The road from Cleveland to Chelsea isn’t long, but for Neil Giraldo, the journey lasted nearly four decades and took him from his childhood home to multiple cities around the world before he settled in southeast Michigan in 2017 to craft, produce, and distribute what are now award-winning bourbon and rye whiskeys from Steel Bending Spirits.
Giraldo is the main producer, guitarist, songwriter, and bandleader for Pat Benatar, whose band broke out on the music scene in 1979 with the debut album “In the Heat of the Night.” The record reached No. 12 on the Billboard charts and was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.
A steady string of hits followed, written by the now-married couple and others, that overall resulted in four Grammy Awards, five platinum-or-better records, and 15 top 40 Billboard Hot 100 Singles. The hits include “Heartbreaker,” “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” “Love is a Battlefield,” “You Better Run,” “We Belong,” and “Promises in the Dark.”
Giraldo and Benatar, who live in California, were recently selected for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The ceremony is set to take place Nov. 5 in Los Angeles. While Benatar had been eligible for induction in 2000, the long wait came from the couple’s shared desire to be recognized together.
So how does a successful guitarist, songwriter, and producer whose career saw him write 100-plus songs that led to more than 50 million albums sold, and who’s been part of bands led by Rick Derringer, Kenny Loggins, John Waite, and Rick Springfield, among others, launch a spirits brand?
“My family is from Sicily, and my grandfather made his own whiskey and grappa, and I have fond memories of being with him and sipping it when I was 6 years old,” says Giraldo, founder and chairman of Steel Bending Spirits in Ann Arbor. “At the time, it didn’t taste very good because I was a kid. But that wasn’t important; rather, what I cherished was being with my grandpa.”
Fast-forward to 2016, and Giraldo and a small team were working on a screenplay for a documentary about the music scene in northern Ohio. While writing the treatment, Giraldo and a few others embraced the idea of launching a spirits brand.
Following a year-long search for a location, the guitarist settled on Chelsea, and specifically Ugly Dog Distillery, to handle the first of what are now seven handcrafted selections of bourbon and rye whiskeys. Soon after, the spirits business took over and the film project was put on the back burner.
The venture began with researching the best whiskey-producing regions in North America. After American oak from the Missouri Ozarks was selected, unique flavor profiles were added, and after following several additional steps, the company infused what it calls a “proprietary process of pyrolysis” where the barrel wood is heated, or charred, to precise temperatures to release unique flavor and aroma compounds such as maple syrup, vanilla, and caramel.
Sourcing up to 12-year-old bourbons from distillers in Tennessee and Kentucky, the company’s products are blended by Ari Sussman, a Michigan State University graduate in public policy who today is recognized as a master distiller. At Steel Bending Spirits, he serves as head distiller, blender, and spirits developer.
The selections are sold under the Three Chord Bourbon brand, an extension of the three basic notes used in most every song. The theme continues on the label, which includes the silhouette of a guitar pick surrounded by a starburst meant to represent soundwaves. The inset is highlighted by the Roman numeral III, with a C interwoven between the figures and a small star.
“Bourbon and music are similar in their formation,” Giraldo says. “It takes patience and creativity to make something memorable. My goal was to provide people a way to converse while sipping whiskey or bourbon, and support causes that help musicians get started in the industry and make a living.”
Through a distributorship agreement with MO Cellar Selections in Milford, Three Chord is now available in 37 states. Overall, sales have been brisk for Blended Bourbon Whiskey, Twelve Bar Reserve, Amplify Rye Whiskey, Strange Collaboration, Whiskey Drummer, Tennessee Straight Whiskey, and Bourbon Cream.
In 2019, the first full year of sales, Three Chord sold 2,300 cases, followed by 8,300 cases in 2020 and 11,300 cases last year. In 2022, Tony DeYoung, COO and executive director of sales at Three Chord, says the company is on pace to sell 21,000 cases. Prices range from $29.99 to $79.99 per bottle.
“We have nine employees and are growing, and Three Chord can be found in fine liquor stores, major retailers, gourmet markets, and private clubs,” DeYoung says. “With MO Cellar Selections, we’ll be expanding more across the country and around the world. In addition to our lineup, we also do limited releases.”
Coming down the pipeline are “two new expressions” that incorporate toasted barrels and honey barrels, DeYoung adds.
Three Chord has been recognized with gold awards from the 2018 Craft Distillers Spirits Competition — Best in Show Overall for its Twelve Bar Reserve and Best of Class for Small Batch 11 Years or Older; a silver medal from the 2018 World Spirits Competition; and a gold for Amplify Rye Whiskey from Tastings.com’s 2019 International Review of Spirits (93 points).
“What struck me about Three Chord is that they developed an amazing lineup of bourbon whiskeys essentially as a startup business,” says Michael Ogurek, president and owner of MO Cellar Selections. “We were expanding beyond our wines, and Three Chord was the first liquor company we signed with. They really helped round out our portfolio in early 2020, when the pandemic was starting to emerge.”