In 2011, inspired by the growth of the craft-distilling movement, fifth-generation farmer Jamie Walter believed there were opportunities in a different market. Walter started to experiment and discovered that the corn, wheat and rye growing on his 2,000-acre farm in DeKalb, Illinois, produced excellent artisan spirits. The first bottles of Whiskey Acres spirits were released in 2015.
Whiskey Acres makes all of its Bourbon, vodka, rye and corn whiskey from grains grown on the farm. All aspects of production, from growing the grains and milling, mashing, fermenting, distilling and bottling, are done onsite. Walter calls it a “seed-to-spirit” approach to distilling.
“There is a tremendous shift in people wanting to understand where their food and drink comes from,” he says. “The fact that we grow our own grains gives people that sense of connection.”
Craft distilling is more popular than ever, with 1,315 craft distilleries spread across the nation as of August, 2016, an increase from just 200 in 2010, according to the American Craft Spirits Association. The number of farm distilleries, however, remains small. There are fewer than 200 listed on the American Distilling Institute website.
Margie Lehrman, executive director of the American Craft Spirits Association, believes the farm-to-table movement spurred the trend, and there’s more farm distilleries coming. Established brands are also capitalizing on the trend. In 2015, Buffalo Trace planted 18 acres of white corn to produce single-estate Bourbon.
“Farmers are a central part of the craft distilling industry, and there is something so cool about distillers growing their own grains,” says Lehrman.
In Ovid, New York, the grains grown on 1,000-acre Myer Farm are used in pancake mixes, bread and tofu sold by major brands throughout the Northeast. Joe Myer, a fifth-generation farmer turned distiller, believes the vodka, whiskey and gin produced by Myer Farm Distillers provide a more authentic connection between farm and table.
“Because of the distillery, we can get people out to the farm and show them where the grains were grown that are used in our spirits,” says Myer.
But that connection comes at a cost. Farm distilleries assume the risk for crop production and distilling, and the learning curve is steep. Both Walter and Myer spent countless hours honing their craft, which also required lessons in farming, too.
When growing grains for livestock feed or ethanol, farmers choose varieties that offer the highest yield per acre. One field might be planted with multiple different varieties of a single crop like corn. Walter equates this approach to winemakers who plant dozens of grape varieties to use in a single wine.
“Winemakers assume that Pinot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes will make differentiated flavors of wine,” says Walter. “The same is true for corn.”
Distillers choose grains for their flavor profiles, not yield. Experimentation is required to find the grains that produce the best-tasting spirits.
Walter planted varieties of corn like Green Oaxacan, Blue Popcorn, Glass Gem and Bloody Butcher for a new artisan series. Myer also plants different varieties of grains for distilling. He experimented with buckwheat, which produced amazing whiskey. However, the grain proved too temperamental to add to their product line.
Location also has a huge impact on flavor.
“Craft spirits have an expression of terroir, just like wine,” says Myer. “Distillers using the same varieties of grain in New York and Washington state will produce two very different flavored whiskeys.”
That experimentation is paying off. Both Myer Farm Distillers and Whiskey Acres have experienced rapid growth, which has led to significant increases in production and demand. Myer Farm Distillers has doubled production every year since it opened in 2012, and Whiskey Acres welcomes 1,000 visitors per month to its DeKalb tasting room.
“We start every tour standing out in the field and talking about the farm, which is the starting point for everything we do here,” says Walter. “We hope to shine a light on the craft of not just distilling—but growing—the finest whiskeys around.”