Feb 9, 201501:17 PMBlaska's Bring It!
with David Blaska
Make my whiskey local
(page 1 of 2)
Farmers, it is said, are the only entrepreneurs who buy at retail and sell at wholesale. But that’s only if you’re selling commodities. Raw milk is a commodity; processing it into an artisanal cheese adds value.
That’s what Joe and Liz Henry have done since day one on their farm in the Town of Vienna, 20 miles north of Madison. They have continued the seed corn business started by his father, Jerry Henry, in 1946. Now they’re adding even more value with the release of their first craft whiskey: J. Henry & Sons Wisconsin straight bourbon.
The Henrys, including son Jack, will release their first batch of 5-year-old, 92-proof whiskey at the Distill America event at Madison’s Edgewater Hotel on Saturday, Feb. 28. (Might want to book a room, if tasting.) Joe Henry told Blaska’s Bring It! that the family is selling the 750-milliliter bottles for somewhere in the $50 range. Two distributors have been lined up to supply retail liquor stores.
The “mash bill,” or recipe, calls for corn as the major ingredient plus wheat and rye. Not just any corn but an heirloom, red corn developed in the 1930s by the University of Wisconsin. It’s responsible for a “robust” flavor, Joe Henry tells me.
Unlike most locavore distillers, “We produce all the grains we use for the bourbon right here on the farm.”
A tasting room is being prepared for the farmhouse at 7794 Patton Road (between the villages of Dane and DeForest), where the aging barn and distillery is located.
The changing temperatures of Kentucky are credited with extracting more flavor as the liquid ages in the barrel, so the weather extremes of Wisconsin should really make a difference. The new distillery claims that the uncontrolled temperature “allows the wild Wisconsin weather swings to squeeze deliciously complex flavors out of the barrels and into the bourbon. The result is a Wisconsin craft bourbon with aromas of sweet corn, caramel pudding, toffee, creamy vanilla, dark cocoa, cinnamon, coconut shavings and Jamaican allspice.”
It’s a propitious time for whiskey. Perhaps it’s the Mad Men effect — a return to the late 1950s, when American whiskey ruled the rail. After 30 years of losing ground to vodka, rum, and tequila, domestic whiskey sales increased 40% in the past five years, Fortune magazine reports. Most of that is on the premium end.
The local micro-distillery movement follows the 30-year growth of microbreweries, for which many farmers now grow hops as well as grain. (Recounted here.) In 2010, The Whiskey Exchange reports, there were 250 craft distillers; four years later, there are more than 500. (The American Distilling Institute defines “craft” as no more than 52,000 cases annually.)
Simultaneously, southern Wisconsin hillsides are being planted with European Vitis vinifera grapes (ironically, grafted onto native North American roots to combat phylloxera in the mid-19th century). So many that they’ve organized into an association that claims 110 wineries.
That has prompted UW-Madison’s College of Agriculture to hire a specialist, with funding from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture.
Vineyards like Botham follow the original, Wollersheim Winery, established by Agoston Haraszthy across the Wisconsin River from Prairie du Sac in the 1840s. A few years later, the Hungarian immigrant left Wisconsin during the 1849 California gold rush — only to establish that state’s wine industry. Winemaking on the Wisconsin River hillside ceased after a hard freeze in 1899 but resumed in 1973 after the Wollersheims bought the property from the fourth-generation Kehl family.
Coming full circle, Wollersheim is planning to build a brandy distillery, scheduled to open this summer.