If you want to know what Whiskey Acres in DeKalb, Illinois is all about, without reading anything about them, before even tasting the whiskey, just drive there. As the Chicago suburbs fall away, the landscape is dominated by one crop, stretching out in every direction in impossibly neat, deep green rows: corn.
Unlike so many small craft distilleries, Whiskey Acres puts its focus not on the end of the whiskey-making process—aging—but on the very beginning, with the corn, wheat, and rye that goes into their whiskey. “The story of the distillery starts with the fact that it’s on a farm,” Whiskey Acres COO and Vice President Nick Nagele told me. “My business card says ‘co-founder, distiller, and farmer.’”
Nagele and father-son partners Jim and Jamie Walter, who own the 2,000-acre farm where Whiskey Acres grows their grain, come from families who have worked the land in Illinois for generations. A few years ago, the Walters, inspired by a stint Jamie did making wine in Napa Valley, began thinking about other uses for their grain besides selling it for cattle feed or ethanol. They knew they were growing quality corn—Sapporo Beer kept buying from them—and when the state of Illinois relaxed distilling laws to make life easier for craft distillers, the pieces fell into place. “Bourbon’s the fastest-growing spirit,” said Nagele. “It’s made from corn, and we grow better corn than anywhere else.”
“We use the phrase ‘cream of the crop,’” Nagele continued, explaining that only 5-7% of the farm’s total output goes to the distillery. The rest is still sold on the commodity market. “We identify the best of the best at harvest time and segregate that out for the distillery.” After that, cleaning, drying, and milling the grain on-site “gives us more extractable starch and a cleaner product to ferment with.”
As they started to dip their toes into the distilling business, the trio brought on legendary former Maker’s Mark master distiller Dave Pickerell as a consultant. “He came to Whiskey Acres, and it felt more like he was interviewing us,” Nagele remembers. “He was sold on the team, the story, the terroir.” From there, Pickerell helped with the nitty-gritty of starting up, from sourcing equipment to navigating bureaucracy. “On start-up day, he came to Whiskey Acres and spent five days with us distilling.” Pickerell remains involved, but at a greater distance—as a “friend, mentor, and resource,” Nagele says.
The word “terroir” is one that comes up a lot in discussions with Nagele and the Walters, and with good reason: they have an incredibly detailed knowledge of their fields and the grain that comes out of them. This is large-scale, industrial farming, the kind nobody at Whiskey Acres hesitates to refer to as “agribusiness.” When I visited, Jamie showed me an iPad app that gathers data from their GPS-connected, self-driving planter, on everything from soil quality to row spacing. Among other things, it tracks the location of every seed that goes in the ground.
Another term you hear a lot around Whiskey Acres is “varietal,” as in the specific strains of corn, rye, and wheat that go into whiskey (barley is the only grain not produced on-site, since they don’t have a malt house). Most of what Whiskey Acres grows is run-of-the-mill yellow dent corn, but that’s a broad category. “You go out and shell corn X and corn Y, they taste different,” Nagele said. “And there’s no reason anyone who doesn’t raise corn for a living would ever know that.” Nailing down exactly which varietals produce the flavor profile they’re looking for is a work in progress. “The way our distillery’s built, with a 500 gallon still, one batch equals one barrel. So we can take this corn and make a barrel, take that corn and make a barrel. We have total observational control in that respect.”
Whiskey Acres’s well water comes from an aquifer, right underneath the farm, that happens to run through the same type of limestone-rich soil Kentucky is famous for. They leave the grain solids in contact with the wash throughout the fermentation and distillation process, which they say adds to the whiskey’s grain-forward character. The rickhouse is a metal Quonset hut just outside the barn where the farm’s combine and seeder are stored, ideal for the temperature fluctuations that speed aging.
As for the whiskey itself, the distillery released their bourbon earlier this summer, which we recently reviewed. They also turn out a white whiskey and a 100% corn vodka, and a rye is on the way in the coming months.
Most exciting, though, is a forthcoming series of whiskeys made from heirloom varieties like Oaxacan green corn and glass gem popcorn. “I’d describe the distillate as ‘different,’” Nagele says. If Whiskey Acres’s current expressions are any indication, those will definitely be something to look out for.