Grain to Glass Craft Distilling Sets Some Distilleries Apart
September 1, 2016 –––––– Amy Zavatto
The prolific percolation of craft distilleries shows no signs of slowing to a drip; more and more, “farm” distilleries—those purchasing some or all of their grain and grass from farms within a stone's throw—are becoming the bucolic norm nationwide. But a small, burgeoning faction of whiskey makers seeks to germinate an even more close-to-home methodology: growing their own grains and grass right outside their distillery doors.
“When talking terroir in whiskey, it's probably something that hasn't existed in any real, meaningful way in a long time—and I'm talking in Scotland and Kentucky, too,” says distiller Christopher Williams of Coppersea Distilling of that Gaelic-grabbed, wine-centric term that implies an unmistakable, identifiable sense of detectable place in your glass. For Coppersea, which engages in thoroughly rooted 19th century methods, including fire-fueled alembic stills, hand-raking their malted grains, and using local oak for their barrels, that sense of place is what they're banking on from their heirloom strains of corn, Danko variety rye, and oats.
Among their farming brethren, Coppersea is one of the few who began production first and added the farm component after—distilleries like Myer Farm in New York, Far North in Minnesota, Coulter & Payne in Missouri, Belmont Farm in Virginia, Frey Ranch in Nevada, and Whiskey Acres in Illinois began as multi-generational farmers. And producers Hillrock, also in New York state, and WhistlePig in Vermont had the land and began growing, but supplemented early on with high-quality “seed” whiskeys to get things rolling before being able to use the whiskey made from grains grown on their land. Another, Bently Heritage in Minden, Nevada, has secured 6,000 acres and is growing, among other things, barley, wheat, rye, and oats and expects to begin rolling out bottles of vodka, absinthe, gin, and bourbon in 2017.
“On our farm, we have 22 planted varieties of corn, but we home in on three for our whiskey, along with two heirloom varieties,” says Jamie Walter of Whiskey Acres, a distillery that sits on his family's 2,000 acre, fifth-generation farm in Dekalb, Illinois where they grow winter wheat, rye, and their big cash crop, corn. “Some have more spice, some more sweetness. Some have a creamy, butteriness—a different mouthfeel entirely. We really think there's something to varietal differences, as well as the soil and microclimate, and how those things affect us.”
Colby Frey's family has been farming in Fallon, Nevada since 1854. Frey Ranch Distilling sits smack in the middle of their 1,200 acres of wheat, corn, rye, and barley. Frey devotes slightly less than 10 percent to the distillery, but it's enough to eschew the need for any outside sources of grain. The milling, fermenting, distilling, aging,and bottling are all done on site as well.“I personally have total control of the entire process, from the planting [and] seed selection to irrigating, harvesting, and distilling,” says Colby. “As a farmer there are certain things that can be done in the field during the growing process to obtain a higher-quality grain.Almost always they lead to lower yields…. I am able to sacrifice quantityfor quality.” Currently, Frey is aging single-grain whiskeys. He is also aging a four-grain bourbon in 53-gallon barrels with an anticipated release in late 2018 or early 2019.
There's another thread that several of these distilleries have in common along with their propensity for planting: master distiller Dave Pickerell, the man who has done for craft distilling what Jack Nicklaus has for golf course design.
The former long-time master distiller for Maker's Mark made his own major mark on craft distilling with his company, Oak View Consulting. For many upstart clients, Pickerell has sailed in, advised, and orchestrated the set-up, and then left them to their own distilling devices. And for those who want that process to start from seed, he has become the veritable Turk of Terroir.
Most famously, Pickerell has been front and center with both Hillrock Estate distillery, a luxury whiskey-only producer in Ancram, NY, owned by Jeff Baker, and WhistlePig, the baby of Raj Bhakta—projects with big names and big bucks behind them, but no less sincerity to find success from the literal ground up.
“Not only are we growing our own grain on a significant scale—over 500 acres—we're also harvesting our own oak trees [for barrels] and using that to further bring the flavor of the land into our whiskey. We're also using water from our own well on the farm,” says Bhakta of his rye. “It's our grain, our water, our wood—we're taking craft to 2.0.” The liquid of Bhakta and Pickerell's farming labors is currently sitting in barrels and, he says, he may release a small portion of the estate-centric rye later this year.
But as a businessman at heart, Bhakta knows that while tales can be tantalizing, flavor doesn't come from story alone. “At the end of the day, a whiskey isn't great because Uncle Fester made it in his backyard. It's great because of the taste.”