Farm to table, the phrase used to describe restaurants that locally source their ingredients, is so common it’s almost overused. But its alcoholic counterpart, farm-to-still, is hardly heard. That’s because it’s rarely the case with spirits, especially in a world where whiskey is mass produced in Indiana, then shipped around the country to be bottled, aged and rebranded as “small batch.” (Obviously not all, but some.)
But at Whiskey Acres Distilling Co., a farm 60 miles west of Chicago in DeKalb, Illinois, they take the farm-to-still mentality and magnify it. Here they call it seed to spirit and every aspect of the spirit-making process takes place right on site. They grow grain; mill, mash and ferment it; distill, bottle and age it all right at the farm. And they host tours and tastings to come full circle.
I joined FoodieChats and Illinois Farm Families on a field trip to Whiskey Acres to experience the farm first-hand. And let me say sipping on bourbon made with corn grown just feet away is incredible in itself, but drinking bourbon this good was exceptional.
Seed to Spirit Whiskey at Whiskey Acres Distillery
Whiskey Acres in DeKalb, Illinois
Whiskey Acres feels simultaneously right outside Chicago and a world away at the same time. It’s just a two hour drive from downtown, yet the scenery is as drastically different as possible. Rows of corn carpet the landscape as far as we could see and the only noise was the sound of a tractor picturesquely plowing the field in the sunset.
The farm is 2,000 acres of land, but only 5-7 percent of it is needed for Whiskey Acres production. The best corn is kept here for their spirits and the rest is shipped to Kentucky for their bourbon.
Farming is a way of life for owners Jim and Jamie Walter and Nick Nagele, whose families have been farming for over five generations. In 2011 they realized they could turn their corn into whiskey, utilizing the rich Midwestern soil and the water naturally filtered by limestone. They joined forces with former Maker’s Mark master distiller Dave Pickerell for his whiskey expertise and Whiskey Acres was born.
Related :: Check out this amazing drone footage from our tour of Whiskey Acres.
The Winery Approach to Whiskey
Whiskey Acres looks at corn and whiskey the same way wineries approach grapes and wine. It’s common knowledge that different grape varieties produce different flavors of wine, and corn is no different. Because their products are created completely on-site and in small batches, it allows Whiskey Acres to experiment with different varieties of corn to find which flavor profiles create the best tasting whiskey.
One of their recent experiments is a bourbon made with sweet corn. It’s surprising how much flavor permeates the final product. Whiskey website Axis of Whisky describes the taste as “baked apples, without being overly sweet. Buttered corn glides alongside streaks of vanilla. Ever so faint roasted chicken.” (Note to self: learn to describe whiskey with this amount of detail!)
Bourbon, Rye and Vodka – Oh my!
The sweet corn whiskey is part of Whiskey Acres’ Artisanal Series, the label for their limited batches of experimental spirits. Their regular lineup — the bottles sold online and around Chicago (see below) — includes bourbon, rye, vodka and unaged corn whiskey. The bourbon and rye both continue to receive great reviews around the whiskey world, with reviewers shocked that such a young distillery is producing such great-tasting spirits.
I was equally impressed with everything I tasted at Whiskey Acres, but the real surprise was how much I enjoyed the vodka. I’m the furthest thing from a vodka drinker, but the complexity and flavor of the vodka, which I sipped neat, was good enough to turn me into a vodka fan. (Don’t worry, I still left with a bottle of bourbon!)
Touring Whiskey Acres
The tour of Whiskey Acres took us from the still and fermentation tanks, in between huge tractors with wheels taller than me, along the corn fields and to the barrel-aging area, learning about — and sometimes tasting — every step along the way. It finished on the patio, where we sipped more cocktails and had dinner as the sun set. It was fun, it was informative, and it left me utterly impressed by the work and dedication that everyone at Whiskey Acres has for their products.
Whiskey Acres is truly is a labor of love for everyone involved, and their passion product is something to be proud of. If you truly want to taste farm to table — or seed to spirit — grab a bottle of Whiskey Acres, or better yet, tour the distillery.
Tour and Tasting Details
The Whiskey Acres Distillery cocktail patio and tasting room are open April – November: Fridays and Saturdays 1:30 – 8:30 pm, Sundays 1:30 – 5:30 pm. Cocktails are available by the glass and bottles can be purchased to take home. Feel free to bring food or snacks.
Tours are given at the top of every hour and are $10/person (includes tour, tasting and shot glass). Reservations are not required, but they ask that groups of 8+ call ahead. More details are here.
Whiskey Acres bourbon, rye and vodka are available throughout Chicago at several local retailers like Whole Foods and Mariano’s, plus online at Binny’s and Erza’s to ship nationally/ internationally. More info is here.
Disclaimer :: I was graciously treated to the tour of Whiskey Acres as a guest of FoodieChats and Illinois Farm Families. As always, all opinions are my own.