Whiskey Acres: Distilling in the Napa Valley of Corn
6 November 2018
Pictured Left to Right - Nick Nagele, Jamie Walter, Jim Walter; Photo Credit: John Fedele
We are excited to announce our Big Innovators in Ag series. The ag industry is always changing. Our American farmers see a problem and want to find the solution. Big Ag is lucky to be able to share with you the latest news, information, and products in the industry. Now, we’re going to share with you the farmers and companies who are changing the way things are done on the farm.
Jim Walter is a fourth generation farmer. In the 1930’s, Jim’s father started the Walter family’s farm operation in DeKalb, Illinois, located just 60 miles outside of Chicago. Jim has been farming there for nearly 50 years and raised his three sons—Jamie, Jeff and John—with his wife, Sue. Over the years, the farm’s primary focus has been on commodity corn and soy, but they also grow wheat, winter wheat and rye.
Jamie spent some time away from the farm practicing as an attorney, but he decided to return to the farm with his dad. Jamie says, “Because of the farm’s proximity to Chicago, land prices have been a challenge to maintain scale. It made it difficult to achieve profitability.” So he sat down and performed an in-depth SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis for the 2000 acre farming operation.
The SWOT analysis helped him decide to look for a product that they could process the grain into, and charge higher margins. His dad had similar goals. They were considering a bakery or popcorn, but one night Jamie was sitting at his desk looking at popcorn varieties and sipping on bourbon. Then he started thinking, bourbon is required to contain at least 51 percent corn. He said, “We’re in the Napa Valley of corn.” He had found his product.
Whiskey Acres Distilling Company’s seed to spirit concept was born. Jamie says, “We wanted to become a facility that grows everything that goes into its stock.” That’s what sets them apart from other distilleries. He goes on to say, “Not all varieties of corn taste the same. When you think of wine—there are different varieties of grapes. Large distilleries source bulk commodity grain on the market and don’t grow it themselves. As an estate distillery, we’re able to keep that chain very pure.”
It was 2012, and Jamie started his research, created a business plan, hired an employee, and looked at putting a distillery together. He learned to distill from books and attended conferences. Maker’s Mark’s Former master distiller, Dave Pickerell from Maker’s Mark, came to DeKalb to help design their process. He spoke with close friends in California who had started a small winery. They were a huge help and taught him all about the distribution of alcohol.
In 2013, Jamie started going through the permitting and licensing through his state and the federal government. He ordered the equipment to start distilling, and they were able to begin production in 2014.
Every step of the bourbon making process takes place on site. They plant the seeds, grow, harvest, store, clean, mill, cook, ferment, still, age, bottle and ship it. Today they distill 100,000 bottles of bourbon a year on the farm.
Whiskey Acres Distilling’s number one product is bourbon, but they also distill rye whiskey and corn vodka. In 2000, there were only 20 craft distilleries, but today there are 1400. Most of them are located in urban areas. Whiskey Acres Distilling is only the second certified farm distillery in the nation.
If they don’t grow the grain then they don’t make the product. Every year, the distillery plants at least 16 varieties of ‘whiskey corn.’ Only the most promising become whiskey. Jamie says, “Through trial and error we were able to focus on certain varieties of corn. So far, every single one of our products has been an international award winner.”
Whiskey Advocate magazine named Whiskey Acres Distilling one of the six visionaries in the whiskey world. This includes their work on their Artisan series, Jamie explains, “We’ve begun to work with more heirloom and special varieties such as blue popcorn, sweet corn, bloody butcher and Oaxacan corn. These can only be purchased at the distillery.”
The operation consists of Jamie and Jim Walter, and their business partner, Nick Nagele, 13 employees in the distillery, and two others working on the farm. Less than five percent of the crops go to the distillery. The majority of the farm’s grain goes to export or a little is used for domestic feed or fuel.
Jamie says that sustainability is a big part of what they do. The product never leaves the property. Water for the bourbon is from the limestone aquifer beneath them. The chemistry of the water is very similar to the water in Bardstown, Kentucky, The Bourbon Capital of the World. They also just completed an 85-kilowatt solar system that will provide 100% of the energy needs of the distillery.
When asked what advice he has for other farmers who are looking to diversify, Jamie says, “Do your homework. Spend the time and effort to create a real plan for the future. Don’t be afraid to start something new, no matter how crazy people may tell you. Most farmers have been raised and trained to be hyper-independent, which may be a real challenge when you’re trying to do something new. Inherently, you want to try to figure it out yourself, but reaching out to other professionals is well worth it.”
If you’re ever in the Chicago area and want to check out how this farm has evolved and grown you can visit their cocktail bar and gift shop. They are currently constructing a new visitor’s center that will be ten times the size of their current one. Whiskey Acres welcomes a couple thousand visitors every month for tastings. For their hours, check out their website, Whiskeyacres.com. If you have or know of any large acre farm operations who have turned their crops into something innovative, please contact us we'd love to share their story.
Whiskey Acres has won numerous, international awards in blind-tasting competitions.
Onsite tasting room and cocktail bar are open Friday-Sunday.