Coupla vampires walk into a bar—stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The funny thing is, these guys—ex-vampires, actually—will be able to order their own bartop bourbon. That’s because in the years since the celebrated show The Vampire Diaries went off the air, Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley, the real-life Salvatore brothers, have concentrated serious energies into researching, experimenting with and finally producing a bourbon: Brother’s Bond.
The spirit’s name is no afterthought. Through the years of filming, Somerhalder and Wesley became close as brothers. As they drank quasi-bourbon on the show, so did they quaff the real thing in the downtime after long hours on the set. Why bourbon? “The boys bonded over bourbon onscreen, and Paul and I bonded over bourbon offscreen,” says Somerhalder. “Paul likes to remind me it was the only way he could tolerate me.”
“We would finish filming, sometimes at midnight, one o’clock, and Ian and I would look at each other and say, ‘let’s go get a drink,’” says Wesley. “We’d always go to our favorite bar and have a bourbon together to unwind. The name Brother’s Bond is a very organic—it has the dual meaning of our bond onscreen and our bond offscreen.”
The show was filmed in the Atlanta area, and Somerhalder’s own southern roots figured into his appreciation for bourbon. “I’m a Louisiana boy and Louisiana takes bourbon very seriously,” he says. “As early as I can remember, the whole family drinking mint juleps on the porch on summer days, weekends, family outings, after church—truly stereotypical awesome Southeast Louisiana.”
Wesley gained bourbon appreciation from his years in the south as well. “Living in the South for 10 years really opened my palette to darker spirits, something that I really grew to love,” he says. “I deeply appreciate the bourbon-making process and the history that it has in American culture.”
The shared appreciation evolved into something deeper: they’d discussed making a bourbon many times, but they didn’t want to be merely celebrity faces behind a corporate label. “We had no interest in slapping our name on to an existing brand,” says Wesley. “We wanted to be involved in the genesis and the creation of this bourbon. And so we spoke about it for a very long time, and waited until the show ended because we needed the time to really sit and develop it,” he says. “This is years in the making.”
Those years include long hours blending various distillates from Indiana’s MGP, then tasting, and blending some more. “Paul and I sat for over a year, literally over a year, blending bourbons in my living room,” Somerhalder says. “We were chasing this flavor profile. Not to sound all kumbaya about it, but we were after a complex, beautiful expression of grains in harmony.”
“For us, it’s the perfect complexity, yet it also has an approachability to it,” says Wesley. “I think we can introduce bourbon to an audience who in the past wouldn’t think of bourbon as their spirit of choice.”
Their first release is an 80-proof bourbon from a four-grain mash bill, aged four years. “We have an eight-year that we’re going to do,” says Somerhalder. “We’re ecstatic about the line extensions that we can choose, the different age expressions. Eventually we’ll have our hundred-proof and barrel proof. We are hell-bent on making sure that we are only delivering uncompromised quality.”
The two spent a good deal of time at MGP, tasting in white-dog stages and from young barrelings. “It is really cool to see what a barrel and time do to the spirit,” says Somerhalder. “We were so prescriptive in our approach, taking extensive notes, making extensive comparisons. We were fighting tooth and nail—not with each other, just with the bourbon to find this complexity and nuance. We geek out over this stuff.”
Wesley developed a deep appreciation for the essentials of the spirit. “What I love about bourbon is how natural it is,” he says. “Everything we’re consuming now is so overproduced. Good bourbon is difficult to make, but the ingredients are pure and natural. And after testing and tasting so many iterations of it, I still love the purity of bourbon. I love how simplistic it is and yet how complex it is.”
Grains and Teamwork
The “brothers from another” were enthralled with the results, after deep experimentation, with their grain pairings and ratios. “Don’t forget for a second, this is a four-grain bourbon,” says Somerhalder. “Coming in at 80 proof, having the level of complexity due to the four grains makes all the difference in the world. We wanted to balance out that rye spice, but worked so hard on that balance, finding that level of complexity. That’s why we keep the wheat and barley numbers our secret. The joining of the four grains adds such an unmistakable nuance to it.”
Of course it wasn’t just Somerhalder and Wesley who brought the bourbon to life. “We have this great team,” says Wesley. “We’re all a family, and it’s such a huge undertaking that we obviously talk all day long, nonstop.” That team included a famed mixologist who worked with them on the cocktails recommended on the Brother’s Bond website. “We worked with a really wonderful mixologist and obviously we had a hand in creating them, but ultimately, we really had her assistance. And then we just did a lot of trial and error,” says Wesley.
Somerhalder says that part of the motivation for the cocktail recommendations is to take some of the pain away from people caught in their homes because of the virus. “It’s so nice to have a form, or to have an idea for your evening—being able to make cocktails at this level with these types of recipes is really fun,” he says. “A lot of people are making phenomenal cocktails at home, and we really want people to enjoy these really dense, beautiful, unique flavor profiles that match up with our bourbon really well.”
Both men are delighted that they were able, while remaining socially responsible, to adapt to the Covid masking and distancing recommendations while ramping up production. “We had to adapt, and there were times where things did slow down or we had to reformulate our approach,” says Wesley. “But for the most part, we have really figured out a way to manage this. We’re thrilled with our production.”
Farms to Bottles
Working with grains and barrels wasn’t the only thing keeping Wesley and Somerhalder busy. With the same attention to detail with which they tested and tasted bourbon, they fussed over the presentation of the liquor, down to the fonts on the bottle label. “We were pretty meticulous about everything,” says Wesley. “First of all, the name. Ian and I obviously came up with the name. Of course, the bottle. And then even the paper, the texture of the recycled paper, the ink, the print on the label—we obsessed over the type of paper it would be printed on.”
“It was months of this, months and months and months of this,” says Somerhalder. “There’s not a single thing Paul and I did not obsess over with our team. We designed everything and then we implemented those designs and our team basically built them.”
A portion of the bourbon sales income will be donated to regenerative farming efforts. Somerhalder was an executive producer of 2020’s Kiss the Ground, a documentary that explores soil regeneration to stabilize earth’s climate, restore ecosystems and make for healthier food supplies. “Paul and I have done a tremendous amount of advocacy work throughout our life together and separately in a number of different segments: the animal space, educational space and food space,” says Somerhalder. “Paul and I also know that we’re an agricultural company too, and we have a profound and unique responsibility to give back. We know scientifically that large-scale regenerative agriculture will stop climate change in its tracks,” he says.
“The whole point of regeneration is using large-scale agriculture and plant breeding to sequester, or draw down enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it safely back in the ground, while helping build farmer prosperity. We’re going to make sure to support the people that feed us and the people who are effectively on the front line of stopping this climate crisis,” Somerhalder says.
The two aren’t averse to long-range planning in the spirits field either. “This company is going to breathe and evolve, similar to the way a bourbon breathes in a barrel, and we’re going to have all sorts of extensions and different expressions,” says Wesley. “I’ve really only been in the entertainment field. I’ve never done anything in terms of starting a business, certainly not in the alcohol industry. And I have to say, this has been so creatively fulfilling and exciting.”
“Paul and I want this brand to be around for decades and decades,” says Somerhalder. “This is our baby. We’re not going anywhere. This is something that we want to span generations. For us, this level of intricacy and familial approach, our love of being involved with the company, is what will keep us going for quite a long time. We’re literally living our dream. We are working our asses off, but this is our dream,” he says.
Any dream that involves bourbon has to be a good one. But if the two ever go back to being vampires, no blood will be drunk. Bourbon, now and forever.
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Tom Bentley is a business writer and editor, an essayist, and a fiction writer. (He does not play banjo.) He’s had hundreds of freelance pieces published—ranging from first-person essays to travel pieces to more journalistic subjects—in newspapers, magazines, and online. His self-published book on finding and cultivating your writer’s voice,...