by Sally Colby
Take a television meteorologist and a transportation engineer and place them in a small town in Iowa, 150 yards from the banks of the Mississippi River and a few blocks from where Buffalo Bill Cody was born. In the case of the Burchett brothers, Ryan (the weatherman) and Garrett (the transportation guy), the result is a thriving distillery.
“In 2010, it was illegal in Iowa to taste or buy spirits at a distillery,” said Ryan. “They opened up the law, trying to get tourism going. At the time there were 300 to 400 distilleries in the country, and the industry was starting to sprout. They changed the law to allow limited retail sales by the bottle and small tastings at distilleries.”
Although it would have been a lot easier for the brothers to open a brewery, they wanted something different. Ryan thinks of their distillery venture as an opportunity to be the first in line and take a jump into something similar to a brewery but with a different tact. “It was a crazy idea that didn’t go away,” said Ryan. We thought it was an opportunity to get in at the ground level with something pretty cool.”
Since they’re in the middle of grain country, Ryan says the concept of sourcing grains locally evolved early in the planning stages. “We started to price and do some modeling and realized that a 50 pound bag of milled corn was about $50,” said Ryan. “A bushel of corn is 56 pounds, and right now it’s priced at about $4. If we bought a mill and found a local farmer to buy corn from, that would save us a lot of money.”
The brothers quickly found local farmers growing wheat, barley and rye, and realized they had everything they needed for distilling right at their fingertips.
Although they had done some home brewing, Ryan and Garrett wanted to learn the art of distilling from the ground up. Ryan says that one of the best early moves they made was working with people who were very good at what they did. “The juice you have in the bottle is the most important thing,” he said. “If you can’t make a quality product, it doesn’t matter what lipstick you put on a pig – it’s still going to be a pig.”
To that end, the brothers traveled to Germany and trained with Kothe Distilling. “They helped us with business planning and we eventually bought our equipment from them,” said Ryan. “We’ve stayed in close contact with them as we’ve grown.”
Ryan says their knowledge and training was accelerated by studying in Germany; learning how to create a product that would stand out in the marketplace. Ryan says the options available now weren’t available seven years ago simply because the industry has grown, and with that growth came more equipment producers and opportunities to learn the art of distilling. Although learning the complexities of distilling would have been easier without having to travel, Ryan says he’s glad he and Garrett went to Germany to study.
Because the Burchett brothers’ still is one-of-a-kind, the building is constructed around it. “It’s unique in that it’s a pot still with the columns next to it,” Ryan explained. “It’s a hybrid, so we have the ability to use the pot by itself and make a whiskey, or use the columns and make vodka. We have the flexibility of a craft producer to do everything under the sun.”
The columns were added when the still was constructed. “When we started, our vodka and gin held us up for the first year or two,” said Ryan. “Then we got to the point when whiskey started to come out of the basement. It’s a real challenge as opposed to a brewery where you make a beer, put it in a bottle and sell it. The bulk of the marketplace for craft right now is whiskey, and you have to lay it down and age it. It’s capital intensive in that respect. From a business standpoint, it’s a lot to bite off in the beginning, and I always tell people to figure out how much money they think they need then double that amount.”
Because they trained in Germany, the brothers’ distilling technique is distinctly European. “We distill very cleanly in a grain-forward style,” Ryan explained. “If you pick up our Cody Road Rye Whiskey, it isn’t going to taste like any other American Rye. It isn’t a spicy whiskey; it’s a very clean, floral fruity whiskey that accentuates the nature of rye that’s generally lost in a whiskey that’s distilled at a very low proof to bring out the big spicy backbone of rye.”
Most of Mississippi River Distillery’s recipes have evolved through having the ingredients close at hand and trying to figure out where those ingredients fit best. Ryan describes Pride of the Wapsi Strawberry Vodka, one of the company’s featured seasonal offerings. “Pride of the Wapsi is a berry patch about 20 miles from our distillery,” he explained. “We fill the still with vodka, load it up with about 400 pounds of strawberries and let it soak overnight, then redistill it. It has the great essence and aroma of strawberry but not the sweetness so we add something to bring out the flavor. It’s almost like a gin made with strawberries.” Ryan added that when he gets the call that the strawberries are ready, there’s a window of a couple of weeks to pick them so they drop everything else and make strawberry vodka for a couple of days. “It’s been fun to incorporate other producers,” he said. “We have a local honey producer for our honey bourbon, and a local guy who provides maple syrup for a maple syrup infused bourbon.”
Mississippi River Distilling Company became involved with a distributor in New York City that’s one of the world’s largest kosher wine distributors. Ryan says that their products are, by default, kosher because they’re all grain with nothing else added. “We worked with the Chicago Rabbinical Council to become certified kosher on our entire plant,” he said.” It’s another opportunity for us to differentiate our products in the marketplace. It shows commitment to a production method that backs up ‘local’ and our commitment to quality.”
Garrett and Ryan are highly attuned to the potential safety hazards of running a distillery, and believe they’re doing everything possible to keep their establishment safe. “You need to be aware of what you’re doing and what you’re dealing with,” said Ryan. “Ethanol is an explosive vapor; it’s easy to safeguard against. Ventilate your property and make sure equipment is put together right. It’s dangerous and different than brewing beer or fermenting wine and should be taken seriously.”
The distillery includes an onsite tasting room, and the Burchetts offer five free public tours daily. Tours end in the tasting room where guests can sample various products, and a law change as of July 1, 2017 allows them to serve cocktails made from their own products.
Visit Mississippi River Distilling Company online at www.mrdistilling.com.
From grain to glass
by Sally Colby