DeKALB – Jamie Walter was drinking bourbon in 2011 when he came up with the idea for a distillery on his family’s farm in DeKalb.
Walter, his father, Jim Walter, and friend Nick Nagele co-founded Whiskey Acres Distilling Co., 11504 Keslinger Road in DeKalb, which became licensed and operational in December 2014. Whiskey Acres is the first estate distillery to grow its own grain in Illinois and the second in the United States.
“When he thought of the idea, Jamie said, ‘We grow good corn, why not make good bourbon?’” Jim Walter said, “We’ve grown corn for 48 years, and corn is the No. 1 ingredient for bourbon. I think what sets us apart is the amount of flavor we can get out of the corn.”
Whiskey Acres produces more than 100,000 bottles of spirits each year and receives between 400 and 500 visitors each weekend. Visitors have come from 45 states, 45 countries and all seven continents, including a research team from Antarctica.
“On one weekend, we had visitors from Cleveland, South Africa and Ukraine here at once,” Jim Walter said. “It’s a world mixing bowl here at an old barn in DeKalb. I think that our whiskey is just another DeKalb agricultural innovation. It’s another way to diversify our farm.”
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.
“Our new visitors center will have the same function but more space,” Jim Walter said. “It’s an old post and beam barn, preserving the farm’s look and heritage. It will be a comforting and inviting place where we can welcome visitors.”
Once built, the visitors center will be available to rent for meetings and corporate events during weekdays.
“We will still have our patio, but the visitors center will have a porch,” Nagele said. “We’ll have live music or people could bring their guitar out and strum away. It will be a nice place to just sit and relax while having a drink.”
Nagele also knows a thing or two about corn – his family has been farming and growing corn since the 1860s.
“We’re sitting in the Napa Valley of corn,” Nagele said. “There are different types and varieties of corn, much like the different grapes used to make wine.
“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 mostly corn with some wheat and 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 a barrel before being bottled.
The cooking and fermentation process takes about five to seven days, but maturation in a barrel 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.
“Our goal is to be the first stop on the Bourbon Trail, not Kentucky,” Nagele said. “We’re close to the city, located about an hour outside of Chicago, and our bourbon is made from some of the best corn in the world. We want to be a location people can come to with their friends to relax, drink a cocktail or some excellent spirits and learn a little about agriculture along the way.”
Whiskey Acres also makes rye, high rye, vodka and nocino, a traditional Italian liqueur derived from black walnuts.
The spirits can be bought at their distillery and at stores throughout Illinois, including Binny’s, Hy-Vee, Whole Foods, Mariano’s and at independent liquor stores, bars and restaurants.
For a map of retail locations, visit www.whiskeyacres.com/retail-locations.
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.
Whiskey Acres also is participating in the DeKalb County Bold Spirits Tasting from noon to 8 p.m. Saturday at Jonamac Orchard in Malta. The event will feature tastings of spirits, wine, hard cider and craft beers made in DeKalb County.
Tickets cost $25 in advance and $30 at the door, with a discount for designated drivers. Included is Ten tasting tickets and a souvenir glass are included. There will be food trucks and live music from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m.
For tickets, visit http://dekalbcountycvb.com.
For information about Whiskey Acres Distilling Co., visit www.whiskeyacres.com or call 844-4-WHISKEY.