Robert Berendzen holds up a long, copper instrument. “Do you know what this is? It’s a whiskey thief,” he says. The cylindrical tool is used for just what it implies: tasting whiskey straight out of the barrel.
He’s standing in the warm rickhouse at Woodsmen Distilling in Higbee, Missouri, which he built himself. It can hold up to 310 barrels, but he’s here to taste something that fills only three. After removing the bung, the barrel’s stopper, Berendzen siphons out a nip of his pet project while his dutiful blue heeler, Dottie, is laying at his feet.
“They said it couldn’t be done,” he says defiantly, taking a sip of the 130-proof corn whiskey. “130 proof in a white-oak barrel would take your breath away – it’d be strong. Harsh. Burn, burn, burn.” This whiskey, however does not: It’s aging in a barrel made of 100 percent pecan wood.
“[Pecan barrels are largely] unheard of, because only white oak has tyloses in [the wood], and tyloses is what keeps [barrels] from leaking,” Berendzen explains. “Well, I’m always that way; I’ve gotta prove somebody wrong. So they were right, partially – when I made the first barrels, they looked like a water fountain – [I tested them with water, and] water poured out. But I figured out the parts of the tree I could use, and I made pecan barrels.”
For Berendzen, it was worth the time to experiment with using pecan wood – a project that large cooperages typically don't take on.
Berendzen is focused on producing everything himself, from growing grains to making his own staves and barrels. In addition to Woodsmen, he runs Barrel 53 Cooperage, Midwest Stave Exchange and four farms, where, among other things, he raises grains for his spirits as well as cattle; the spent grain is even fed back to the cows.
Although Berendzen first came to mid-Missouri while working in construction, he later opened the stave exchange and eventually graduated to barrel-making. Today, his cooperage sells barrels all over the world, including in Spain, Scotland and Peru. After researching distilling for about 10 years and planting grain in 2015, he figured he had everything in place to open his own operation. Berendzen's ability to control the entire process – from raising grains to aging his spirits in his own barrels – is rare. He represents a new wave of farm distillers in America who are seeking more command over every facet of grain-to-glass spirit production.
“If you’re making all the barrels and got the opportunity to raise your own grains, why not be legal and let other people taste it?," he says. "I wanna know where it’s coming from, what I’m getting, what I’m using. I wanna use the strains that I think are right. And of course, it’s a cost thing, too, but if you're making the barrels, you're growing the grains, you’re aging your own product on-site, you should be getting what you want.”
In addition to the forthcoming pecan barrel-aged whiskey, Woodsmen makes bourbon, corn whiskey, rye whiskey, apple brandy and coconut rum; the latter two are flavored with fruit pasteurized at the distillery. Berendzen grows everything – corn, rye and wheat – except malted barley, which he calls “another animal.”
“There’s very little rye grown in Missouri, and I don’t really understand [why],” he says. “Rye and wheat are very similar – the way you grow it, when you plant it, when you harvest it, the whole deal. We grow our own rye; our strain came from North Dakota, where we got our seed from.”
With craft distilling on the rise, growing your own corn, wheat, barley and rye can set a distillery – and its spirits –
apart from the competition. Of course, farming requires land, equipment, money, labor and a skill set that many new distilleries can’t afford.
Regional distilleries like Wood Hat Spirits in New Florence, Missouri, and Pinckney Bend Distillery in New Haven, Missouri, have been experimenting with spirits made with heirloom varieties of corn, grown either on their respective properties or by local farmers. (And Wood Hat even finishes its Double Wood Bourbon in a charred pecan barrel.) Because most distilleries, large and small, use yellow dent corn, changing variables like the type of corn or grain used, aging conditions and water are ways distillers can impact the flavor and mouthfeel of a spirit.
According to the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA), craft distilling is up 20 percent in the last year as of fall 2017, with more than 1,500 craft distilleries operating in the U.S., although that accounts for less than 3 percent of market share. Of those 1,589, 33 are located in Missouri, eight in Kansas and 38 in Illinois.
The ACSA anticipates that over the next decade, craft spirits will become as disruptive to the liquor industry as craft beer has been for the brewing industry. Even the little guys are growing solidly: Berendzen started with a 5-gallon still roughly six years ago, then upgraded to 50, followed by his current 350. He’s about to upgrade again – this time to a 1,200-gallon still – and plans to build two more rickhouses “soon as I get the time.”
Woodsmen doesn’t distribute outside of Higbee yet; Berendzen says he just doesn’t have enough employees to ramp up production. For now, you can find his spirits at the tasting room, and at half a dozen nearby liquor stores and restaurants, where Berendzen and his wife deliver cases themselves. And with so many other businesses and obligations on the farm to manage, he can't dedicate all of his time to the distillery.
“I don’t go out there and promote it too much,” he shrugs. “It could overwhelm me real quick, if my product is as good as I think it is. With 200 barrels, they could run me out if it was a hit, and distributors took it all over. If you have a distributor and he says, I want 10,000 bottles, we’re in trouble.”
Besides, Berendzen isn’t done experimenting: He plans to make another 20 or 30 pecan barrels, as well as whiskey from spelt, a grain related to wheat. A vodka is in the works, too, plus an event center that will house his distilling equipment, which currently resides in a building meant to dry lumber.
“I feel like we’ve done this right – we’re making quality barrels using white oak, growing our own grains, aging the spirits,” he says. “I was licensed for two years, and I never opened the doors, because I wanted a quality product. I didn’t want to be known for selling moonshine lemonade. I wanted to be known for bourbons and whiskeys, so I waited. My point is, I felt like we did everything the right way.”
Adam Stumpf is just one of the many distillers who use Robert Berendzen’s barrels, but the two have a little more in common: Stumpf and his wife, Laura, grow all their own grains for their Columbia, Illinois, distillery, Stumpy’s Spirits.
“It’s super rare that people make their own vodka,” Stumpf says. “It’s very cost affordable to go out and buy bulk ethanol, basically – neutral-grain spirits from other companies. It’s crazy, I never knew how prevalent it was. Even a lot of the distilleries that make their own whiskey will go out and buy that base for their vodka or gin. We joke around – if you want to find a real grain-to-glass distillery, go find their grain mill.”
Stumpf first started brewing beer as an engineering student at Missouri S&T in Rolla, Missouri, and worked in production logistics for Anheuser-Busch after college. He then attended Washington University to earn his MBA, where he took a life-changing entrepreneurship course from David Poldoian, another Anheuser-Busch alum. Part of the course involved developing a business plan; at first, Stumpf thought he’d pitch a craft brewery, but he realized it would be easier to integrate his family’s farm into operations for a craft distillery. It also didn’t hurt that he had already been making moonshine in a 5-gallon still. Over the better part of the next year, he and Laura eventually convinced themselves that what looked good on paper would actually work.
In 2013, the couple “basically collaterized everything that we own – house, cars, wedding rings, I mean everything,” to get a bank loan, and bought equipment from a Colorado distillery that was going out of business. They purchased 10 acres in Monroe County from his family, who have been farming the land for eight generations. They rent an additional 40 acres from Stumpf’s parents to grow every single kernel of grain that goes into their spirits. Stumpf himself plants and harvests the crops, with help from his father.
“You’ve got craft distilleries, then grain-to-glass distilleries, then farm distilleries, with people growing a portion of their own grains, then you’ve got single-source distilleries,” Stumpf says. "We grow every kernel of grain that goes into those bottles. Which is great – we get access to the highest-quality, freshest ingredients in the world.”
Because everything is grown on-site, and Stumpy’s even uses its own hard limestone well water, Stumpf says his spirits have the same sort of terroir as wine. Thanks to natural sinkholes in Monroe County, rainwater filters through dirt, sand and limestone into a large aquifer right under the distillery.
“Let’s just talk bourbon: We do 90-proof bourbon, which is 10 proof higher than a lot of the standard 80 proofs,” he explains. “Well, if it’s 90 proof, that means it’s 45 percent alcohol by volume, which means it’s 55 percent water by volume. So if you’re going to spend four years making something, put it in a bottle, and at the end of the day it’s going to be a majority water, you better be [using] some darn good water.”
Stumpf believes the quality and distinctiveness of his water is evident in the final products: In fact, Stumpy’s Old Monroe Bourbon won bronze last year at the American Craft Spirits Awards. “You get a lot more character with well water, and oddly enough, it changes the mouthfeel quite a bit too,” he says. “It’ll smooth the whiskey out, because limestone well water gives us that hardness, which kind of helps buffer pH. Whiskey is very acidic, so as we buffer that pH up, it gets smoother and has a creamier mouthfeel.”
It was important to Stumpf to include his family farm in the distillery, but it also came from a consideration of what he calls value proposition. If a craft distillery is sourcing grain from one of a handful of distributors – or even buying the spirit base from one of a few manufacturers – it ends up putting a younger product, made with the same ingredients, on the market at a higher price.
“We decided we needed to put value in a bottle, and that value is going to be our region,” he says. “We take the Napa Valley approach to making booze: Just like grapes, different growing conditions are going to give different things, like grain, different flavor. That’s why we decided [to] go all in and grow 100 percent of our own grain and use 100 percent of our own water. When we put something in a bottle, we can be confident we’re giving the consumer real, true value.”
Stumpy’s has also started doing collaborations on both sides of the Mississippi River. Its peach vodka, made with peaches from Eckert’s in Belleville, Illinois, is a best-seller. Currently aging at the distillery are two malt whiskeys distilled from beer: Brewers from Hopskeller Brewing Co. and Stubborn German Brewing Co., both in Waterloo, Illinois, made wort – basically beer without the hops – for Stumpf to distill. He’s also making River Barons, “a bi-state rye whiskey, if that’s a thing,” with David Weglarz from StilL 630 in St. Louis. Stumpf estimates that he usually has around 12 recipes aging at any given time.
Like Woodsmen Distilling, Stumpy’s is in the process of building the infrastructure it needs to increase production. That means not only additional stills, but more grain storage, space for grain processing and a 1,000-barrel rickhouse, among other things.
One of the most exciting additions at Stumpy’s will be a malthouse. Currently, the distillery has to send its barley, grown on the farm, to Michigan to be malted (soaked in water to germinate and then dried), but eventually, Stumpf will be able to malt on-site, bringing everything in house.
“It’s gonna give us a lot more flexibility and innovation, because we can now not only malt barley, we can malt Bloody Butcher red [heirloom] corn and basically anything we grow,” he says, “so we should be able to come up with some really unique flavor profiles that just don’t exist anywhere, because the ingredients aren’t available.”
The expansion will triple the square footage at Stumpy’s Spirits, and allow Stumpf to increase production from its current pace, which is about four 53-gallon barrels per week, by about 10 times to 40. Grain storage will increase from about 1,500 bushels to 15,000.
Over the next few years, Stumpf says consumers will see the Stumpy’s portfolio transition from clear spirits to mostly brown, as his whiskey and bourbon continues to age. He’s experimenting with different types of corn, as well, like the heirloom Bloody Butcher and sweet white corn, and he plans on trying even more in the coming years.
“A lot of people kinda stick to a few [spirits] recipes,” Stumpf says, “but we’ve had so much fun experimenting with grains in the field that we can bring that into the distillery and see what it turns into. Sometimes we’ll see what other folks are doing and do the exact opposite, to try to do something super unique. This white corn is absolutely crazy; it’s a hybrid that was made in central Illinois [and] designed for feeding cattle. But the cool thing about it is, the reason the cattle like it so much is [that] it’s a sweet corn. We [thought], if the corn tastes better on the cob, it should taste better in the whiskey, too.”
For Berendzen back in Higbee, waiting is part of the job.
“We try and make real authentic bourbon – no extra additives, no sugars, no cutting the time back, no mixing the young whiskeys with the older,” he says. “What I think sets us apart is the way we do it. We wait it out.”
It’s a product that requires patience, because, as he says, if it’s as good as he thinks it is, it’ll be worth the wait.
“As you can tell, I’m country – I'm as country as they get,” he says, sipping the last of the pecan-barrel whiskey he pulled from the whiskey thief. “It’s really neat for me, [things like] Stumpy’s and other distilleries winning awards using our barrels. The public seems to really enjoy our products, our tasting room and our tours. I’ve got people calling me from all over to do speeches – I was at a Rotary Club, [where] doctors and all them highfalutin guys get together; they asked me to come and do a presentation [on bourbon]. For a country guy, it can be somewhat overwhelming. I’m pretty humble, and I don’t need all that hype, but it’s neat.”
He pats the pecan barrel as if it were his beloved pup, Dottie. The barrel is signed by a few people close to Berendzen – his mother, his aunt and uncle from Kentucky, his wife, his daughter, his son-in-law, two employees – who were there when he put the whiskey in to age. The whiskey will be ready any day now, and just about all 700 of the resulting bottles (at $175 a pop) have already been sold.
“It’s neat,” he says again, nodding his head. “Made a pure pecan barrel and aged whiskey in it, ‘cause they said it couldn’t be done.”
Satisfied, he puts the whiskey thief away and locks up the rickhouse. Dottie follows his lead and runs ahead toward the cooperage. She knows the drill – back to work.
Stumpy’s Spirits, 1727 Centerville Road, Columbia, Illinois, stumpysspirts.com
Woodsmen Distilling, 7239 Highway A, Higbee, Missouri, facebook.com/woodsmendistilling