Staying Local in Eastern IowaMarch 21st, 2014
For more than 150 years, Le Claire, Iowa had been known primarily for one reason. The picturesque Mississippi River town was the birthplace of Buffalo Bill Cody, and there’s a street named after him…a road, actually: Cody Road. More recently, Le Claire, located just north of Davenport, has become more widely known as the home base for the History Channel’s popular American Pickers series. In just the last couple of years though, another business has become a must-visit destination in this charming small town: Mississippi River Distilling (MRD).
Perched above the river at the eastern edge of town, MRD has made a pretty sizeable splash in the craft distilling scene of late. Their gin, vodka, and aged whiskeys have gained distribution across the Midwest and into the mid-Atlantic in the three short years they’ve been up and running. The founding Burchett brothers, Ryan and Garrett, are justifiably proud of what they’ve accomplished in that time. They consider their distillery a “grain to glass” operation, with every kernel of their corn, wheat, rye, and barley being sourced from family farms within 25 miles of Le Claire, in Iowa and across the river in Illinois.
The brothers come from pretty non-traditional backgrounds for a run at the whiskey business. Their family owns a long-standing road construction company headquartered in Iowa. Garrett had been a transportation planner in Dallas prior to moving back, and Ryan was a television meteorologist in Iowa’s Quad Cities and other markets. But they’re also a couple of guys who love whiskey, and they sensed a potentially profitable business opportunity. They were the first to enter the distilling business after the legalization of tastings and retail sales of spirits at Iowa distilleries in 2010, and now they mash, distill, greet customers, and hit the road as the sales team for MRD.
Along with a small staff, they run the mash through a beautiful 1,000 liter handmade Koethe pot still they’ve named Rose. The Burchetts and Rose produce two whiskeys, a bourbon and a rye, neither of which is sold as white dog. The brothers prefer to age the distillate in 30-gallon barrels for at least a year before bottling. The bourbon is 70 percent corn, 20 percent wheat, and 10 percent unmalted barley, while the rye is 100 percent rye grain. Because of their quest to use all local grains, and the lack of any locally kilned malts, enzymes are used to enable fermentation. The cuts off the still are very tight, allowing the grain to shine through. Both whiskeys carry the name Cody Road in honor of Le Claire’s favorite son and the street that passes in front of the distillery.
Aging takes place in a smallish room on the lower level of the building that holds about 300 tightly-packed barrels. The operation is already running out of space, and plans are underway to expand in partnership with a local craft brewer on the current site in 2014. Great River Brewing of Davenport uses MRD whiskey barrels in their barrel aging program, and the prospect of a joint venture in shared quarters presents a host of compelling possibilities. The new facilities will include an event room and a bigger barrel warehousing area for MRD, and a specialty brewery and pub for Great River.
In the mainstream distilling business, tradition is an accessible commodity and tends to be something most brands hang their hat on. Craft distillers have to rely on innovation and creativity to stand out, and the Mississippi River crew has been doing a fair amount of both recently. Last summer they brought in a half-ton of bananas and soaked them in their aged rye whiskey to produce the first batch of the “Still Crazy” series, an ongoing project that will eventually feature other variants. This “Mono Loco” (crazy monkey in Spanish) version produced just over 1,000 375 ml bottles; a pound of bananas for every bottle! Mono Loco debuted during VIP Hour at WhiskyFest Chicago to crowd acclaim, and I was fortunate to be able to taste it at the distillery even though it had been a quick sellout. Wonderful stuff, and more whiskey weirdness will follow.
Another direction they’re heading in is the intriguing “My Whiskey” program, where the customer has the ability to have the team distill a single 30-gallon barrel of a standard or custom mashbill fermented with their choice of three yeasts, then whatever entry proof, level of barrel char, aging regimen, and bottling proof they choose. Custom labeling is part of this personalized package, and you get to keep the barrel. They’re also offering a hands-on Whiskey School in early 2014 and have an ongoing Adopt-A-Barrel program available to keep their customers engaged.
If it sounds like they’re having fun, trust me, they are. The place was buzzing with tourists the day I was there, and the team was doing their best to keep them entertained and informed. The tasting room, which offers a great view of the Mississippi out one window and of the distillery (and Rose) through another, was filled with guests asking questions, sampling the wares, and enjoying the scenery, all while barrels were being filled and jokes tossed around on the other side of the wall.
Creativity is indeed the buzzword in the world of craft brewing and distilling, and the brothers Burchett seem more than ready to take it to the next level. I expect they’ll continue to mess around with grain and wood (and fruit!) to help shape the next generation of American whiskey.