DeKalb corn farmers raise a glass to home-grown whiskey

As low corn prices continue to be a financial stressor to farmers, some Illinois corn producers are beginning to look outside of traditional farming for new revenue-generating ideas.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently lowered its corn price expectations to a range of $2.90 to $3.70 per bushel. If that holds true, 2017 would be the continuation of corn prices below $4.00 since 2014.

Corn production is essential to the country, but Jamie Walter, co-founder, president and CEO of Whiskey Acres, said some farmers don’t want to be reliant on the volatile commodity prices.

“I think commodity business will still always been king here in Illinois,” Walter said. “But for those producers that are looking to do something different, there are opportunities out there for sure.”

Walter, a fifth-generation farmer, wanted to diversify the family farm in DeKalb and started looking for ways to continue using corn to create a product consumers would want. One night he glanced down at a bourbon whiskey bottle and realized corn was the main ingredient.

“It was like a light bulb went off,” Walter said.

Whiskey Acres was born.

“DeKalb is the Napa Valley of corn, and we grow some of the best corn in the world right here,” Walter said. “And bourbon, which is a type of whiskey, is made predominantly from corn.”

Southeast of DeKalb on Keslinger Road, Whiskey Acres is a nearly 2,000-acre farm that boasts production from “seed to spirit,” meaning that every part of the process to make whiskey — seed selection, crop growing and distilling — is done on site.

Walter is combining his expertise of growing and seed selection to produce a premium craft whiskey.

“We’re seeing a definite difference between different varieties of corn and the flavor of the whiskeys that can be produced,” Walter said. “That seems to give us a real advantage.”

According to Walter, the trend of consumers wanting to buy local products and the explosion of the craft beer industry created the right environment for a locally grown and produced whiskey.

Illinois’ Whiskey Acres is one of the first farms in the country to tap into this “farm to bottle” idea for whiskey, but Walter sees the opportunity for farmers with corn-growing experience to shake up the whiskey industry.

“In the whiskey world, there are so few farmers or estate growers who grow their own grain and then distill that, there’s virtually no identity preservation of varieties that takes place in the whiskey business,” Walter said.

The whiskey business is paying off, as Whiskey Acres sees 1,000 visitors a month for its tours and has turned a profit in less than three years. Walter is already looking to expand.

–Illinois News Network

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