On October 10, 2021
Women In Distilling: Ali and Sam Blatteis of Home Base Spirits
The road to whiskey for Ali and Sam Blatteis took a lot of interesting turns. When they finally arrived, they were ready to throw the door open and make it accessible for everyone. That’s exactly what they’ve done with Home Base Spirits, located in Berkeley, California.
The twins from Oakland, California always intended to open and operate a business together — they just didn’t know it’d be a whiskey brand. After years of exploring the spirit, the sisters opened their headquarters in 2015 where they began sourcing and producing whiskey that lived up to their high expectations.
Ali draws on her talent as a professional artist to not only design a high-quality spirit but to create a one-of-a-kind look for the brand. Meanwhile, Sam’s experience in agriculture motivates her to source ingredients from local farmers using sustainable methods. Together, they’ve managed to create bourbon, single malt, and other whiskey products that stand on their own merits against other spirits in a primarily male-dominated space.
We spoke with the pair about how they built their brand and crafted their whiskey to appeal to more than just the usual suspects in the whiskey industry.
Womxn In Distilling: Was there a light bulb moment when you realized that you wanted to start a whiskey company or was it more of a slow realization?
Sam Blatteis: I think that there was a light bulb moment. We did not grow up in a whiskey family. Our parents are very much Napa wine drinkers and beer drinkers so it wasn’t a tradition in our family by any means. Ali is the one who introduced me to whiskey and to spirits in general. We both grew up in Oakland, California, and then we both went to the East Coast for school and Ali moved right back afterwards whereas I stayed on the East coast because I was working in local agriculture. I got really embedded into the local agricultural communities around New York City, where I was living and I would fly home as often as I could. Ali had been working in San Francisco at a tech firm and had all of these company sponsored happy hours. She realized that she was sick of drinking copious amounts of beer. She wanted a drink that she could nurse all night [so she started to order whiskey]. And then when she went to try and learn more about it by joining a whiskey club, it was just dominated by all of these men who have been into whiskey for a long time. And she didn’t really feel like she had much to say or contribute to the whiskey club discussions because she was a relative novice. So that led her to start her own whiskey club with just women that she was already friends with and they would take turns choosing bottles and learning about that specific distillery and that whiskey type and enjoying each other’s company at the same time. So all of that to say, when I would come back for visits, I would join her and her friends for these women’s whiskey clubs that were happening on a monthly basis. It was revelatory for me because I got to learn about whiskey in a way that I wasn’t even planning to. And I fell in love with it as well. I found it so delicious and it was just this whole new world to explore.
Ali Blatteis: Samantha and I have always dreamt about working together one day and starting the business one day. Samantha called me out of the blue, we’d already been doing the whiskey club for several years by then, and she just was like, “I know what our business needs to be.” Through an agriculture connection, Samantha had just gone to visit a distillery on a farm. And it was this aha moment, [where we decided] to blend both of our passions. We just felt this was something we could do really well by tying in the agricultural side to the whiskey production side. When Samantha called me with this idea, it was like, yeah, whiskey shouldn’t be so intimidating. It doesn’t need to be. There’s a long history to it. And it’s not that complicated once you start to learn about the different kinds. It’s actually way more simple than like wine and beer, so much more straightforward. But for some reason there was this whole secrecy, speakeasy, very masculine, intimidating side to it.
WID: Can you speak a little bit to the idea that whiskey is a sustainable, agricultural product?
SB: When I was working with farmers on the East Coast we started to see a lot of them develop spirits as a way to bring a value added product to market. A few of the farmers I was working with had large apple crops or were starting to grow rye or mead. mostly because there started to be new malt houses available on the East Coast, and more farmers were turning to distilling and brewing and cider making as another revenue stream for their farm because a small family farm needs to be diversified. So at the time that I was seeing this happen, I wasn’t seeing it happen quite as much in California. We didn’t want to have a huge environmental impact by running this business, so we always looked for the farmers that were growing sustainably. We buy organically certified grain when we can, but that’s not really what’s most important to us. It’s really about what practices the farmer is using. And we want to support the farmers that are growing with environmental practices, also because we feel like that translates into much better flavor. We test all of the grain ahead of time because we know that grain that tastes delicious on its own is going to taste even better once it’s been distilled and aged and turned into this beautiful liquid gold.
WID: Is there a common misconception about what you guys do or do people like, kind of get it?
SB: I would say we get the common misconceptions. Our first product was a bourbon. A lot of people say, ‘it’s not made in Kentucky, you can’t call it a bourbon’, which is probably the biggest misconception around whiskey and bourbon specifically that we hear. We share the true definition of bourbon and why we like to call ours the California style bourbon. And then the other misconception is — because of the route that we took with how we developed our business model and the license that we ended up acquiring— we’re not an actual physical distillery. We’re a spirits company, a producer where we contract distillers to produce our spirit, and we do all of our own aging and blending and distribution. People want to come visit us. They want to come to our tasting room. They want to buy directly from us. We’re just not licensed to do that. We can’t have a tasting room. We can’t sell direct to consumers.
AB: I used to do a lot of sales; we still do a lot of sales, but this last year we haven’t been doing that many in-person sales. But before it was a lot of cold calls, popping into bars and restaurants and kind of giving my pitch real fast.
Not all, but many of the places I would go to would not like to really listen to what I was saying. [They] were like, ‘who are you?’ They assumed that I’d be a rep and then I’d have to re-explain that I actually was the owner of the company. And they’re like, ‘wait, you actually make this?’ They would ask me how old I am, which I think is extremely inappropriate, but they’re like, ‘are you old enough to make whiskey?’
WID: I read a previous interview where Sam had said whiskey isn’t particularly welcoming to a young 20-something woman. Is that something that you still hold to be true? And how are you trying to address that through Home Base Spirits?
SB: I think it’s still true. I think that the larger spirits companies with the big advertising budgets are slowly catching on that more people than older white men are interested in whiskey and are changing their imaging and marketing campaigns accordingly. So that’s refreshing.
Our goal from the beginning was to be as approachable as possible. We wanted to make a spirit that stood out and that was unique and that was delicious and extremely high quality at the same time. [We] try not to be intimidating because we wanted to think of ourselves going into a store, seeing our product and wanting to learn more about it based on its presentation and the story. So that’s been our goal. We think that being transparent about how we make it is inviting, being really clear about who we work with, where we source, and what the exact ingredients are. [We hope making] that information available is inviting and welcomes more people to try our products.
We’re not old timey, this isn’t a family legacy of ours. We are a young company with youngish founders. So we really wanted our products to represent that and not some weird idea of what a whiskey bottle or companies should look like. So we went about [trying to] solve that issue with our limited marketing budget.
AB: There are some really amazing retail stores and bars that have gotten behind what we’re trying to do and helped us tell our story. Us being really transparent about how we’re making it and what we’re trying to do has made it easier for these other retail stores to help share our story because we are so open about everything that we’re doing. With the licensing, we don’t really get to sell direct to our customers. We sell to retail stores and having these almost-partners to help us sell it and tell our story has made our product more approachable and less intimidating.
WID: Can you talk a little bit about your branding?
AB: Designing the labels was a really fun part of the process. Samantha and I both have an art background. I studied fine arts in college and I’ve worked for three or four professional artists. When it came to our bottle we really wanted to work with a graphic designer, somebody that’s been in marketing before, but we put a lot of our own voice into it.
WID: When you are considering your branding, are you branding specifically toward women?
SB: We wanted to be all inclusive. We got a lot of unsolicited advice like to put our own faces on the bottle and say, ‘twin sisters making whiskey,’ directly on the bottle. We wanted to stay really true to ourselves, but definitely did not want to only market to women. We wanted it to be approachable to everyone.
WID: Do you think that being family members has been helpful in working together or is there ever a time where there’s too much honesty or a lack of professionalism?
SB: Ali is remaining silent so I can say something. I think we’ve both always thought that it’s been extremely helpful. We very quickly realized we had different strengths and interests in terms of different aspects of running the company. And they ended up being extremely complementary. So that’s been very helpful. Ali has definitely put her artistry to work; I handle a lot of the reporting and the book keeping, but we also communicate really well. We know each other extremely well, so we make all business decisions together.
AB: We’ve been working really closely for over five years and we were dreaming for several years before then. We’re both just as equally excited about the company and what we’re doing and where we think it can go as we were when we started, which I do think is a testament that we do work really well together and how far we’ve come. While we both have very different strengths and different work styles and habits I do think they’re complementary and we do communicate well and know when we need space
SB: We also both had kids at the same time so we totally understand what the other one is going through. I can’t imagine if one was doing it without the other and just had no idea. We’re very patient with each other.
WID: What advice would you give other women who are starting out in this industry or who would one day like to be where you are?
SB: What Ali did and then encouraged me to do, which I think was invaluable for our company, was Ali just got started in industry anywhere she could on the retail floor at a bottle shop; she worked her way up to manager of the bottle shop, all while working on our business as a side hustle. So having that experience in the industry especially direct to consumer lines. She brought me in as holiday help so I got some of those experiences as well. Ali made invaluable connections with not only bartenders and restaurateurs but distributors, and other producers as well as other retail owners. The Bay area is really special and generous in general. It’s a really wonderful community of bartenders and restaurant owners and producers. I don’t think we could have started the business that we did if we did not have those relationships and connections from the very first day that we launched our product because everyone knew what we had been working on it and, everyone was excited for us to release the product and everyone knew that it was aging and wouldn’t be ready for several years. So getting your foot in the door, even if it’s super ground-level is one of the best things you can do especially, if you want to get in on the producing side, understanding who the customers are has also been invaluable. We really got to learn firsthand, who these people are and what considerations people take into choosing which bottle they’re going to take home.
WID: What is the most rewarding or exciting part of your job?
SB: I think we’re both so excited to take our business to the next level, where we’re really seriously considering plans to build out a production space which seems kind of crazy during a pandemic. We also know that people are going to be eager to convene again. That’s really exciting for us, the dream of having our own production space and being able to do all the experiments and new products that we’ve been dreaming about.
AB: I think it is also really exciting whenever we see some of our favorite bars or restaurants or bartenders, use our spirit in a cocktail or feature it somehow. We get really honored by it and excited about it. Because these are people that we admire also that are highlighting what we’re making, which is really exciting.