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Farm Distilleries Grow Their Own Whiskey Grains

Farm Distilleries Grow Their Own Whiskey Grains

Estate wineries, which grow their own grapes to make their own wine, are a convention throughout the wine world. Estate distilleries, however, remain a rarity. But perhaps not for long—a handful of craft whiskey distilleries now grow their own grains.

It’s a departure from how the majority of whiskey distilleries currently operate. Most don’t know the exact types of corn, wheat or rye used to create their whiskeys, says Nick Nagele, co-founder of Whiskey Acres in Dekalb, Illinois. Two farmers might grow different types of yellow dent corn, for example, which may be commingled before ever making it to a distiller.

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“All of these different varieties get thrown together… kind of like [grapes for] red table wine,” he says. Meanwhile, proponents of estate distilling say that producers who grow their own grain—carefully choosing the varietal for its flavor profile—are more likely to create memorable whiskeys that are nuanced and complex.

Are we seeing the beginning of something that could become a major spirits category? Or will a lack of clarity over the term—and skepticism of its inherent value—throttle the trend before it fully takes off?

Image Courtesy of Frey Ranch

What’s in a Name?

The category’s lingo can be confusing. Some operations call themselves estate distilleries, while others prefer heritage distilleries. Others still describe themselves as farm distilleries or forgo iterations of the designation entirely. Chalk up to the newness of the conceit.

“In the wine world, it’s so common to have an estate winery that grows their own grapes before making their own wine, but in the whiskey world, it’s so rare that there’s never been a definition of it,” says Colby Frey, founder of Frey Ranch in Fallon, Nevada. The distillery used to go by Frey Ranch Estate Distillery, but Frey found it too loose a term. The verbiage “Farmers and Distillers” now features prominently on its website.

“Some distilleries call themselves grain-to-glass, but they actually buy the grain instead of growing it,” Frey says. “We call ourselves ‘ground to glass’ because that’s what we do.”

Frey’s family has been farming in what’s today the Silver State since 1854—longer than Nevada has been in the Union. In 2006, he secured an experimental license to make whiskey and age it, and he sold his first whiskey in 2019. Frey’s whiskeys, all of which are made with grains grown on its 1,500-acre farm, have since become sought after. All aspects of the production process, from malting, milling and mashing to distilling, maturing and bottling, take place onsite.

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Nagele’s co-founder Jamie Walter thinks that “seed to spirit” might be a more apt description of such products.

“We control the entire process from seed going into the ground to the spirit we distill and then age,” Walter says. At the time of its founding in 2013, Whiskey Acres relied on typical yellow dent corn. But in recent years, the team has experimented with heirloom varieties like Bloody Butcher, blue popcorn and Oaxacan green corn, as well as their own hybrids.

“The seed matters,” Nagele stresses.

Walter’s interest in grains is rooted in his experience with wine. In a previous lifetime, he helped produce a Cabernet Sauvignon called The Frenchman and the Farmer. “It was a short-lived, hobby business, but it got me thinking,” he says. “We have a very strong background in corn genetics, and we knew that there are dozens—if not hundreds—of varieties of yellow dent corn, as well as other types of corn. It got us thinking of them like grapes.”

Far North Spirits
Image Courtesy of Far North Spirits

But Is It Any Good?

There’s disagreement as to how important grain varietal is to whiskey—and with it, arguments over the value of estate distilleries.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that they’re farmers, it matters that they’re good distillers,” says Fred Minnick, author of Bourbon: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of an American Whiskey. In fact, he considers it “dangerous” for whiskey companies to compare themselves to wineries. “Growing their grapes is far more important than growing the grain,” he explains. “The grains matter, but there are so many variables that go into making whiskey—it puts less emphasis on the grain than it does the grapes for wine.”

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But Mike Swanson, who with wife Cheri Reese founded Minnesota’s Far North Spirits on his family’s 100-year-old farm in 2013, disagrees. Working with the University of Minnesota, he planted 15 different varieties of rye, distilled them all into whiskey and then aged the results for three years.

“We were able to prove, all other things being equal, that the variety of rye will completely change the profile of the whiskey,” Swanson says. “I was prepared for there to be no difference, that the distillation process would kind of erase the differences between the grain varieties. But boy, we were able to prove that there’s a huge amount of variation.” He’s especially partial to a rye varietal called AC Hazlet, which has a “nice vanilla note to it.”

At Whiskey Acres, the team sees promise in a new whiskey made with a hybrid corn they created from an Italian red corn and a Prohibition-era corn previously used to make hooch. “The red corn comes out of Tuscany and it’s known for its flavor in polenta—that was our male—and we crossed it with the American corn to create a new hybrid,” Nagele says. “It’s resting in barrels, and we obtained a patent for it. We’re super excited about the flavor.”

J. Henry & Sons Bourbon
Image Courtesy of Eberly Film Lab LLC

Other Upsides to Estate Distilling

Control over the type of grain used is just one benefit of estate distilling. Milling and fermenting also can affect the flavor profile of a final product, two processes that are generally in-house at estate distilleries.

“It also matters how much fertilizer we use, as the more nitrogen you put in boosts the protein, which lowers the starch,” adds Frey. “In commodity, that’s good, but in distilling, we look for starch, because that’s going to ultimately turn into the alcohol part of the whiskey.”

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Estate distilleries can ostensibly also determine where to grow their grain. This opens the door to explorations of terroir, something that’s very much on the mind of Far North Spirits’ Swanson. He plans to embark on a terroir experiment with another Minnesota whiskey distiller.

“We’ve talked about growing the same variety in two very different parts of the state with very different soil and topography,” he says. “[We want] to see if there’s a difference in the terroir that would be reflected in the whiskeys.”

At the end of the day, estate distilling is about trying to create a better product. “There’s a saying in the wine industry that you can’t make good wine out of bad grapes,” Frey says. “If you start with better quality inputs, you end up with better quality outputs. We can create better whiskeys because we have better quality grains we’re starting with.”

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