From seed to sip: Midwest farmers are seeing rise in popularity of craft distilling

It was here, surrounded by his family’s sea of conventional corn and soybeans, that Iowa farmer Pat Hoffmann’s unconventional idea began to ferment.

“This is America’s heartland,” he thought to himself. “This is where the best spirits in the world should be made.”

The fourth generation on his family’s farm near Earling, population 420, Hoffmann recognized a growing trend: consumers want to know where their food comes from and gain a sense of connection to the people who grow it.

Hoffmann, who farms with his parents, David and Ruth, yearned to produce a finished product from the fields they labored over year after year.

“An idea got into my head and I couldn’t let it go,” Hoffmann said.

Napa Valley would never truck in Iowa grapes to make their best wines. So why wasn’t Iowa, known for raising an abundance of corn on its fertile farmland, not producing bourbon, whiskey and gin?

So, on the footprint of the farmhouse where his father grew up, Hoffmann and his wife, Amy, built a distillery. Last year, the couple released their first spirit—North 40 Vodka—and opened their farm to tourists.

“We have the rain, the soil and the knowledge of agriculture,” Hoffmann said. “This is where the best corn is grown. And, when you think of it that way, a distillery makes perfect sense.”

Lifting local spirits

With consumers seeking craft-made liquor, the Hoffmanns’ Lonely Oak Distillery is among the growing number of craft distilleries popping up across the country as state prohibition-era laws are whittled away.

“Wine started it,” Hoffmann said of the trend. “Craft beer has continued it and craft spirits is the next step. I just believe people care about what they eat and what they drink more so now than ever.”

For liquor enthusiasts, it has been a rugged road—one hurdled by the Temperance Movement and hatchet-wielding Carry Nation—who smashed her first saloon in Kiowa, Kansas, in 1900.

Many states have started to change their laws, which has helped augment the popularity of local spirits.

“When I started the business, we couldn’t have tasting rooms,” said Dan Garrison, who has Garrison Brothers Distillery on a farm near Hye, Texas, a community of a few hundred people.

Garrison continues to advocate for changes in Texas laws to make distilling more favorable for farm distillers. Even now, he said, customers can only purchase two bottles every 30 days.

Still, he said, the industry is growing substantially. He received federal permit No. 29 in 2003. He estimated 1,700 distillers are now operating across the country.

The grain-to-glass movement is part of that growing trend, said Bill Owens, CEO of the American Distilling Institute. He estimated there are more than 350 farm distilleries in the United States that source grain from local farmers to make their spirits.

Actual farmers making liquor, however, is just a fraction of the industry. Owens estimated there are about 50 such “seed-to-spirit” distillers in the country.

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Still, Owens said, a decade or two ago, there weren’t any.

Booze Hill

Farmers like Hoffmann see distilling the grain on their farm as a way to add to the bottom line. But they are also discovering another important byproduct of whiskey and other craft beverages—tourism.

On a hill in the former rough-and-tumble cattle town of Dodge City, Kansas, where outlaws were once laid to rest, sits Boot Hill Distillery.

Not only are the spirits flowing here, but farmer Hayes Kelman and his staff are also tapping into the city’s wild west tourism industry. They show visitors how spirits are made from the grain he grows on his family’s Sublette-area farm. It’s followed by a trip to the tasting room where they can belly-up to the bar and sip whiskeys, gin and vodka, plus buy a bottle to go.

Locals now call the area “Booze Hill.” A brewery sits at the bottom of the inclined street.

Kelman, and his father, Roger, and family friend Chris Holovach of Scott City, Kansas, bought the town’s old city building in 2014, which sits on the site of the old Boot Hill Cemetery. They fixed up the 90-year-old building that was on the city’s list to be razed, opening the distillery doors in 2016.

There are a handful of other distilleries in Kansas and a few use local grain to make liquor. Hayes Kelman is the only farmer.

“There aren’t many who are ‘soil to sip,’” said Kelman. “The moment we plant to the first sip out of the bottle—the entire process has been 100 percent under our control.”

Kelman said they use the conventional corn that his family has grown for generations to make their whiskey, vodka and gin products. They grow a variety of other grains, including wheat, rye and barley that go into the recipes also.

While the distillery is not on the farm, visitors still see how grain grown there is made into liquor, said Mark Vierthaler who serves as Boot Hill Distillery’s marketing director and is also a distiller there. Guests learn more about the historic thread of Dodge City, which was founded on booze.

The first business in town was a whiskey bar outside of Fort Dodge, a frequent stop by travelers and soldiers, Vierthaler said.

“Whether you are interested in spirits, whether you are interested in agriculture, whether you are interested in the history of Dodge City and the Old West, I think we are pretty unique where our tours and spirits involve all three of those.”

The growing popularity of distilleries also creates an economic boon for local communities as tourists spend money on lodging, other attractions and meals, said Garrison, whose Hye, Texas, distillery draws 25,000 tourists a year to the 65-acre farm.

The hour-and-a-half tour includes a trailer ride to the distillery and cookhouse. There are guided tours on horseback some Saturdays. About 30 minutes of the tour is spent at the tasting room, he said.

“It’s adding money to the hill country,” Garrison said.

Distillery trail

Back in Iowa, Hoffmann excitedly talks about his newest product, which will be released in April. Steeple Ridge Bourbon is named for the three parishes they can see from their farm.

To be called bourbon, it must be made from at least 51 percent or more corn and aged in new, charred American oak barrels. The Hoffmanns use a mid-1800s heirloom corn called Wapsie Valley and a conventional Pioneer variety to make Steeple Ridge.

“My grandfather Fritz Hoffmann sold Pioneer seed corn on this farm years ago and swore that no other seed would ever be planted here,” Hoffmann said with a chuckle, adding he was sure his grandfather would approve of his new venture.

So far, Lonely Oak has been a success. In six months, Pat and Amy Hoffmann have gotten North 40 Vodka onto the shelves in liquor stores in Iowa, Nebraska and Connecticut and are working on other states.

Meanwhile, visitors can make purchases at the farm. They can also schedule tours of the distillery, see the farm equipment and, during the season, view their growing corn crop. There is also a tasting room and bar to sample spirits.

Hoffmann said he wants to educate visitors and let them see the farmer behind the drink.

“When you come on a tour, we start with how we plant the crop to how we pour the finished product in the bottle,” he said.

Lonely Oak is a mile off the highway on a gravel road, about four miles from Earling. The Hoffmanns could have built their distillery in town, giving it more visibility. However, Hoffmann said, the story is the farm.

“What do you give up to gain something?” asked Hoffmann. “One thing we couldn’t give up was our story.”

Amy Bickel can be reached at [email protected].