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Illinois's first farm distillery controls production from seed to spirit

Whiskey Acres in DeKalb is the only operation in the state making bourbon from grain grown on-site.



Just off Keslinger Road in DeKalb, Illinois, is a tiny stone and timber building constructed from the remains of a turn-of-the-century dairy barn that once stood nearby. In the 1960s, the cows gone, it functioned as a picnic shelter and sleeping porch for the men who farmed the surrounding 2,000 acres. Fifty years later, enclosed and renovated to include plumbing and air-conditioning, it's classified as a roadside stand, licensed to sell products from the farm that still surrounds it. But behind the long wooden bar inside the building there are no strawberries, tomatoes, or zucchini for sale, nor any of the other agricultural products you might expect—even corn, although the farm produces up to 50,000 bushels a year. Instead you belly up to the bar for a vodka lemonade or a whiskey sour. Apples appear only in the form of apple whiskey.

The spirits on the bar's menu are all made in the building next door, from grains grown on Walter Farms, owned and run by father and son Jim and Jamie Walter, which has been in the family since the 1930s. The Walters, together with fellow farmer Nick Nagele, have created something that so far is rare in the U.S.: a farm distillery that makes spirits strictly from grain grown on-site. The only one of its kind in Illinois, it's been in the works since 2011—but only since last December, when it finally got licensed, has Whiskey Acres Distilling Co. actually been producing its namesake liquor.

The distillery's main product will eventually be bourbon, but that's still aging in charred oak barrels. Until then, Whiskey Acres is producing unaged corn whiskey made from 80 percent corn, 10 percent winter wheat, and 10 percent malted barley. It's turned out to be a winning combination: the whiskey has earned bronze medals in the corn whiskey category at the Denver International Spirits Competition, the American Distilling Institute's Judging of Craft American Spirits, and the Los Angeles International Spirits Competition (in some cases, competing against aged whiskeys). The distillery also makes an apple-infused version of the same white whiskey, and a 100 percent corn vodka served and sold only in the tasting room (the aforementioned outbuilding, which opened last month). The latest product is a rye whiskey, which the distillery couldn't make until after the rye harvest in late July. "We're very proud of the fact that the rye was harvested, and in less than 24 hours, we had the first batch in the fermenters," Jamie says. "It went from field to barrel in less than a week."

A fairly small fraction of the grain grown on the farm gets turned into alcohol: less than 10 percent, according to Jamie. But it's not a small distillery: if it's running at full capacity, Whiskey Acres can reach the 35,000-gallon maximum limit allowed in Illinois for a distillery to be classified as a craft operation (it's not yet close to capacity, though). Behind the distillery is Walter Farms, including a farm shop where the maintenance gets done, and a shed housing farm equipment that dwarfs the workers using the machines. The planter unfolds to 60 feet wide and can plant 24 rows of corn at a time; the combine harvests 100 ears of corn every second, removing them from the stalks and scraping the kernels off the cobs. Corn is the main crop, making up about 75 percent of the harvest.

The Walters say their farm was doing just fine before they started the distillery. Most of the grain goes west for ethanol production or down the Mississippi River and out to southeast Asia for animal feed. For a while, Walter Farms supplied corn to Tokyo-based Sapporo Brewery. So why add to the workload by getting into the liquor business? For one thing, Jamie says, it's always seemed like a missed opportunity that they're located just 60 miles from the nation's third-largest city but hadn't ever sold anything in Chicago. While the city serves as a hub of commodity trading, Chicagoans aren't much interested in buying bulk commodity grain. They do, however, like to buy whiskey.

The agricultural economy has been relatively strong for the last ten years, and grain prices have been good, but, Jamie says, "we knew that these high times weren't going to stay forever." While the market dictates grain prices, what Jamie calls "value-added products" made with that grain have considerably higher margins. The Walters have experimented with bakery items, popcorn, and specialty vegetables, but Jamie says "there was never really a good fit"—until they looked into distilling.

"We realized there was an opportunity in Illinois with the passage of a 2010 law to allow craft spirits," he says. "Distilled spirits were following the craft beer movement and growing rapidly. Whiskey and bourbon, most importantly, were rapidly expanding. Bourbon has to be made out of a minimum of 51 percent corn; we grow corn here better than almost anywhere else in the world. It was being in the right place at the right time."

Left to right: Nick Nagele, Jim Walter, Jamie Walter - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • Left to right: Nick Nagele, Jim Walter, Jamie Walter

The legislation to which he refers introduced a craft distiller's license, which cut the licensing fee in half for small operations—and, more importantly, allowed them to open tasting rooms and sell directly to consumers. (Whiskey Acres' tasting room's atypical classification as a farm stand is a result of a DeKalb County law.) At the time the craft license became available, there were only two distilleries in Illinois—Koval in Ravenswood, and North Shore in suburban Lake Bluff.

When Sonat Birnecker Hart and Robert Birnecker launched Koval in 2008, it became obvious that Illinois's distillery laws would need to be changed to make it easier for craft operations to get started. "They were completely outdated, in place to address huge industrial distilleries," says Birnecker Hart. The introduction of the craft distiller's license, she says, is "part of the reason you've seen a great proliferation [of craft distilleries], not just in Chicago but all over Illinois."

In fact, large distilleries used to be big business in Illinois. Before Prohibition, Peoria alone had 73 distilleries and paid more whiskey tax to the federal government than any other city in the country. Established in 1933, Hiram Walker & Sons grew to be the largest distillery in the world; it closed in 1981. By 2004, when North Shore Distillery opened, there were no other distilleries in Illinois—and only 67 in the U.S., according to the American Distilling Institute, the industry trade organization.

In the last few years, the growth of distilleries in Illinois has been dramatic. In 2011 there were still just three in the state, a number that increased to five in 2012 and is now above 20, with another four or five in the works. While craft beer makers often start out homebrewing, home distilling is illegal in the U.S.—which makes it a little more complicated to learn the ropes if you're not willing to break the law. Birnecker Hart says that when Koval first began distilling, "we would get numerous phone calls: people would say, 'We've been making alcohol in our backyard for years.' We were like, 'Don't say that too loud.'"

But even for moonshiners, launching a legal distillery is a complicated process. Soon after starting Koval, the Birneckers ran their first workshop to educate aspiring distillers. Since then, Birnecker Hart estimates that they've educated more than 2,000 people and set up 90 distilleries in the U.S. and Canada. "Most of the people who come to our workshops have never distilled before," she says. "Very few of them come from beer or wine [industries]. Most were doctors, lawyers, weathermen. They had completely different career paths, and they became inspired to do something with their hands, to make something themselves."

From left: apple-infused whiskey, unaged corn whiskey, corn whiskey infused with a charred oak spiral, vodka - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • From left: apple-infused whiskey, unaged corn whiskey, corn whiskey infused with a charred oak spiral, vodka

That concept is hardly foreign to the trio behind Whiskey Acres: farming is nothing if not hands-on. And in fact, Jamie had a brief career as an attorney before returning to the family farm about 20 years ago. Nagele, also raised on a farm (he still works on it a few weeks a year), worked in corporate communications for several years before he was hired as a sales manager for a seed company, where he met Jamie and Jim, who were local dealers for the same company.

But despite having extensive experience growing grain, none of the men knew how to turn it into alcohol. While their farming knowledge turned out to be helpful, Nagele says, it went only so far. "Jamie and Jim and I have all read the books, watched the shows, been to the classes, but distilleries are not like cars or bicycles. Being able to run [a farm] doesn't allow you to run [a distillery]." To help them learn the process, they hired former Maker's Mark head distiller Dave Pickerell, who's now a consultant for budding distilleries as well as head distiller for WhistlePig, Hillrock Estate, and George Washington distilleries.

Pickerell says that the consulting process consisted mainly of helping the Whiskey Acres distillers figure out what they wanted and how to do it, from the spirits they distilled to their distilling equipment to their business plan. "I try hard not to tell someone what their whiskey should taste like," he says. In this case, "they just love corn—which means it's going to be naturally sweeter, but they want some level of savory notes too." He also helped them put together a still. "Some places I end up trying to explain which end of a screwdriver you're supposed to use. These guys, you just lay it all out, and then it's, 'OK, here we go.' They just did it."

Pickerell has helped build 50 distilleries in the last seven years, and is employed as a consultant by about 80. He estimates that less than 1 percent of all distillers currently grow their own grain—but of the six or seven operations he knows of that do, he's helped build five. Besides Whiskey Acres and Pickerell's own WhistlePig in Vermont and Hillrock Estate in upstate New York, there's Far North in northern Minnesota and Ragged Mountain in Virginia, plus Frey Ranch in Nevada, which Pickerell didn't consult for. Still, he calls farm distillers "an up-and-coming trend." He points to the parallel locavore and sustainability movements. "Both clearly lend themselves towards grow-your-own," he says. "People certainly pay more for quality, and if you grow your own you can ensure the quality a little better. There's also an interest in expressing terroir in spirits the way you do in wines."

The majority of the farm distillers that Pickerell has worked with started out as farmers and then expanded into distilling. The exception is WhistlePig, which has become famous for its ten-year-old rye whiskey, made from 100 percent rye. By law, rye whiskey has to be made from at least 51 percent rye grain, but whiskey made with 100 percent rye is rare, since it's notoriously difficult to distill.

When the brand launched in 2010, owner Raj Bhakta had owned WhistlePig Farm for three years, but the whiskey it was selling came from Canada's Alberta Distillers and was bottled on the farm in Vermont (though WhistlePig wasn't exactly forthcoming about the source of its whiskey in the beginning). Pickerell calls that period "phase one." In phase two, WhistlePig sent rye grain grown on the farm to multiple distillers in the U.S. and Canada to be made into whiskey. That, according to Pickerell, was because it took more than four years to get a distilling license and another nine or ten months to build the distillery. In about a month the business is planning to enter phase three: distilling whiskey from rye grown on the farm. WhistlePig made the transition, Pickerell says, in anticipation of market trends such as the booming artisanal movement. "If we're going to control quality," he says, "let's control it all."

Bourbon aging in the distillery - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • Bourbon aging in the distillery

The Whiskey Acres distillers have a similar mentality. "We can control the entire process, from seed to spirit," Jamie says. "Our quality control starts from the moment we pick genetic varieties to use for the whiskeys we're going to make, the soils we plant them in, the way we raise that grain, harvest it, store it. We separate the very best-quality grain from our farm production and use it for the distillery. We sell the rest to other people, so they're getting our seconds, effectively."

"There's black-and-white statistics of grain quality," Nagele adds. "Starch content, protein, fat, moisture." In addition, they're experimenting with different types of grains. "There's always new genetics coming out," he says. "We've already identified a handful of varieties that we think make a superior whiskey, but we've got plots and seeds planted we're going to be checking. Not just commodity corn, but some heirloom corn. We're working with some specialty popcorns, Oaxacan green corn. We can make a barrel at a time with a specific type of corn and release that in the tasting room. We may experiment and go, 'That was garbage. Sell it as bulk whiskey to someone else.'"

What nonconnoisseurs don't realize, Jamie says, is that there are big differences between types of corn. "You can draw a parallel to wine production. You don't go to the store and buy wine, you buy a particular varietal—chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon or merlot. The same can be said for corn." Pickerell believes that terroir—or the characteristics that soil and other environmental factors impart on a crop—can express itself in whiskey. (The term is usually used for wine, and some experts argue that whiskey's variations in flavor are due to craftsmanship rather than terroir.) "The fields at Hillrock sign their name in clove and cinnamon," Pickerell says, "so when we make whiskey, we have to take into account that's what we're going to get."

The Whiskey Acres owners, he says, "are the most sophisticated farmers of any of the groups I've worked with. They've got GPS-driven planters, and they can draw circles and say, this particular area of this field needs more nutrients of this type. It's amazing the level they can go to. There's no question they can drive terroir just by their selection of grains and growing conditions." How exactly that terroir will express itself, however, is an unknown. Pickerell says that often it's not clear until the whiskey has aged: "In the next year we should have some good direction on it."

Sonat Birnecker Hart has also noticed that where grain is grown can influence the flavor of whiskey. While Koval doesn't distill on contract on a regular basis, she says, they've done it occasionally for friends in the industry who don't have stills. "One of the people we did some distilling for sent us a truckload of organic rye from Vermont and had us distill it," she says. Koval distilled the whiskey from 100 percent rye, exactly the same way they do with their own rye whiskey. "It tasted totally different. And the rye looked different. It was all organic rye, but there is a difference," she says. (Birnecker Hart didn't name the other distillery, and Pickerell declined to comment on whether Koval had done any distilling for WhistlePig.)

Her husband's grandfather, who's a distiller in Austria, also makes a rye from 100 percent rye grain—which tastes completely different from Koval's version. "It's different fields, it's different soil. I think that everything makes a difference to some degree."

Walter Farms - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • Walter Farms

The guys behind Whiskey Acres believe their farm-to-distillery method offers another advantage: transparency. "There are a lot of places that have 'farm' in their name that don't even make their own whiskey," Jamie says. "They just source whiskey from another producer and bottle it. We've learned a lot in the industry, and we're not here to throw stones or name names or point fingers, but we think there's value in the transparency that we offer."

Sourced whiskey has been big news since last summer, when the Daily Beast reported that dozens of craft rye whiskeys—Templeton, George Dickel, Angel's Envy, Redemption, Bulleit, and High West, among others—come from MGP, a factory distillery in Indiana. It had been an open secret in the spirits industry, and easily discoverable on the Internet (the Daily Beast wasn't the first to report it)—but that fact wasn't apparent on the whiskeys' labels.

"The labeling requirements in America do not require pretty much anything to be revealed," Birnecker Hart says. "You can put caramel coloring in whiskey and not tell a soul." She estimates that among new independent distilleries, about half are buying their spirits from larger distilleries. "But you can't tell. The only way you can really tell is by looking on the back label to see if it says 'distilled and bottled by.' If it says 'produced and bottled by,' it's not actually made by the brand on the label. But most consumers don't know that."

Some distilleries, like WhistlePig, start out selling sourced whiskey before transitioning into making their own. Templeton Rye, the most infamous of the sourced whiskeys—a class action lawsuit was filed against it last year on the grounds that it misled consumers—is reportedly now planning to build a distillery. New distillers who want to launch with an aged whiskey don't have much choice other than to buy it elsewhere, since most new business owners can't afford to wait years to bring a spirit to market. Those who don't want to bottle whiskey made by other distilleries, Whiskey Acres among them, generally opt to start by selling unaged spirits while the rest is sitting in barrels. (Whiskey Acres includes a little spiral of charred oak with its white whiskey that you can drop into the bottle and, over the course of a couple weeks, add a little color and flavor to the alcohol—though nothing that approximates barrel aging.)

Ultimately it's easier and cheaper to source spirits and resell them, Birnecker Hart says, than to make them. "I don't place any value judgment on it. Everyone wants to send their kids to piano lessons. When it's done in a misleading way, where they make the consumer think that they're making it themselves, that can be dubious."

Historically nearly every whiskey brand on the market has come from a few major distilleries, Birnecker Hart says, but the craft movement is changing the way the industry functions. "It was David and Goliath, and the craft spirits companies got ahead just because Goliath had no clue that it was even possible that we could disrupt the balance of power on the shelves. They thought all their marketing dollars were going to secure their place. But this interest that we have right now in local food, knowing about what you're eating and drinking, wanting to know the makers behind it—that has really driven this industry and changed it to a great extent."

The Whiskey Acres team is counting on the fact that consumers will continue to take an interest in local food and drink—and pay attention to exactly where it's being made. Showing off the copper still, Jamie says, "One thing you'll note is that it's tarnished. That means it's a working still." It takes eight hours to shine and polish it, which he's done—once. After a single run, it's tarnished again. "If you see a still that's shiny and polished when you're on a tour, odds are good that still doesn't run. It's there for show."

While Whiskey Acres' owners planned to slowly ramp up production over a couple of years, they have been unable to keep up with demand. They've hired several seasonal positions for the tasting room, and are currently looking for a full-time distiller as well as a couple part-time distillery assistants. And in the short time since the tasting room opened, Whiskey Acres has become, according to TripAdvisor, the top-rated tourist attraction in DeKalb (not that there's much competition). Jamie estimates that 25 percent of the visitors are from "well out of town," 50 percent are from the Chicago metro area, and 25 percent are local. Visitors have come from 20 states and 15 countries, and every continent—including a group of scientists on leave from Antarctica.

Dave Pickerell, for one, isn't surprised. He doesn't have to take every client who wants to hire him, he says, and so far he's picked well. "These guys, they're serious," he says of the Whiskey Acres team. "They clearly have the farmer's mentality—their concept of work is different than most people's. If you have a distillation run that's 20 hours, well, OK, buckle on the boots and let's do it. There's no whining about it."  v

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