostly focused on the final product. “You’re not trying to win an award from the process; you’re trying to make something that people like and enjoy,” says Giraldo, who bases the blends on his personal affinity for vanilla and caramel notes. He makes the trip to Michigan on occasion, but mostly Sussman sends him samples to get feedback and tweak until they achieve exactly the taste profile they want.
“If I have a spirit that we’re making, and I can’t personally honestly say I like it — I can’t do it,” says Giraldo, who’s abuzz with ideas for where to take this venture next (grappa, vodka, even cognac are all possibilities for the future). “We have to have integrity.”
Does Benatar dig Three Chord bourbon as well? “She likes it because she has no connection to it,” laughs Giraldo. “When I told my wife I was planning to do this company, she goes, ‘I don’t want anything to do with it. Just go have fun and do your ancestry work.’”