SWISHER, Iowa (AP) — At one time, Kolin Brighton's expertise would have best served him in the tradition-steeped stillhouses of Kentucky or Scotland.
But here he was on a recent morning in a production facility in rural Johnson County, attaching "Iowa Corn Moonshine" tags to bottles of crystal clear, unaged whiskey. Across the room, beer churned in a large copper-pot still, extracting alcohol that trickled from a spigot.
"Up until a few years ago, 100 percent of the spirits we drank here were imported from other states," said Brighton, production manager at Cedar Ridge Vineyards Winery and Distillery. "The corn we grow here, we send it down to Kentucky, they turn into in whiskey and sell it back to us. At this point, we're essentially using our home-grown crops to create a value-added agriculture product that keeps the money, jobs and everything here in the Corridor."
The Iowa City Press-Citizen reports (http://icp-c.com/ZhEmZN) Cedar Ridge has been at the forefront of a growing number of small batch, craft spirit producers in Iowa and U.S. as a whole. When it opened in 2005, Cedar Ridge was the first licensed distillery in the state and among the first dozen or so licensed micro-distilleries nationally, owner Jeff Quint said.
Today, Cedar Ridge is one of eight micro-distilling license holders in Iowa, according to the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division, and one of 280 that the American Distilling Institute estimates to be in operation nationally. Other notable Iowa micro-distilleries founded in recent years include Templeton Rye in Carroll County and Mississippi River Distilling in the Quad Cities.
"I think it was a niche waiting to be filled," said Jim Clayton of Iowa City, chairman of the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Commission. "We have micro-brewers, who in many ways have created a revolution in the beer industry, certainly, and I think there's room for new players in the distilling business. But it's an expensive business to get into, and you have to be patient, unlike beer, which you could make in about three weeks."
Its early foothold in the Iowa market has given Cedar Ridge a head start in its production of aged liquor such as bourbon and dark rum, which must mature for years in an oak cask before being ready for bottling.
"The micro-breweries are red hot, and coming right behind them are the micro-distilleries," said Quint, who with his wife, Laurie, established their vineyard near Swisher in 2003. "When the U.S. went through prohibition 80 or 90 years ago, it shut everybody down. Since Prohibition ended, we've been dominated by a few large producers in the country. In a lot of other countries, that's not the case. There's a ton of little distilleries, and I think you're finally starting to see that in the U.S. We have technology now that allows you to become a viable business with smaller quantities of production."
Quint expects Cedar Ridge to do about $2.5 million in business this year, growing almost tenfold from its $275,000 in 2008. Just last year, the winery built a new events facility adjacent to the existing production house and tasting room, which opened four years ago.
"When we were looking at how we were going to differentiate ourselves before we even opened, I got the idea to start a distillery," Quint said. "It really wasn't as much an idea to start a distillery, it was more of a 'How come there aren't distilleries?' Most distilled spirits are made from corn. We're in the corn capital of the world, but we don't have any distilleries. Why not?"
This month, Quint and his staff are bottling what they're calling Iowa's first single-malt whiskey — a spirit traditionally made in Scotland and sold in the U.S. as scotch. The single-malt was the natural progression of the distillery's bourbon production, which also was a first in Iowa when it was rolled out in 2010. The bourbon since has become Cedar Ridge's flagship product, a top-seller for the company regionally among restaurants and retailers.
Simply put, bourbon is a whiskey that has been aged in new American oak barrels. But once that process is complete, which in Cedar Ridge's case is after two years, the barrels cannot be reused for bourbon production. This leads to the question, what to do with those used bourbon barrels?
"We researched it, and basically most of the bourbon that's made by the big guys in the U.S., they ship their empty bourbon barrels to Scotland," Quint said. "In Scotland, where barley is the primary grain that's grown, they age their distilled malted barley in used bourbon casks. We don't have that many barrels, so it wouldn't be practical for us to send it to them. So we thought, well, let's bring the single malt here."
Quint traveled to Scotland in 2006 to learn how scotch was made using those barrels. He visited several distilleries, studying their use of materials, enzymes, ideal temperatures and mashing. After he returned, Cedar Ridge sealed up its first barrels of single malt — made solely with barley as opposed to the bourbon's corn-based recipe.
That first batch — having aged for five years in port, rum, sherry and bourbon casks — will be released in May, though customers already have reserved two-thirds of the bottles. Two more batches are set to follow later this year.
Clinton Street Social Club in downtown Iowa City is among the local restaurants that carry Cedar Ridge's products, as well as other Iowa-produced spirits such as Templeton Rye. General manager Adam Olesen said his gastropub uses Cedar Ridge's apple brandy in one of its most popular cocktails, called Grandpa's Coffin.
Olesen said Cedar Ridge has built a local following among Iowa City's high-end restaurants and is developing name recognition among customers.
"They have pride in being able to buy something of quality from their area," Olesen said. "We're happy to showcase their items and also be proud of the artistry and creativity of their craft."
Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen, http://www.press-citizen.com/