Microvarietal Rye and Homegrown Botanicals: Farm-to-Flask Spirits Toast the Local Bounty

The restored interior of Whistlepig Distillery / Photo courtesy Whistlepig
The restored interior of Whistlepig Distillery / Photo courtesy Whistlepig

The distillery equivalent to grower wines, “farm distilleries” or “estate distilleries” focus on growing the raw materials used to distill spirits.

Yet, this represents a relatively small percentage of distilleries. A number of states offer licensing and tax breaks for “farm distilleries” that work with agricultural products sourced from local growers. However, only a handful start with hands in the dirt themselves.

“I think the easiest way to describe it is: If a farmer in Pennsylvania in 1750 would recognize your business model, you’re a farm distillery,” says Mike Swanson, co-owner/head distiller of Far North Spirits in Hallock, Minnesota.

The advantage for a distillery is absolute control over the crops that are grown. Far North has experimented with growing and comparing microvarietals of rye.

Meanwhile, at Iron Fish Distillery in Thompsonville, Michigan, the producers use organic farming methods and conserve the local water supply through responsible environmental practices.

“In our own hearts, we know what we’re doing with the land, and those things are important to us,” says David Wallace, owner/partner at Iron Fish.

These four distilleries give new meaning to the “ground-to-glass” movement.

Rye seeds at Far North Distillery / Photo by Cheri Reese
Rye seeds at Far North Distillery / Photo by Cheri Reese

Far North Spirits

Hallock, MN

Though he grew up in a multigenerational farming family, Swanson took detours through the healthcare industry and corporate world. He returned to farm life in 2012, after his father began to talk about retirement. “You can take the boy off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy,” he says.

Today, Far North grows 100 acres of rye and 10 acres of corn used to make whiskey. Its flagship is Roknar, a robust Minnesota Rye with plenty of orchard fruit and spice. The distillery crafts other spirits like a single-estate vodka.

One of the advantages of a farm, for a producer, is that it can grow and experiment with multiple varieties of a crop. Swanson did just that with 15 varieties of rye.

After he analyzed the grains (a study of his findings will be released this summer), Swanson used some of the greatest successes to distill a limited-edition Roknar Seed Vault Series. The first round sold out quickly. A second batch is planned for fall.

Try this bottle: Roknar Minnesota Rye Whiskey

“You gotta roll with the punches. It’s all Mother Nature at the end of the day.” —Gabriella Purita, head distiller, Greenport Distilling

Greenport Distilling

Southold, NY

Long Island’s North Fork is known for its picturesque vineyards. But distilleries are a growing part of the scene here, too.

Greenport, the distilling arm of One Woman Wines, was founded in 2009 after a tornado tore through the 40-acre vineyard and rendered its grapes unfit for wine.

Winemaker Claudia Purita, the “one woman,” planted the vineyard in 2004 on the site of a former potato farm. Her daughter, Gabriella Purita, now the head distiller, applied for a distillation license so she could turn the damaged grapes into grappa. It was an homage to her father, Frank, who died in 2001.

“He and I loved grappa and gin,” says Gabriella. “We tried to make the best out of a bad situation for us.”  Single-varietal grappas, like one made from the aromatic Gewürztraminer grape, are the distillery’s signature offering, while the gin is flavored with 28 botanicals, almost all sourced from the farm.

“You gotta roll with the punches,” says Gabriella. That scrappy attitude embodies the farming life. “It’s all Mother Nature at the end of the day.”

Try this bottle: Greenport Distilling White Grappa

Craft Distilleries Upcycle Spent Grains at Farms, Bakeries and Beyond

Iron Fish Distillery

Thompsonville, MI

Located at the end of a two and a half mile dirt road on a reclaimed farmstead that dates to the 1890s, Iron Fish Distillery grows and sources local grain to make craft spirits. Its line includes a wheated-style straight Bourbon and Four Cask, a blend of Bourbons finished in rum, Cognac, Sherry and maple syrup barrels.

Named for a moniker given to the local steelhead trout, Iron Fish grows wheat and rye on the 120-acre property. “[That’s] about 50% of the grain needed for the distillery,” says owner/partner David Wallace. Corn is sourced elsewhere.

Wallace’s wife, Heidi Bolger, has roots in the area, as her mother grew up there. About 10 years ago, the Wallaces purchased the farmland, but they hadn’t figured out what to do with it. Instead, it took a trip to the distilleries of Scotland to crystallize plans to grow grains and make whiskey.

The distillery is focused on sustainable farming methods and preservation of the local water supply.

“It’s important that we have control over what goes on in our fields and how we use our land,” says Wallace. Once the grain is harvested and the distilling process is begun, “there’s no difference between us and any other distillery.”

Try this bottle: Iron Fish Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Grain to glass at Whistlepig Distillery / Photos courtesy Whistlepig
Grain to glass at Whistlepig Distillery / Photos courtesy Whistlepig

Whistlepig Distillery

Shoreham, VT

Built on the site of a former dairy farm, Whistlepig specializes in rye whiskey. Its rye crop covers 220 acres of the 500-acre farm.

“[We’ve] tried a little bit of everything,” says Emily Harrison, the distillery manager. This includes different types of wheat, heirloom rye and corn, even Dent #2 commodity corn. “What we make depends on our harvest,” she says.

Among its bottlings is Farmstock Rye. The long-term goal is to create a whiskey made entirely with grain grown on the farm. Its first three releases have been made with a small percentage of Whistlepig’s own rye, which has increased with each bottling.

The first release included 20% homegrown rye, with the rest based on more mature whiskeys sourced from Indiana and Canada. The second contained 32% of its own rye, and the third, a complex bottling that bursts with candied ginger and baking spice, increased to 52%.

A fourth edition is in the works. “It’s been the plan from Day One to do farm-to-glass,” says Pete Lynch, Whistlepig’s master blender.

Try this bottle: Whistlepig Farmstock Rye Crop 003

Published on May 25, 2020
Topics: Spirits