Meet the American distillers who grow their own whisky

Meet the American distillers who grow their own whisky

Farmer-distillers are re-emerging in the United States

Production | 13 Jan 2022 | Issue 180 | By Andrew Faulkner

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The title ‘farmer-distiller’ brings to mind someone in heavy boots, with a tractor and a lot of land. Somewhere on that land is a barn, which has one corner kept warm in the winter by a bubbling copper still. Unfortunately, the term ‘farm distillery’ has become clouded by recently enacted state laws that dilute its meaning to encompass any distillery sourcing materials from farms within the same state. Thus, a whiskey maker may operate a certified New York State Farm Distillery, but keep shop in Brooklyn, setting foot on neither farm nor field.

To counter this, the term being written into books now to refer to those growing grain and turning it into whiskey is ‘estate distillery,’ which for many may conjure up images of wine-and-cheese receptions.

“Estate is a big term, obviously, in wine. It means that you have total control over everything,” says Colby Frey of Frey Ranch Farmers & Distillers. “But in the distilling world, there’s all kinds of distilleries that call themselves…estate. They call their property the estate… The estate term in the distilling world doesn’t mean the same as it does in the wine world.”

All of the grain Frey Ranch converts into whiskey is grown on its property. Frey Ranch dedicates about 500 of the 2,500 acres it cultivates to growing wheat, rye, barley and corn for whisky, controlling the process from before germination until bottling.

“None of the ingredients have ever left our possession until you take them home,” says Frey, explaining that his team have total control of production from seed selection to bottling. This encompasses land-management practices such as fertilising and irrigation; before cultivating, harvesting, milling, mashing, fermenting and distilling the grains; and finally barreling and maturing the spirit – all of this happens on one site. “That’s really the only way that you can ensure no corners were cut, and you can really make a product that’s yours and unique to you,” he adds.

Frey’s family has been in northern Nevada for five generations. They first homesteaded in Genoa, at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains, in 1854, a decade before Nevada achieved statehood. Frey’s grandfather moved the farm 60 miles east to Fallon in 1944. In this arid, desolate desert state, Fallon sits north of Lahontan Reservoir, a basin where the Carson and Truckee Rivers drain. The water table sits about a metre underground, which allows the farm to flood-irrigate the fields, with a high percentage of the water returning to the aquifer. The plentiful water allows Frey Ranch to irrigate when the plants are in need; importantly, this style of irrigation keeps the grain dry while refreshing the soil and roots.

Frey Ranch received its federal license to distil in 2006. The team experimented and ran test batches until 2013, when a change in Nevada law allowed the distillery to sell what it made (in person and through distribution), and have a tasting room. In those seven years, Frey tried different types of grain and barrels to determine recipes for bourbon, choosing a conventional yellow dent corn.

“Some other distilleries are trying to differentiate themselves by doing the higher-protein grains…but for us, when we experimented with it, we didn’t really care for the end result,” says Frey. “What works here might not work where you live… And if we did what we did in the Midwest, we would probably fail miserably.”

In the Midwest, Whiskey Acres in DeKalb, Illinois, takes different approaches for its climate on the prairie, about 60 miles west of Chicago. Whiskey Acres also grows yellow dent as the backbone for its flagship bourbons, but releases made with heirloom corns attract more attention. Like Frey, Whiskey Acres co-founder and fifth-generation farmer Nick Nagele thinks growing grain for whiskey gives the farmer reason to grow higher-quality grains, an incentive absent from commodity markets.

“We take our farmer hat off, put on our distiller’s hat, and we can begin to care a little bit less about yield per acre and make planting decisions that are more about quality per kernel,” says Nagele, who co-founded Whiskey Acres on a corner of Walter Farms with father-and-son team Jim and Jaimie Walter. The Walter family has been growing corn since the 19th century and been on the land since 1930. Jim Walter is a master farmer, recognised by Prairie Farmer, an award primarily given for good stewardship of the land.

Geolocating sensors for temperature and satellite infrared imagery give the Walters information about respiration in the field, and if the plants are under stress, alerting them to pressing problems in real time. “It gives you truly a 30,000-foot view of that field that, if you just go walk in it, you can’t see,” explains Nagele. Interpreting and comparing this information to data on harvests helps increase annual yields.

The distillery has a reputation for working with alternate corns in its bourbons. Whiskey Acres Artisan Series comprises one-time and seasonal releases of whiskies made from Glass Gem Popcorn, Oaxacan green corn, Bloody Butcher red corn and Shaman Blue Popcorn.
Grain storage at Whiskey Acres

“Right here is an open-pollinated, heirloom varietal out of Minnesota. This right here is an open-pollinated heirloom varietal out of Italy. This one is known for its agronomic characteristics. It’s got good plant health and a good stock. This one here is known for its polenta,” says Nagele, gesturing to two ears of corn – one yellow, one red – before holding up a third ear of corn, a hybrid of the two. Each yellow kernel looks as if were outlined in red at its base. If it is agronomically successful and yields enough tasty whiskey, Walter Farms will patent the hybrid as a proprietary grain.

J. Henry & Sons cultivates proprietary corn on its 2,000 acres of Wisconsin. Named W335A and developed by the University of Wisconsin, the varietal was considered a high-producing hybrid and was grown on the Henrys’ farm shortly after Joe Henry Sr’s father bought the land in 1946. It stayed in production there until the 1970s, when GMO corn outproduced it.

When Joe and his wife Liz Henry decided to make bourbon, they knew they wanted to use only Wisconsin grains, including the red corn Joe’s father grew. W335A was thought extinct, until Henry found 1,200 kernels in the University of Wisconsin seed vault. While there, he also found heirloom grains of Glacier Winter Wheat and Spooner Rye to put in their all-Wisconsin bourbon.

He turned those 1,200 seeds into 100 acres of viable crop cultivation. Though the red corn yields just 70 bushels per acre (compared to 250 from conventional yellow dent), it gives J. Henry & Sons Wisconsin Straight Bourbon Whiskey a distinctive flavour.
Frey Ranch Distillery founders Ashley and Colby Frey, with master distiller Russell Wedlake

Just as some Armagnac producers call on roving distillateurs to perform the process of distillation, J. Henry & Sons sends its grain to 45th Parallel Spirits, where longtime friend Paul Werni distils the whiskey. Henry then takes possession of the barrels to age at the farm – the first went into the warehouse in 2009. The inaugural release was J. Henry & Sons Wisconsin Straight Bourbon Whiskey, bottled at 46% ABV and five years old, in 2015.

Joe Henry Jr has worked closely with master blender Nancy Fraley to bring the barrels up in the French style of élevage, closely monitoring each barrel, reducing to proof slowly, creating special blends and selecting single barrels. In addition to the flagship bottling, seasonal and special releases include La Flamme Reserve (finished in Armagnac casks), Bellefontaine Reserve (finished in Cognac casks), Anniversary Blend, and Patton Road Reserve (Single Barrel Cask Strength). Earlier this year, an all-Wisconsin bourbon aged in Wisconsin oak was released.

About 140 miles west and over the state line, RockFilter Distillery in Spring Grove makes all-Minnesota organic bourbon and rye whiskeys. Founder-distiller Christian Myrah purchases barrels from two Minnesota cooperages – Black Swan and the Barrel Mill – and sometimes incorporates staves from Staggemeyer Stave Company, based six miles down the road.
Bourbons from J. Henry & Sons

All of the grain is grown by Myrah on his parents’ farm. The distillery’s name refers to the rock-filtered water beneath the farm, which is used for mashing and proofing down, and its logo features a water drop. Spring Grove sits in the Driftless Area, a geological region featuring a limestone aquifer. “We have that same type of limestone that the old boys in Kentucky always claim makes the best bourbon,” says Myrah.

The water also helps grind the grain less than 10 miles from the distillery at Schech’s Mill, a water-powered granary dating from 1876. Schech’s four quartz millstones, each weighing over 1,000 pounds, were shipped from France in the 1870s. Instead of being powered by an external wheel, underwater turbines spin the grinding stones and continue operating when the creek freezes over, as often happens during harsh Minnesota winters.

A picture of Schech’s Mill graces the label of RockFilter’s Stone’s Throw Bourbon. Modern, colourful packaging designs pay homage to the local history without getting schmaltzy. The stories behind the whiskeys’ names are printed on the backs of the labels, appearing as the liquid level lowers. The distillery’s Red Ryder Rye labels feature Myrah’s Great Uncle Gilman waving his trucker cap from a restored, red Farm 30 Tractor from 1935. (It still runs.)

The Barrel Roll Rye Whiskey’s labels show a US Navy pilot – Myrah’s father – standing by the cockpit of a 1950s Grumman fighter jet. “I’m a fifth-generation farmer, a second-generation fighter pilot and a first-generation distiller,” says Myrah, explaining that he followed his father’s footsteps and flew F-18s during 12 years of service in the US Navy and an additional 12 years in the reserves.

RockFilter dishes out terroir in spades. Its Giants of the Earth bourbon contains corn, rye and sorghum, while its Railsplitter bourbon features triticale, and the Fence Jumper bourbon uses Oaxacan green corn and cherrywood-smoked rye. The distillery openly prints the mash bills for all its whiskeys, without fear of imitation. “There’s a lot more to it than just the percentages of each grain that goes into it. It’s the water, the type of yeast, the type of environment, the wood in the barrels,” declares Myrah. “You go make that same mash bill in San Francisco and it’s gonna taste different than it does here.”
Jeff Droge, managing member of Dry Hills Distillery

Another distiller making his family’s organic grains into whiskey is Joe Myer, whose family homesteaded in the township of Ovid, New York, in 1810, moving the farm to its current location in 1868. In the 1970s, when it came time for the fifth generation to take the reins, Myer’s brother John, who had recently graduated from Cornell University, took charge. He saw the negative impact of herbicides and insecticides, and he appreciated the ecological benefits of having an organic farm. So, he reverted the farm to being all-organic and made it one of the early certified organic farms in the northeast United States.

Myer, a modern Renaissance man, learned music from his piano-teaching mother and picked up the violin via the Suzuki method, earning degrees in music performance for both. He moved to Boston and published volumes of poetry. He also painted, and his art was sold in prestigious galleries in New York and Boston. But the farm was calling. “I missed the field so much,” he admits. “I wanted…to go out in the middle of the night and just stand in the middle of [a] field and see all the stars… And I couldn’t obviously get that in Cambridge.”
The Henry family of J. Henry & Sons

The brothers founded Myer Farm Distillers in 2012, on a corner of the farm along Highway 89 overlooking Cayuga Lake. Among the 21 spirits that the distillery makes, including gin, vodka and liqueurs, are 11 expressions of whiskey.

“I know the land that this comes from,” says Myer. “I know those fields inside and out from hiking on them, from previously having worked them; so, I know the clay fields and the richly pumice-y fields, and just having that sense of continuity from the planting to the nurturing to the harvesting… When I’m making the spirits from it, it’s really like a breath, a gift from the land.”

A relationship to the land also influences what the Droge family is doing in Bozeman, Montana, at Dry Hills Distillery, which gets its name from where the family’s great-great-grandfather homesteaded in 1905. Jacob Droge chose the land for its rich soil, despite the area’s meager average rainfall of 20 inches per year. Between two farms – the Droge Farm and London Hills Farm – the fifth generation of the family cultivates about 8,000 acres of potatoes and cereal grain, distilling under the motto, “If we don’t grow it, we don’t make it.”

“We truly believe that the intimate, detail-oriented relationship that we have with our crops and, thus, our product ingredients educates a large part of the decisions that we make in the distillery,” says Jeff Droge, who manages the distillery with his wife, Erica. “Without a doubt, I believe this area and the specific quality of grains that we raise affect all of the products that we make.”

Due to the low-humidity environment, Droge sees a great amount of oak interaction quite quickly during spirit maturation and also a pretty drastic degree of ‘angel’s share’: “[This] drives the proof up much higher, much quicker than what you would see in mid-west or southern regions with consistent humidity.”

Seventh-generation farmer-distiller Christian Huber of Starlight Distillery puts the relationship of the distillery to the land in perspective. “We’re agriculture, but we’re also alcohol,”
he says. “And as beverage alcohol comes, agriculture is at the heart of everything we do.”

Huber’s Orchard and Winery, in Starlight, Indiana, hosts the distillery on a homestead the family founded in 1843. Five members of the seventh generation are transitioning to different aspects of running the business, which includes a farm, produce market, cheese maker, organic ice cream shop, restaurant, banquet hall, pumpkin patch, Christmas tree farm, winery, distillery and ‘pick your own’ farm.

The family’s wine and brandy making halted during Prohibition, but the winery was re-established by Huber’s grandfather. Then, his father, Ted Huber, was instrumental in getting Indiana laws changed: first to allow the distillation of fruits into brandy, later allowing distillation of grain into whiskey, and finally the ability to sell those drinks directly to the public.

Starlight Distillery makes bourbon from red, white and blue corn. Instead of seeking uniform consistency in the barrels they lay down, the Hubers work with annual variations in their crops, different strains of grain, various plots of land on the farm and microclimatic differences between various parts of their rickhouses. Christian’s brother Blake Huber sums up dealing with variables affecting each crop, cook, ferment, distillation and maturation succinctly: “We’re making the best whiskey of each day.”
Thomas Williams, head distiller at Delta Dirt

As these brothers transition into running the winery and distillery where they grew up, another pair of brothers have stepped into running the distillery their parents founded. Thomas and Donovan Williams run Delta Dirt Distillery, which was founded and is owned by their parents, Harvey and Donna Williams, who live on a farm outside Helena, Arkansas.

The distillery was founded in 2017, building renovation started in 2018, and distillation began in 2020. However, due to Covid, the distillery and tasting room only opened to the public in 2021.

The Williams family has lived on the farm longer than they have owned it, as Williams’s grandfather and his father before him were ‘sharecroppers,’ farming the land and sharing the cotton with the owner.

With a little sleight of hand – taking crops to a different cotton gin that offered a better price – as well as moonshining, Williams’s great grandfather was able to buy the farm outright, escaping the cruel cycle that usually kept sharecroppers impoverished. The moonshining stopped as soon as the farm was purchased.
Three whiskeys from RockFilter Distillery

Williams’s grandfather, who recently passed away, converted the farm to sweet potatoes, which Delta Dirt distils into Sweet Blend Vodka. His uncle grows corn, which serves as a base for making both gin and whiskey, but, being a startup, the mature whiskey is not expected until 2024.

Delta Dirt sits on Cherry Street in downtown Helena, a town that has seen better days. The Williams family hope that running a viable business there will show other entrepreneurs that the once-thriving town can revitalise and become a weekend getaway for people from nearby Memphis, Tennessee.
Joe Myer, co-founder of Myer Farm Distillers

“That would help people want to come back to Helena, be a catalyst,” says Williams, explaining that he wants others to tell themselves, “I can survive on Cherry Street.”
“We can bring something back here, because there’s a lot of people that have resources and own buildings down there,” he adds.

Despite the ‘back to the land’ movement of the 1970s, not many 20th-century urbanites decided to shed their cosmopolitan existence and pick up a plough. Coming into contact with farmer-distillers is stepping closer to living history; in meeting families who have occupied the same land since pioneer days, it becomes clear that they portray the traditions of the US’s founding as much as any institution.
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