DeKALB – Nick Nagele was cooking up a lucrative future at Whiskey Acres last week – about 500 gallons worth.
Starch was added to water, then brought to a boil in a large metal mash tun inside a 2,500 square-foot distillery, 11504 Keslinger Road. After it was cooled down, enzymes were added to convert the soft, boiled starch to sugar. After that cooled, yeast was added to consume the sugar producing alcohol for whiskey, which is then sucked into one of four fermentation tanks.
“Each yeast outputs a different flavor,” said Nagele, vice president and COO of Whiskey Acres. “Our corn whiskey has a very grainy flavor. It resembles the yeast we put in it.”
Whiskey Acres, which officially bottled its first batch of whiskey last month, is the only distillery in the county, and Illinois’ first estate distillery, meaning they grow the grains “from seed to spirit,” Nagele said.
“What makes us unique is we can focus on our best grain, and focus on the best seeds and certain genetics to give us the best flavor, versus someone who buys commodity grains,” he said. “From a consumer standpoint, it’s highly sustainable to see where our grains are grown, and turn around and see where the whiskey is made.”
The business is operated by father-and-son duo Jim and Jamie Walter, president and CEO, plus Nagele. All three are University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign graduates.
“Farming has evolved,” Jim Walter said. “It’s not what farming was when I started.”
The family-owned business received its federal distilled spirits plant permit last August, then received its state craft distillery license last November. They successfully distilled their first mash in December 2014, then filled and shipped their first whiskey bottles last month through Niles-based distributor, Legacy Spirits, a division of Heritage Wine Cellars.
“For us, we wanted to capitalize on the geography,” Jamie Walter said. “We grow corn and wheat here. Here, we’re next to the third largest metro area and we saw an opportunity.”
The distillery business only has been an option since 2010, when the state finally created a craft distiller’s license that allows small distillers to open tasting rooms and sell directly to the public.
The trio has plans for the property, hoping to turn an adjacent building on the 2,000 acres – five percent is grain used for the spirits – into a family-friendly hang-out come summer, where parents can taste the beer, while youngsters can play games. No food will be served, however.
“Our hope is they’ll become more familiar with DeKalb, and it draws parents and alumni,” Jamie Walter said. “It’s something to do in the area.”
Those who visit the property also will be able to buy the distillery’s exclusive vodka, which will be served on-site only, and not in stores. All Whiskey Acres’ bottled products range from $30 to $35, depending on the location.
It’s a different process to distill whiskey and vodka, since vodka requires a higher proof, Nagele said.
“Vodka is, by definition, supposed to be neutral,” he said. “The whiskey is something where we can exemplify our grains. You go to the store, and the shelves are in no shortage of vodkas. There’s not as many whiskeys.”
Meanwhile, both corn and apple whiskeys have been a hot local seller. Both have sold out twice at the Sycamore Hy-Vee liquor store, 2700 Dekalb Ave., according to wine and spirits manager John McIntyre.
“They’re a well-respected family in the community, so there’s been curiosity and a lot of anticipation,” he said. “It takes a lot of time to put a distillery together and to get it up and running.”
McIntyre said he now is more conservative for how many bottles he puts on the shelves at one time to keep the product in stock, adding, “The demand has exceeded what I thought it would be.”
Elwood Steak and Fish House also has announced they will carry Whiskey Acres brand when they open.
What: Whiskey Acres, an estate distillery
Where: 11504 Keslinger Road in DeKalb