Sponsored by : Three Chord Bourbon
Barrel proof stories straight from the
With Hazel Alvarado
The Whiskey Network Interview
Neil Giraldo has defied the odds from birth, through his amazing music career, and into realm of making bourbon. With a nod to tradition and family, he has set out to be a disruptor in everything that he does. For nearly 40 years, he has collaborated with his wife, Pat Benatar, to create legendary music that has been the soundtrack of multiple generations of fans.
In addition, he has collaborated with a long list of well-known names in the music business: Kenny Loggins, Rick Springfield, John Waite, and many more. For all his efforts in music, his work has sold over 45 million records and earned him five Grammy Awards across nine nominations. It doesn’t stop there. He’s also scored films, as well as developed scripts for motion pictures and episodic content.
Finally, he is the founder and chairman of Steel Bending Spirits, LLC, and their flagship product is Three Chord Bourbon. It’s safe to say that this bona--fide super star is a whiskey enthusiast.
You can see the video of my interview HERE. You can also read our review of Three Chords offerings HERE. Please be sure to like, subscribe, and interact with Whiskey Network/WBSE across Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter.
Family, Food, and Nunzio’s Basement
From the moment of his birth, Neil was put on a path to defy the odds. Here, we gain an understanding of how he is a living testimony to the doctor who brought him into this world. From there, we get a glimpse into the bedrock of his life: family. The traditions of his upbringing are evident in everything he does. At the center of this is the combined sensory experience of food, drink, and conversation.
Whiskey wasn’t a revelation at some point his life; it was just a part of his upbringing that continued into his adult life. His early exposure taught him to respect that alcohol was just a part of the joy of life along with food and family. He has a well-developed sense of his limits and rarely (if ever) overindulges. This is a key factor for success in his life… always in focus and in control.
Of course, there is a wink and a nod to Grandpa Nunzio.
MP - What's your first memory of whiskey?
NG - Well, since I have blame it on somebody, it will be on my Sicilian family. My grandparents came from Bronte (Catania), Sicily. I remember being around 5 or 6 years old and sitting on my grandpa Nunzio's knee. He was holding me with one arm and in the other arm he had his little juice glass. It was always filled with his different spirits because he had his own little still in the basement of his tiny little house. He made grappa, whiskey, and wine. I remember taking a little sip and thinking, “Woof! Grandpa, that's some pretty weird stuff.” Then my father took on making wine and grappa, as well. So, I was always surrounded with it. Actually, when I was a kid, I had very low blood pressure and I was always really sick. I missed school and my mother took me to the doctor. I think it was about 10 years old, and she said that I needed to eat more garlic and drink wine at dinner. Here I was at 10 years old, drinking red wine with a little cola in it. That's what the Italians used to do, and that's my introduction into it.
MP - Then it kicks off a lifetime love affair, right?
NG - Yes, what I like about dark spirits is the conversational point of them. If you're sipping on a whiskey, bourbon, or cognac then I want to engage in more conversation. I think people need to put the phone down and get some conversation going. Sip, relax, share with families and of course, sip responsibly (like I always say). There is no race, and we need to savor it.
MP – At the Whiskey Network we believe in two things: #1. Whiskey is meant to be shared, and #2. Great stories come out of sharing whiskey and having wonderful interactions with one another.
You mention Grandpa Nunzio; is that the origin of your grappa Nunzio's Basement?
NG – Yes, that's exactly that's it. I'll give you a short historical point about my life. My name was supposed to be Nunzio, after my grandfather. When I was born, I wasn't breathing. I was a blue baby and the doctor brought me back to life. This is the reason I was always sick all the time. The pediatrician who revived me was named Cornelius Cassidy. My whole family was so thrilled I was alive, they named me Neil after Cornelius. I was going to be Nunzio… but that's how I got my name.
MP - Did Nunzio make it to your middle name, or did it not make it at all?
NG - No, Neil was it. I got Thomas is my middle name.
MP - When did drinking whiskey go from an exploration or something to do to as a hobby, and then to something more? Or can you think of an event that really was the tipping point for you?
NG - Well, I love food and cooking. I've found that bourbon, cognac, and whiskeys are really great with food. They are a lot closer to food than people think. People always say wine is the spirit for food, but that's not always true. Bourbon can go with cheese, salami, chicken, and vegetables… just about everything. It's so fantastic.
To your question, I can't say one moment would define that for me. Though, when I was a young musician (I think around 17 or 18 years of age), I was in this band in my local town in Cleveland and we would rehearse at a club during the day. The club owner would always say, “While you're rehearsing, if you drink anything just leave the empty bottles on the bar so I know what to refill.” Everybody had their choice and I always had bourbon. We’d rehearse and after rehearsal talk about songs while sipping whiskey. So, there was no defining moment; it was always around.
MP - If it's always been there on the journey and you've just continued to explore it, then that’s great. Now, you have come to the point to where you are now making it. That's not a common journey, but it's interesting about your background.
NG - Well, the Italian/Sicilian roots that I have mean that cooking is such a large part of our life. Our Sunday dinners went on forever with drinking, eating, and all that. Even as a teenager I liked sipping. While I was at home, I was allowed to drink responsibly. I wasn't a guy that wanted to get smashed. I just knew that I need to cool my head down because I’ve got a lot of stuff going on in there. Sipping on some whiskey helps to keep those thoughts in one place.
Whiskey Stories: Tastes and Experiences
It goes without saying that over time, a person begins to focus on what tastes they like. In his career, he has reached incredible levels of success, but his tastes and preferences are rooted in good sense and in a wide variety of options. While partial to bourbon, he enjoys many other types of beverages. The most interesting, but obvious, part of the discussion is regarding grappa.
Again, here he underscores his desire to maintain focus and control in the critical moments of his life. The attention to detail and quality of workmanship shines through in all his work. He relays a story where about how clarity keeps his work sharp. It’s a great life lesson as told by someone who values and strives for the best.
However, he does have a refuge and that is the golf course. We touch on this briefly, and there could be a much deeper conversation about those moments. Imagine that your partner on the back nine is none other than Neil Giraldo… one can only imagine being in that inner circle.
MP – You are known to be partial to Kentucky whiskey. What is it about Kentucky whiskey? Tell me about what makes that special to you.
NG - Well, what I could say is that Tennessee has that charcoal thing, which I do like, but I prefer the Kentucky taste. I just do, it's a different thing. I pick up a lot of that charcoal with Tennessee Whiskey. Since we are blenders and distillers as well, there's a great way to blend Kentucky with Tennessee. We also use cognac and pinot noir barrels to create awesome flavors. It's just something about the flavor that just does it for me.
MP - From the perspective of enjoying whiskey, it's always an interesting question because it gives a good indication of where your tastes are. Do you branch out into other things? Are you into single malts or scotch?
NG – I do like scotch and I also branch out into plenty of other areas, too. However, I'm not a big fan of scotch with peat. I just I can't get there. Also, I love grappa. Funny story, I was introduced to Mario Andretti because Three Chord Bourbon has a car on the circuit. Mario doesn't really talk to many people, but when I met him, we started talking about our Sicilian roots and kept going from there. We got down to grappa and how much he loved it and I talked about how I've always wanted to make it. Here's what I want to do: I want to make a grappa that has a better nose to it. Sometimes that nose is... Can't go there. Can't do it! You know? It needs to be smooth on that front and that connects back to the Kentucky/Tennessee thing too. Like I said, the blend is it. Fragrance is also important to me.
MP - So when you're not sipping on Three Chord Bourbon, what are some of other the things that you go to?
NG - I like some brandy and cognac, but I tend to stick to bourbon. Again, I do get into grappa, just because I get so many samples from my Master Distiller/Blender Ari Sussman. He's always sending me things: “Try this. Try this. Try this!” I'm the designated tester.
MP – It’s not a bad thing to be the tester! That is not a terrible job. Switching gears, you've been on the road for probably 38 years.
NG – How about 45 years.
MP - 45 years! In that time, you’ve been all over the world and many interesting spirits are available across the globe. Can you think of anything unique that you've tasted, or something unique that happened regarding whiskey or any other spirit?
NG - Yes, and there so many things in addition to whiskey. For example, the different schnapps in Meribel, Grenoble, and Strasbourg France. When you are on the road, the record companies would always take the acts out for dinner. They want to impress, so they would buy all these crazy drinks during those years. Sometimes, I didn't know what I was sipping, but it all tasted pretty good to me!
Also, when I stay in New York, I go to Lot Palace and I love their rarities selection. The proprietor usually pours me all kinds of different things, so I’ve been able to sample some phenomenal historic whiskeys. That’s not a part of touring, that's just when I'm traveling for my own pleasure.
MP - What I really like about this conversation is you don't put a lot of limits on the experience that you're having. You're partial to certain things, you know what you like, but you're also willing to branch out and to explore.
NG – Correct, I'm not a snob. I don't do any of that. One thing about being a Sicilian Italian is that you realize that spirits are a beverage. Just a beverage. If you go out to dinner, you don't necessarily need to have a $200 bottle of wine to enjoy the dinner. Just like whiskey, it's all about the moment.
MP - When you're on stage, do you do you enjoy a little something? I know you don't overindulge, but do you have something on stage, or do you go on stage clear?
NG - I don't drink anything on stage. At one point, I used to take a light beer and I put a bunch of ice, some lemon, and some fruit juice in it for my throat. Now, I don't drink at all on stage… ever.
Afterwards? Yes. Also, after golf, of course! That's a whole other thing.
MP - What's your handicap?
NG - Well, it's not so good these days… about 14. It was better before, but then I slipped a bit. I have to blame everything on covid. Like my haircut, I didn’t get my hair cut for a long time, but then it might be possible soon.
MP – Quickly, I have to ask, what's your favorite golf course?
NG - It’s right off the coast of Oregon and there are three different tracks there. It’s the Pacific Dunes Course at the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort and it’s my favorite because I really like the Irish/Scottish golf style. When you’re near the shore, it’s overcast, and you get the misty, cold wind. I really like that.
MP – We could do a whole interview about golf, courses, and the related stories. Getting back on topic: you have an incredible work ethic, and you are always in focus with the job at hand. Tell me more about that.
NG – It’s just my personality. The place I love the most is the studio because I'm a writer and producer. I use instruments as tools. I've written and produced records for artists like: John Waite, Kenny Loggins, Steve Forbert, and Rick Springfield.
I'll tell you what you don't do, I did this once and it’s a funny story. I was working on this record and just finished it. I was really happy with it. My engineer suggested we have a drink. I was good with it and we decided to have grappa. So, we had this bottle of grappa and poured a few drinks. Then we decided to listen to the album. I'm listening and thinking, “Oh no, it doesn't sound good.” We were getting hammered on this grappa and it somehow it made the record sound terrible. I was so depressed and thought the whole thing was ruined. Fortunately, I woke up the next day, listened to it again, and found it was OK. Maybe drinking slows down your metabolism and makes you think everything is too fast. I overindulged at night because it felt good to finish the project, but I should not have tried to listen to it. Ultimately, the studio is my home. I love the studio most of all.
MP - The list of your collaborations is unreal. In addition, so are the things that you have produced on your own. The work you have had your hands in is the bedrock of rock and roll for several generations of fans. It’s phenomenal. You've kept very busy and it serves you very well.
NG - Thank you.
The Birth of Steel Bending Spirits and Three Chord Bourbon
There are few people who have the gravitas, capital, and connections to get a business idea off the ground. Many try, few succeed. In this case, what started as an idea quickly crystalized into a reality. If anything, Neil admits to being impulsive in the moment where the idea was conceived. However, he is not just a name for the project; he’s all--in.
Quite appropriately, he equates starting a business to starting a band: it is critical to have the right players. He offers credit where it is due and can name his team across the board. He extends his family values to those at the company, and it truly does feel like a family affair. This is a critical factor for success at the company.
Additionally, Neil is well known for his generosity. Something that he insisted on is that Three Chord Bourbon give back and enrich a variety of causes. It goes without saying that this is something very admirable that is woven into the fabric of his company and his life.
MP - Tell me the story of when you decided you wanted to make bourbon.
NG - I was working on the screenplay and I made some social media posts about it. A friend of mine contacted me and asked if I needed some help with it. We decided to meet and talk about it and I met him in my hometown of Cleveland. His idea was to work with a spirits company on a partnership for a seed investment so we could get a trailer made. I thought, it’s not a bad idea, but why don't we start our own company? That was May 2016. I'm an impulsive guy, so when I get an idea… Boom, I do it! From that day Steel Bending Spirits (the company name), and Three Chord Bourbon (the product) were born.
By the way I never finished the screenplay.
MP - Will you?
NG – Yes, I will. Back to Steel Bending Spirits and Three Chord Bourbon, we searched the country to find the best people. I like to say that we got the best spirits band in the country. Before we go any further, I have to name every person that works for this company because we are a team and it’s very important. Everybody matters and is equally important.
It starts with Hana Giraldo (that's my daughter), Tony DeYoung, Ryan Gill, Michael Nanula, Laura Webb, Megan Reckling, Ari Sussman, Rich Jones, Debbie Lanoye, Brian Canning Barry Bookin, Bass Reeves, Paul Nanula and our new newly adopted Donna Smith.
So that is our team that runs our fantastic company.
MP - Thank you to the team at Three Chord Bourbon. I’ve had a chance to sample the product and it is excellent. I encourage our readers to try it!
Here is summary of Three Chord Bourbon line--up of products. First, Three Chord Bourbon Blended Bourbon Whiskey (with the white label), at 81 proof. Second, the Three Chord Bourbon 12 Bar Reserve (with the gold label), it varies anywhere between about 95 to 105 proof. Third is the Amplify Rye (with the green label), at 95 proof. Next is the Three Chord Bourbon Strange Collaboration (with the red label) which is finished in Pinot barrels and is 99 proof. Finally, there is Three Chord Bourbon Whiskey Drummer, which is the 15--year product that sells out quickly when it's available. Whiskey Network, if you're interested in that one, you better get ahead of it and get it done.
As mentioned, coming soon is the Three Chord Bourbon Tennessee Straight Whiskey that is aged no less than 36 months and is about 85 proof.
Key question: where can you find your products?
NG - We're spreading fast. You can go online to Craft Shack and find it there. At retail, it’s available at places like Total Wine and stores like that throughout the country. I believe that we recently got into Texas and Arkansas. We're only five years old and we're making great strides.
We have a sensational team. I am so proud of each and every one of them and they all work so hard.
MP - Couldn't ask for anything more really. A great team makes anything possible.
NG - I'm telling you, yes.
MP – The Whiskey Network spreads far and wide. Let’s make sure we help make them grow because it is a great product, and they support worthy causes.
One last thing regarding the whiskey, you have been doing special things with virtual tastings. Can you give me a little bit of insight into that?
NG - The virtual tastings that we're doing now are working fantastic, and Donna Smith is a big part of the reason this is happening. It's tremendous, because we have our Master Distiller (Ari Sussman), myself, Tony DeYoung (I learn something new from him every day), and they do a fantastic event. They are about half-an-hour to forty-five minutes for the tastings. It’s such a great concept. Also, there is the Three Chord stages program, which supports live shows. We'll go back to those as quickly as it is safe to do so.
It's pretty remarkable how well they do.
MP - What's in store for Three Chord Bourbon?
NG - Well, we just finished a barrel of cognac finished bourbon. It is absolutely sensational. Then, we have our Whiskey Drummer, which is the 15 year--old product. Also, we have a Tennessee cask, which is a blend of the bourbon and rye together.
We'll do more with different types of barrels like the cognac expressions and we'll keep doing the grappa. The goal is to keep trying different things because it’s fundamental to the company because we want to be disruptors in a positive sense. In my career as a musician, writer, and all the things that I do in the music world… I've been a disruptor.
I look at it this way: I've never dumbed down the audience. This is how it characterizes itself in synergy with the spirits company. Again, I've never dumbed down the audience. I always challenge them and I consider that in the in the spirit world you have to challenge people to and not be afraid. The times when I did my best work was when I felt I had no fear. I'd say anywhere from 80% to 90% of the recordings that I finished and sent to the record company were turned down. However, I would not change a thing and those hits wouldn't be hits if I changed them. I stuck to what I believed in, and that goes for Three Chord Bourbon, as well. We heard early on “You can't be disruptive.” I said, “Well, yes you can!” We respect tradition. You have to listen back to all the pioneers to get where you are at. That's fundamental to this company.
On another front, from day one, we had to have a music ambassadorship program. There had to be a non--profit component to this company. I did not want to wait until we became a $300 - $500 million dollar company (God willing), to give back. If you go to the Three Chord Bourbon web page (www.threechordbourbon.com) or Facebook page, you can learn more about it.
For example, one of the greatest blues pioneers named Son House doesn’t even have a tombstone. We support blues societies to assist with causes like that. The give back program is essential to the running of this company.
MP - One of the many amazing things about Three Chord Bourbon is that you've got these give back programs. As a matter of fact, something that is very prevalent in your career, not just with Three Chord Bourbon, is you have always given back. In recognition of your work, you have been given several awards and recognized for the work that you have done with underprivileged children.
Whiskey Network, please check out these worthy causes and offer your support in unison with Three Chord Bourbon, if you are inclined.
NG - Thank you. It's never enough. There are so many homeless teens, and nobody talks about that. There's a non--profit called the United Outreach (unitedoutreach.org) that I'm involved with, as well. It's the right thing to do. It’s always felt right to me to give back and help others.
Future Music Projects to Look For
The world of Neil Giraldo is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. This man never stops working. As a reminder, he is a recording artist, the musical partner of Pat Benatar, a producer of musical acts, a screenwriter, a writer of film scores, owner of a bourbon company, a husband, and a grandfather… I’m sure there are a few other things out there. When does this man sleep?
He is successful for a reason: because he is talented and maintains focus. There is certainly a sense that he likes to work hard AND play hard. If you’re lucky in this life, there is a very blurry line between the two. Neil absolutely lives in that space and loves every moment of it.
MP - Are are there any music related projects that you have on the horizon that you'd like to talk about?
NG - Well, you know my music world never stops. so I'm always writing and producing. I've been working on a holiday record for quite some time. I wanted to make a holiday record and have special guests sing all original songs. This wouldn’t be the old standards from the holidays, not that there's anything wrong with that. However, I believe that from from October through late January is a very critical time for people. There are a lot of emotions that happen: people find new love, people break up, they get happy, and they get sad. All of those emotions. These songs are reflecting all those things. There's funny and dark songs planned. I'm working on that I'm finishing up.
Also, I’m trying to finish up a couple screenplays that I have. I also have an entertainment company to work with these stories. I'm writing songs with my daughter, Hana, who is tremendous. It's so much fun doing that. I'm just always writing and working in the studio. That's where I'm always at: the studio.
MP - Neil, when do you sleep?