Iowa probably produces more alcohol than any other state, it’s just that most of it is consumed by motors, not people.
The state makes billions of gallons of ethanol and biodiesel, but also its share of vodka. After all, when you have corn coming out of and off the ears, distilling is an easy way to process it.
When Ryan and Garrett Burchett wanted to open a business together, they considered opening a restaurant or bar. Instead they started Mississippi River Distilling Co. in LeClaire, Iowa.
These two brothers, now 40 and 34, respectively, turn grain into something delicious to drink.
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Ryan was a television weatherman. Garrett was a transportation engineering consultant in Texas. Their family was from western Iowa, but they moved to eastern Iowa to open the distillery in 2010.
They’ve had at least 20 percent growth every year since and now sell in 27 states, including Indiana, but chances are you’ve never heard of them.
That’s the way the alcohol industry works. With big marketing budgets and liquor control laws that favor large producers, small producers like Mississippi River sometimes struggle.
The Burchetts have made mistakes and have learned, but I wouldn’t say they’re struggling. I’d just call them good.
If you get Garrett going, he might tell you what he knows about the liquor industry; about the shortcuts he could take. But he’s careful because he mostly wants to work hard, make a good product and make money.
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Journalists have uncovered some of that industry underbelly. Several stories in the last year have highlighted how a majority of rye whiskey, which is one of the cool kids in the liquor industry right now, is made in a Lawrenceburg, Ind., factory and then marketed and sold by nearly 30 companies, including names like Bulleit and Buffalo Trace.
At Mississippi River Distilling, grain comes in the back door from local farmers. The grain — corn, wheat, barley, rye — all comes from within 25 miles. They have no problem getting the raw material for their products.
Fifty bushels of corn are cooked in water and then steeped in the grain for three days. Fermentation moves toward distilling and then barreling.
It goes in 30-gallon barrels made in Minnesota with North American white oak and sealed in beeswax. Most whiskey barrels hold 53 gallons, but the smaller barrel allows the Burchetts to turn over flavorful whiskey faster. They would rather it be sweet and good than plentiful and subpar.
They’ve won a few industry tasting awards, but what means a lot to them is customers who value what they do.
Sam Albertson, bar manager of Oak & Alley, a cocktail bar in Warsaw, has had more than a few ryes and bourbons. Mississippi River’s bourbon and rye are his favorites for sipping or mixing, he said. “It’s a really great product,” he said.
Because the Burchetts don’t use all that’s distilled from the grain and because of how they use the barrels, the result is something that has higher quality and, to use a word most often associated with wine, even a terroir.
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Garrett said he knows LeClaire, Iowa, isn’t likely to replace the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky anytime soon.
“I can’t beat Kentucky. Kentucky has a great story, a great product,” he said. Mississippi River is making its own stories. Iowish, their version of Bailey’s Irish Creme, is taking off. “Pretty much anyone in Iowa buys it instead of Bailey’s,” he said.
Albertson just picked out a barrel for Oak & Alley recently. That means they have a more custom blend than what goes in the bottle.
It’s not just something that bars can get. If you have $6,000, you can get your own barrel to be bottled.
It costs Burchett about $1,000 to produce a barrel of bourbon. “I produce as much as I have money for,” he said.
The distillery puts the story of where the grain came from and how it was made on its website. It tells the story of the product in a different way than other distillers.
“To get into this, you’ve gotta give people a reason to give a rip about your product,” Garrett said in the barrel room of their small building.
I became a fan because of Jay Fields at Indiana Wholesale Wine & Liquor, who distributes Mississippi River in Indiana. I learned the story, but also tasted how good it is. Spending part of an afternoon with Garrett was a pleasure.
Ryan was working on the bottling line with volunteers. Yes, volunteers help them hand-bottle the product. There are only two other employees other than the brothers. When they can afford it, they’ll get a bottling line, but that comes after more growth.
Since they’re small, they can play. They made a banana liqueur they will never make again. They made a strawberry liqueur with 2,000 pounds of berries. Their honey whiskey has flavor that Jack Daniel’s just can’t match.
The brothers look forward to a day when Iowa liquor laws allow them to do more than offer tiny samples after a tasting. They keep working together and keep growing. How they’re growing could be a model for other Midwestern distillers. It’s hard work, but they’re having fun and are justifiably proud of what they’re producing.
“At least we get to drink at the end of the day,” Burchett said.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.