Just down the not-so-meandering I-88 tollway out of Chicago, Jim and Jamie Walter and Nick Nagele are carving out a new venture. Whiskey Acres: a certified on-farm craft whiskey distillery, and only the second of its kind in the nation. The Walters took their commercial grain operation, hired Nick and launched the business in an attempt to add value to what they already produce – and bring Chicagoans out to the farm.
Let me just say, my trip to Whiskey Acres was one of the most fascinating and fun days I've spent on a farm in recent memory. In part because I got to learn about a whole new process, and in part because I got to spend time with the Walters, who are some of the best farm managers I've ever met.
We'll share the entire story in Prairie Farmer this month – look for yours in your mailbox soon – and I'll be sharing some of the back stories here on my blog this week. We'll also have video and a photo gallery next week outlining the art and science of distilling whiskey.
Jim and Jamie were incredibly candid about the highs and lows of their new business. Here's a quick rundown.
1. Local siting. Local permitting and siting was incredibly frustrating. And time consuming. Jamie was a lawyer in a past life, so you know that's saying something.
2. It's a steep learning curve. You're blazing new trails and there's no blueprint.
3. Mindset change. Changing their focus from a commodity business to value added. The marketing is an entirely different mindset, and they have to continue to do both types.
4. Time management. Giving time to the rapidly-growing business while not shorting the primary farm business has required management and care.
5. Record keeping. The amount of bureaucratic red tape and record keeping with alcohol production is incredible, Jamie says. "It makes the farm program look simple."
6. Equipment repairs. The still is running 50% slower than what it should, and there's no dealer to call.
1. It's fun. It's exciting. It's a challenge. It keeps us invigorated," Jamie says.
2. Consumer interaction. "The affirmation we get as farmers…we get rewarded and appreciated for making something. More farmers should get that," Jamie says. Jim adds, "I haven't hauled a load of corn to the elevator and had anybody come out and say, 'Wow!'"
3. Family business. "I get to work with my dad and my wife every day," Jamie says. His wife, Kristen handles all the tax and compliance records for their spirit production.
4. Opposition research. "I'm one of the few guys in the state who can buy booze and it's tax free!" he laughs.
5. Diversification. The whiskey distillery diversifies their income stream, and it's not weather dependent.
6. Value added niche. The Walters fulfilled a long-time dream of creating a value-added agriculture business. "And honestly, it's just nice to have your own business," Jamie adds.