Triathlon junkie Jim Bendis was running through the juniper forest in Central Oregon, notably the largest of its kind in the world yielding more than 6 million acres of juniper, and an epiphany dawned on him. “I thought, ‘this only makes sense that I’m in the center of the world’s largest juniper forest and here I am with Oregon water, the best in the world,’” he says. “It seemed like a good idea to make some gin.”
Bendis established Bendistillery in 1996 — the name is a mashup of his last name, his location in Bend, OR, and the word “distillery.” His first spirit was Crater Lake Gin, named after the crystal clear caldera lake in south-central Oregon that formed when the volcano Mount Mazama collapsed about 150 years ago. Oregon’s water is famous for its purity because a great deal of it flows over volcanic rock formations like Mazama. To mimic this process and create the purest spirit possible, Bendis developed a filtration system that uses crushed volcanic rock. “We have a spirit filtered just like our water…that’s why it’s so smooth and sweet. That’s why people love it.”
Sixteen years and many spirits awards later, it’s clear that people really do love Bendistillery’s products. The distillery is America’s most award-winning small batch distillery, with a variety of designations from the World Beverage Competition, The San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the Beverage Tasting Institute, and several craft spirits publications. Bendis and his team have added several vodkas to their lineup of products, and will soon produce the world’s first estate gin — everything that goes into the bottle will be grown on Bendistillery’s 24 acres.
“The Northwest was really well known for micro-beers, wines, [and] coffees, but nobody was doing anything all-natural to distilled spirits,” says Bendis. “What I’ve been trying to preach for 16 years is finally getting cool.”
Bendistillery is not only getting cool, it’s also getting colossal. It has 30 private labels in production, including Fuzzy’s Ultra-Premium Vodka, Krome Vodka, Desert Juniper Gin, and Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin.
Bendis also partners with nearby Deschutes Brewery (where he used to be a chemist), distilling their infamous Black Butte Porter to make a double malt whiskey. “Distilling is just boiling beer,” says Bendis.
Despite the distillery’s huge success and growing production, Bendis keeps himself balanced, and humble, by continuing to run through the juniper forest. He’s completed more than 100 triathlons and regularly runs half marathons, too. He admits that the excessive running might be due to some of his “psycho tendencies,” but at the end of the day it gives him insight. “I try to keep it in perspective with the running. At least I don’t get too into my business and become a drinker.”
Amen to that, Bendis. Much like Bendistillery’s spirits, his running is quite commendable.
Spirits from Bendistillery:
Crater Lake Vodka
Crater Lake Pepper Vodka
Crater Lake Hazelnut Espresso Vodka
Crater Lake Reserve Vodka
Crater Lake Gin