DeKALB – Farmer Jim Walter of DeKalb said that most people don't get excited about corn – but they do get excited about whiskey.
Walter's family has been farming since the 1800s, growing corn for the past 48 years. Jim Walter said that choosing to grow and use corn grown on the farm to make whiskey was an easy choice.
"We wanted to diversify and branch out, going from seed to spirit," Jim Walter said. "Growing corn as a commodity, we don't meet the end user. By distilling whiskey, we meet consumers face-to-face. We can answer questions about our farm and educate our visitors. In general, people find whiskey distilling fascinating. Nobody gets that excited about corn."
Walter's son, Jamie, was enjoying a bourbon in 2011 when he came up with the idea for a distillery on his family’s farm in DeKalb. Bourbon refers to whiskey distilled in the United States, using corn as the main ingredient.
Jim and Jamie Walter and friend Nick Nagele co-founded Whiskey Acres Distilling Co., 11504 Keslinger Road in DeKalb, which was licensed and began operating in December 2014. Whiskey Acres is the first estate distillery to grow its own grain in Illinois and the second in the United States.
"Bourbon is a type of whiskey made predominantly from corn," Jamie Walter said. "Bourbon requires a minimum of 51 percent of corn. Ours contains 75 percent."
Whiskey Acres produces more than 100,000 bottles of spirits each year and hosts 400 to 500 visitors each weekend. Visitors have come from 45 states, 45 countries and all seven continents, including a research team from Antarctica.
To expand and offer more room for their customers, Whiskey Acres is building a new visitors center. Construction began in May and is planned to be finished the weekend after Thanksgiving. The current tasting room is 400 square feet, and the new visitors center will be about 4,000 square feet.
Jamie Walter said that he saw distilling as a way to enhance his farm's profitability.
"The vast majority of our corn still goes through normal commodity production and is used for ethanol, animal feed and export," Jamie Walter said. "Our challenge now is to grow our distillery business to process more and more of the corn."
He also said another difficulty is the booming number of craft distilleries. In 2000, there were about 12 distilleries in the U.S.; by 2014 there were 600. This year, the number has ballooned to close to 2,000.
"As farmers of the corn that goes into the whiskey, we know that it is high-quality grain and can keep our identity preserved," Jim Walter said. "Most distilleries buy a mix of grain."
To make the best whiskey possible, Jamie Walter said his farm grows around 15 varieties of yellow dent corn and five varieties of artisan series corn. Experimentation helps determine which varieties have the best characteristics for making whiskey.
"We look for the yield of the grain itself, the alcohol yield through the fermentation process and most importantly, flavor," he said. "By growing our own corn, we can control production. If you buy the corn on the market, it's a mixed commodity. We know exactly what's going into our whiskey."
Nagele also knows a thing or two about corn – his family has been farming and growing corn since the 1860s. He also describes the fertile soil of DeKalb County as the Napa Valley of corn.
“We plant more than a dozen different varieties of corn. We look for the best quality of corn to feed to the yeast,” he said. “The better nutrients in the corn, the better flavor of the whiskey. We like to joke that the yeast is our livestock.”
Whiskey Acres’ bourbon is made from a mixture of about 75 percent corn, 15 percent winter wheat and 10 percent malted barley. Once the grain is harvested, it is dried, cleaned and ground. The ground grain is then added to water and cooked in a mash cooker. Yeast is added for fermentation, then the fermented mash is distilled. After distillation, the clear whiskey is aged in barrels before being bottled.
The cooking and fermentation process takes five days to a week, but barrel aging can take two to five years or longer. About 500 gallons of fermented mash are distilled at Whiskey Acres every day, yielding about 50 gallons of whiskey.
Whiskey Acres also makes rye and high rye whiskeys, vodka and nocino, a traditional Italian liqueur derived from black walnuts.
Jamie Walter said Whiskey Acres' spirits are sold at the distillery and at about 500 locations throughout Illinois, including Binny’s Beverage Depot, Hy-Vee, Whole Foods, Mariano’s and at independent liquor stores, bars and restaurants.
"We have chosen not to sell outside of Illinois as we work on our inventory and build a solid customer base," he said. "The easy part is always making the spirit, the hard part is selling it. But we've had great support from the community and we've won awards, been featured in magazines and newspapers. With our new visitors center, we can really show the story of agriculture here in DeKalb County. It's not only about whiskey and distilling. It's also about corn and farming."
Whiskey Acres is open with tours and tastings available from 1:30 to 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sundays.
For more information about Whiskey Acres Distilling Co. and a map of retail locations, visit www.whiskeyacres.com.