60 miles outside of Chicago, farmer Jamie Walter is turning commodity corn into award-winning libations using a little technology and a whole lot of good ol’ farmer know-how.
Jamie Walter is a farmer’s farmer, born and raised on a family corn-and-bean operation in Dekalb, Illinois. After an off-farm stint as a lawyer, he got back to his roots in the late nineties, and began farming with his dad as the 5th generation in 1998.
At the height of $7 corn in the late nights, Jamie and has dad started thinking seriously about investing their windfall earnings in a more diversified operation, looking to better weather the next bust.
Synergy Seeds, which sold Dekalb® and Asgrow® varieties to local farmers, was one of the projects that they landed on. Over time, they expanded their business to more brands and then to equipment leasing, but it wouldn’t be long before Jamie’s entrepreneurial tendencies and he and his wife’s passion for custom crush wine converged on the farm.
“We thought about growing grapes,” Walter admits, “but this area isn’t right for it. I was drinking bourbon one day when I realized that Illinois is the Napa Valley of corn, and that we could make booze from what we’re already growing.” Whiskey Acres was born.
“We started looking very seriously at the craft distilling business. We did our homework, looked at the market, and decided to go for it in 2013.” The first bottle was ready for drinking at the end of 2014.
Despite being one of the newest distilleries on the scene, Whiskey Acres is already making waves. They’ve won awards across the country, from San Francisco to Denver to the American Distilling Institute Competition in Louisville, Kentucky.
“We grow all our own corn, wheat, and rye, and we have a background in seed and understand the genetics. Other distilleries are buying grain on the open market, mostly number 2 yellow dent corn. But just like wine, different corns, like different grapes, change the way a bourbon tastes. We focus on specific corn varieties that make a better whiskey. We’re constantly experimenting, and it gives our whiskey a distinct flavor profile.”
Why does he do it? For Jamie, it’s all about family, community, and legacy. “I want my kids to farm, and we were facing down the ‘get big at all costs’ path that can drive friends and neighbors out of business and lead to a lot of exposure in the business. We decided to looked for it a different way; What can we do on this land base or even a shrinking land base to protect our farm? Value-added consumer products were the way to go to.”
“Being close to Chicago puts us at risk, because we’re competing for land with housing and industrial development. But Whiskey Acres has allowed us to give consumers an opportunity to come out to the farm and be part of that farm-to-table movement, we call it “Seed to Spirit.” We were able to turn the weakness of our location into a strength.”
And Jamie thinks there’s a lot more opportunity left in value-added beverages.
“Out of 1,200 or so registered craft distilleries in the US, exactly two of them are located on farms. There’s a big opportunity there for farmers to use their unique knowledge about seeds, soil, and farming to make some great booze.”
Jamie is also excited about new opportunities on his own farm.
“Some of the new software platforms, like FBN, allow us to identify varieties or soil types that will help us to create a consistent product. Terroir is what you call the conditions and environment where wine grapes are grown, but it’s part of corn production too. Technologies that help us understand that terroir are new; there wasn’t anything that allowed us to do that five years ago.”
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