There is a farm distillery in every Midwest state
Call it the Grain Belt’s version of Napa Valley.
It should make sense that across America’s middle, where millions of acres of corn, wheat and everything else is grown, there is a spirit revolution. In the past decade, with laws changing in many states, distilleries are making adult beverages like whiskey, gin and vodka by the barrels full. Now these spots—some located on farms and some in small communities—are attracting spirit-loving tourists.
Here’s a look at a few stops along the Midwestern distillery trail.
Garrison Brothers Distillery
Where: Hye, Texas
Tours are Wednesday through Sunday.
Losing a job and savoring the nectar along Kentucky’s bourbon trail was just what Dan Garrison needed to rejuvenate his creative ingenuity.
Garrison was working for a software company in Austin, whose biggest customer was Enron. He found himself jobless in 2001. Thanks to the epiphany on the trail, he launched Garrison Brothers Distillery in 2003 and was bottling his own liquor by 2010—becoming Texas’ first and oldest legal whiskey distillery.
On a small farm near Hye, Texas, Garrison and his family grow 65 acres of soft red winter wheat and locally source white corn to make spirits. They offer five brands of bourbon whiskey.
The farm distillery draws more than 25,000 people each year, making it one of the rural area’s top tourist stops.
“The distillery is intentionally designed to appear as a small family farm and ranch,” Garrison said. “We are trying to do something here that is good for the Texas economy.”
Tours cost $10 a person Wednesday through Friday and Sunday, and $20 on Saturdays. Show up on a horse and it’s free, he said.
The hour-and-a-half excursion includes a ride up a wildflower-lined hill to the distillery on a trailer. He also has guided tours on horseback some Saturdays. The last stop is the tasting room.
The business venture he dreamed up on a Kentucky booze tour has gone well, he said. Today, he sells 10,000 cases a year in 26 states and six countries.
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Where: Austin, Texas
Tours are Thursday through Sunday.
Chris Seals hoped to do more than just open Austin’s first post-prohibition distillery in fall of 2017. He also wanted to revive the homegrown taste of Texas whiskey that Americans enjoyed before the 18th Amendment.
Prohibition had several unintended consequences. Farmers lost a niche specialty market. The heirloom grains that were part of whiskey production disappeared from the landscape.
“If you look at the 1919 census of agriculture, you see this huge diversity of different grains grown,” Seals said. “Ten or 20 years later, everything moved to yellow dent No. 3. One unigrain made a lot of money and now we don’t have different varieties based on originality.”
Seals, who grew up on a farm near Kansas City, Missouri, said most of the grain comes from within 100 miles of Austin.
“We thought it might be a good backbone to build a whiskey that speaks to the area of central Texas,” he said.
With the help of Texas A&M, Seals sources varieties like bloody butcher red corn and winter hawk wheat. Both make smooth spirits. Moreover, it provides a niche market for his 20-some growers, he said.
“It is a way to boost the local grain economy, which makes farmers less dependent on commodity price swings and more connected to the local consumer base,” he said.
Tours educate consumers about the grain-to-glass movement. Visitors see the entire process, which is all done inhouse—from milling, mashing and distilling to barreling and bottling.
Folks can sample spirits and they can even make their own.
“It’s just part of the allure and fun of the whole thing,” Seals said. “People enjoy learning where their things come from and that is part of what we do at Still Austin.”
Oklahoma Distilling Co.
Where: Tulsa, Oklahoma
Oklahoma isn’t known for distilleries. Hunter Stone Gambill will tell you that. After college and seven years abroad, he and his wife moved back to Oklahoma in 2017 and started pursuing Gambill’s dream to change that perception.
Partnering with a couple of friends, they launched Oklahoma Distilling Co. in July 2017.
“I didn’t want to come in and try to do Kentucky bourbon in Oklahoma,” Gambill said. “I wanted to make our own Oklahoman spirits and create something that is really good.”
Five months later, they were bottling Indian Grass vodka. It’s made with water from an ancient glacier in Oklahoma, which adds a touch of minerals and gives the vodka a smooth taste, he said.
“We are a made-in-Oklahoma company,” he said, adding he is working to source all his corn and other grains from Oklahoma.
“On the grain I’m getting from Oklahoma, I’m paying a 10 to 20 percent premium. On a per marketing thing it is worth it,” he said.
A corn whiskey—branded 1907 after Oklahoma’s statehood—will be ready in May. Moonshine dubbed 59 Shine honors the 1959 ending of Oklahoma prohibition. They are also developing a rum made from sorghum.
Current state laws don’t allow distilleries to sell onsite or have a tasting room but lawmakers are working on the wording of a law to be more advantageous for owners and visitors.
Oklahoma Distilling has a cocktail lounge ready in anticipation of the changes. Gambill is also working on a cidery, which will open next to the distillery this summer. Cideries are open to the public, he said.
Boot Hill Distillery
Where: Dodge City, Kansas
Tours are Fridays and Saturdays and cost $10 a person. The tasting room is open on Thursdays, also.
Hayes Kelman returned to the farm after college four years ago. The fifth-generation farmer began looking for a way to vertically integrate the family operation near Sublette, Kansas, “beyond what we have been doing for generation and generation,” which was growing corn, selling corn and starting all over again.
Kelman’s father, Roger, and a family friend, Scott County farmer Chris Holovach, got involved in the plan. They purchased the former Dodge City, Kansas, city building, which was built on the site of the old Boot Hill Cemetery—hence, the name, Boot Hill Distillery.
He sometimes jokes to friends that, to diversify, it could have been a feedlot.
“But cattle kick and I’m not a very good cowboy,” he said with a smile, then added that making whiskey also “smells better.”
The family also grows wheat, triticale, rye, white corn and barley that are blended into their products.
In fact, said Kelman, all their corn goes to alcohol—about 99 percent is taken to the local ethanol plant, the rest is used to make spirits.
After opening in 2016 and selling bottles onsite, Boot Hill is now sold in 170 liquor stores across Kansas, along with a few other states.
Wheat State Distilling
Where: Wichita, Kansas
Tours are available during events or by appointment and include samples of Wheat State’s products.
With the best wheat in the world in Kansas, David Bahre wondered why spirits weren’t made in the nation’s breadbasket, too. He set out to change this, opening Wheat State Distilling.
All the ingredients can be traced from farm to mill to still to bottle. His website even allows customers to track how each bottle was made.
Loup River Distillery
Where: St. Paul, Nebraska
Open Wednesday through Saturday.
Interested in adding value to his farm, first generation Nebraska farmer Eric Montemagni began exploring how to market his grain to the burgeoning craft brew industry. He soon realized he could do it himself, opening Loup River Distillery with his wife, Maria, in St. Paul in March.
“These small Midwest towns are struggling and I thought maybe I could help bring life back to the small town, keep it going,” he said.
The distillery is open Wednesday through Saturday where he makes whiskey, vodka and gin. Meanwhile, the tasting room also serves local wines and craft beers, as well.
Great Plains Distillery
Where: Scottsbluff, Nebraska
There are only a handful of distilleries in Nebraska. But a few, including Great Plains Distillery, started in 2017 with the aim of going local.
Father and son Phillip Mitchell and Austin Propp started working to bring a distillery to Scottsbluff, a town of 15,000 in the Nebraska panhandle, five years ago.
They were able to find a home in an old Culligan water plant, Mitchell said. They sold their first bottles in July 2017.
At present, they are selling their “Vamoose” 100 percent corn vodka and hope to expand to moonshine and whiskey.
“We are trying to work directly with farmers,” Mitchell said, adding eventually, “I hope to be 100 percent organic and 100 percent locally-sourced.”
Vamoose vodka is available in Lincoln and Omaha, plus Panhandle liquor stores. There is also a tasting room at the distillery. Meanwhile, Mitchell said there is a lot to see in the Nebraska Panhandle, including Scotts Bluff National Monument, Chimney Rock and Carhenge—an artist’s ode to Stonehenge—just down the road.
Wood Hat Spirits
Where: New Florence, Missouri
Tours are Thursday through Sunday.
As a former Illinois Extension agronomist, Gary Hinegardner was always looking for ways to add value to farmers’ crops.
He even attended a meeting about ethanol production in Colby, Kansas in 1983.
“I was just a little too early,” said Hinegardner, whose ag roots are based in Winfield, Kansas.
“If you really want to help a community, you figure out how to increase the price of corn,” he said. “It’s the agriculture producer who keeps the small town alive.”
Corn is a staple of the region, he thought. Why not make bourbon?
Hinegardner and his wife, Katy, started Wood Hat Spirits—naming it for the wood hats he creates. They planted a crop of blue corn in 2012 and distilled their first batches of whiskey and bourbon in 2013. Wood Hat is the only wood-fired still in the country and is available in liquor stores in Missouri and Kansas.
Besides blue corn, Hinegardner uses heirloom varieties of bloody butcher red and white corn to make spirits. They come with challenges that Bt varieties don’t have—the yields are substantially lower and they are subject to rootworm. However, he said, he doesn’t need a massive number of bushels to make his 13 different varieties of spirits, he said.
Everything is Missouri-raised or made, including his oak barrels.
He’s created his niche market.
“The Chinese love bourbon. We don’t need to be selling $4 corn to the Chinese. We need to be selling $400 bourbon.”
Visitors can tour the operation where the Hinegardners distill about 500 to 1,000 bottles a week. They can traipse through the corn crop when it is in season. They can also sample the drinks.
Agritourism is growing nationwide, he said.
“Sometimes we are bottling and we have people jump in and bottle or help put wood on the fire,” Hinegardner said. “Prohibition might have all but wiped out distilling, but it is now the fastest growing segment of the beverage industry today.”
Lonely Oak Distillery
Where: Earling, Iowa
It is open for special events and on weekends but it is best to check their Facebook Page.
Iowa farmer Pat Hoffmann said the name for his family’s distillery came to him one evening during harvest while walking across the farmstead.
“I dropped something, picked it up and I looked up,” he said. “I saw this beautiful tree sitting there in the sunset.”
Hence the name Lonely Oak, although, as Hoffmann said with a laugh, he later learned from his father it was an “old maple.”
He and his wife, Amy, have since planted a few oak trees on the family farm. Last fall, Pat and Amy released North 40 Vodka. Their newest product, Steeple Ridge Bourbon, is available this month. Gin is also part of their plan.
A top spirit starts in the ground, Hoffmann said. Their heirloom variety of Wapsie Valley corn, used in their bourbon, is open pollinated and averages around 95 bushels an acre. However, what they gain is a unique flavor, he said.
“I tell people I’m not worried about selling the first bottle,” Hoffmann said. “I’m worried about selling the second bottle.”
Wheat for their vodka is sourced from a Missouri farmer, but Hoffmann plans to plant his own crop this fall.
The farm is open for tours most weekends, but Hoffmann encourages visitors to call and make a reservation. Amy operates the tasting room.
How does Hoffmann like is vodka?
“I’m a big fan of vodka water with lime,” he said. “And our peach vodka is new—I love that with lemonade. I can’t wait for summer.”
Hoffmann said he enjoys educating visitors about the industry.
“Making spirits has always been part of agriculture for hundreds of years,” he said. “Our country was built with booze. George Washington once owned a distillery.”
In Colorado, the budding distillery industry is working to bolster tourism.
In February, the Colorado Distillers Guild released the Colorado Spirits Trail—a guide to more than 50 tasting rooms across the state.
Spirit enthusiasts can plan their route at coloradospiritstrail.com.
Grain-to-glass distillers are on the list.
Ironton Distillery and Crafthouse in Denver includes small batch farm-to flask specialties. Also, in Denver is Laws Whiskey House, which uses grains from family farms.
Mad Rabbit Distillery in Westminster uses grain from western slope organic farms.
Meanwhile, near Basalt, Woody Creek Distillers sources their grain from Colorado farms and grows ingredients themselves, including potatoes for their premium vodka.
Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or [email protected].