Following recent reviews of Chicago Distilling, FEW, Fox River Distilling, J. Henry & Sons, Journeyman, Oppidan, and Quincy Street, I’m moving on down the growing list of Midwestern distilleries with Whiskey Acres.
Whiskey Acres is a grain-to-glass distillery, with corn, rye and wheat grown on site. All the milling, mashing, distilling, maturation and bottling takes place on site as well. The operations are located in rural DeKalb, Illinois, about 60 miles west of Chicago.
Co-founder Jim Walter and his son Jamie are fifth generation farmers. They teamed up with Nick Nagele, himself a farm boy, with consultation from the late Dave Pickerell. The trio has been distilling since 2014. Whiskey Acres has never sourced any whiskey, nor any grain (bar small quantities of barley from Briess of Wisconsin). Everything in the bottle has been grown by Whiskey Acres, within a few miles of where it is distilled.
Nagele described the house style as “grain-forward and approachable.” Whiskey Acres is trying to make a product to appeal to both novices and serious drinkers alike. While they sell an experimental “Artisan” series in their tasting room (distillations from funky popcorn varietals and the like), the main commercial focus is the production of a bourbon and a rye. They also produce a vodka to cater to tasting room customers who don’t care for whiskey, but generally they seem to suffer none of the attention-deficit-disorder that pushes their peers into the distillation of dozens of varieties of spirit.
The Walters and Nagele are big believers in grain – not surprising, given their backgrounds as farmers. Nagele (who spared his time for a conversation with me) joked that all corn looks the same at 60 miles per hour, but those actually growing it understand that “all corn is not created equal.” The Whiskey Acres farm has 16 to 24 different hybrids of corn planted. The team toys with exotic varietals but is exacting about quality and has discarded a few experiments that didn’t make the grade. They believe that better corn – dry in the field, high test weight, high starch content – makes better whiskey.
The subject of today’s review is a rye whiskey with a “high rye” mash bill of 75% rye and 25% corn. The company uses a “very particular strain of rye known for having the presence of a vanilla note,” specifically the AC Hazlet varietal from Canada. Nagele notes that this imparts less of a sharp black peppery note than commodity rye varietals, with more of a soft white pepper nuance.
Fermentation times are between 3-5 days, with a combination of yeast strains. The distillation is done in a 500 gallon pot still with an 8-plate rectifier. Every distillation is a single distillation done to a target proof, with very clear head and tail cuts.
All the maturation is done in Kelvin Cooperage barrels with a level 3 char. This is where things get interesting: the first year saw 15, 25, and 53 gallon barrels filled. As noted above, the refusal to source whiskey meant that some smaller casks with faster maturation times were required in order to supply the first batches. The company has been using exclusively 53 gallon barrels since 2017, and will be gradually depleting its lower-aged stock. Mathematically, the age on the bottled whiskies will increase. For what it’s worth, the batch I’m drinking is technically “Straight Rye Whiskey” (being aged for a minimum of two years) though it is not labeled as such.
On to the review! I found a 750 ml of the Whiskey Acres Rye for $42 at Target (pronounced “tar-ZHAY”), which is America’s haute couture version of Walmart. It is bottled at 43.5%.
In the spirit of collaboration, I sent a dram of this along to MALT’s rye expert, Adam. His notes follow my own, below.
Whiskey Acres Rye – Taylor’s Review
Color: Rusty brown
On the nose: Molasses, ripe Red Delicious apples, iced tea, clean rye grain note of iron, a salutary vanilla sweetness, crushed tomatoes, chili powder.
In the mouth: Lean, light, pure. Starts with high-pitched estery flavors and a faintly astringent woodiness. At midpalate, this presents a narrow sweetly-dilute flavor of iced tea before broadening back out with a kick of pepper, smoked kielbasa sausage, and some well-polished wood. Finish fades fast, leaving some macerated red fruit as a faint aftertaste.
Whiskey Acres Rye – Adam’s Review
Colour: New penny
On the nose: Dusky, chunky grain. Rye grass and sackcloth. Earth and metal, petrichor and blood. It’s young, but not spilt or acetone. Rather it’s visceral; elemental. Raw and wrought. A smarter of sweetly vegetal roasted red bell pepper.
In the mouth: Not as earthy – initially – and much sweeter. Sugary grain and malt hold the middle; high toned esters buzz and flit. The suggestion of vanilla. Caramel. Bran flakes. But it isn’t as robust as the nose promised. It’s simple; slightly flighty and flimsy. Rye with a muzzle.
This strikes me as a work-in-progress. The raw materials are clearly high quality and there are no overt flaws to speak of. However, I get the sense that a bit of additional maturation will do wonders for the depth and intensity of flavors here. Out of respect for Whiskey Acres’ commitment to the integrity of their product from start-to-finish, I will be a repeat customer and look forward to sampling their bourbon at a later date. Watch this space.