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Tractors and Stills: Farm Distilleries

Putting heart into every home-grown spirit they create, these farm distilleries are turning raw materials into liquid magic.

Photography by Beau Knight Jury, provided by Boot Hill Distillery

To be a farmer, you need patience. You need to be able to do small tasks over a large area, like planting seeds or tilling the soil, row by row. You need the dedication to wake up before sunrise and work in the fields well after sunset. You need the passion to handle an endless list of responsibilities with no guarantee of a payoff. But when your farm thrives, you thrive too. You can sell the produce, feed yourself, or you can create something entirely different, one example being spirits. That’s where these craft distilleries come in.


As a distiller, taking pride in your products is one thing, but taking pride in the ingredients themselves is an entirely different level of commitment and care. Farm distilleries do exactly that. A farm distillery (not to be confused with a farm-to-glass distillery, which is similar but not the same) is a distillery that uses their own home-grown produce to create their spirits.


There are full farm distilleries that grow every single element that goes into the bottles. There are also partial farm distilleries that may grow some of their ingredients, like corn or aromatics, but source the remainder of the ingredients from elsewhere. The decision to pick between the two methods can be dependent on the size of your land or the cost to grow crops. But sometimes it’s just because the region’s climate doesn’t support the necessary kind of produce. BigFish is highlighting both types of farm distilleries, because both are impressive and interesting to learn about.


“We are a farm first and distillery second. It’s the best representation of what ‘craft ‘ really means.” - Marian Farms


Iron Fish Distillery

“Iron Fish Distillery grows winter wheat and rye grains for vodka, gin and whiskey. We are the only farm distillery operating in the Great Lakes and Michigan's first farm distillery.” Every step of the process is done by hand on their 119-acre, environmentally-certified farm, from growing grain to milling, mashing, fermenting, distilling and bottling spirits. Iron Fish’s farm is environmentally verified under the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program. 


“We select farms as far north as Michigan's Upper Peninsula where rye production thrives and partner with nearby farms for other grains, like barley, wheat and rye,” co-owner Richard Anderson explains. “Our distiller, Dan Krolczyk, operates a farm in Free Soil, Michigan, where he grows rye grain for his signature Michigan Rye Vodka. Belsolda Farm in Skandia, Michigan, grows grain for Iron Fish.” Their distillers are pleased to support the growing trend of farms shifting grain production for animal feed stock to the local beverage and food movement.


“As a farm distillery, we control quality by controlling every step of the process. When you visit our farm, you learn that it takes about an acre of land to produce a barrel of whiskey, or about 400 bottles of vodka or gin! As consumers move away from global to local craft spirits, it supports the renewal of rural farming communities.”


Their four season, soil-to-spirit distillery is situated in a growing Western Michigan regional hub of agricultural destinations, tied to local food, wine, mead and craft brewing producers. “Iron Fish Distillery works with approximately 6 farms, 12 fruit farms, one sugar bush, one honey farm and we send our spent mash to a bison farm, completing our closed loop production system.”


Marian Farmhouse Spirits

Marian Farms’ motto 'from our soil to your glass' is the cornerstone of their distilled spirits operations. They bring out the best in what they grow by treating the farm as a whole, interconnected system. This means they pay attention to the life and health of the soil, the rhythm of the moon and planets, the vibrancy of the overall system, and the overall health of the plants. They only use natural methods to fertilize and grow their crops, including Biodynamic® sprays and compost that they make on the farm. “We are a farm first and distillery second. It’s the best representation of what ‘craft ‘ really means,” the Marian Farms team says.


They grow all of the raw materials for their spirits themselves, from Washington Navel oranges to several varieties of grapes. “The only ingredient we can’t grow is the sugar. Because we are certified Biodynamic, the closest source of BD sugar is in South America.” Marian Farms uses artisan methods to distill their Biodynamic® fruit into old-world style spirits. What begins with Biodynamic® farming, ends with exceptionally high-quality farmhouse spirits. “All by-products and waste products are recycled on the farm (mainly through composting). The greatest benefit is the control of quality and consistency.”


Embajador Tequila

The Garcia family operates roughly about 975 acres of 100% Blue Weber Agave, most of which is sold to other national brands. In 2010, they decided to start keeping a portion of that agave to launch their family brand, Embajador Tequila. Atotonilco, El Alto de Jalisco is a cooler, dry region with only 2 months out of the year where temperatures reach over 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Over the last 10 years, the red clay soil and cooler climate have combined to give their Highland Agaves those fruitful and floral tones that distinguish the region.


“Since agaves are an agricultural product, some of the challenge is maintaining consistency in our agaves. Weather is definitely a key factor. You never know what mother nature has in store during the winter and raining seasons,” sales manager and family member Andres Garcia says. Agave takes 8-10 years to be suitable for harvest in the highlands, which leaves plenty of opportunities for weather and outside factors to destroy the crops. “In the late 1990's, when a combination of fungus and bacteria invaded the agave, it caused a quarter of the region's crops to die. 2019 has been a solid promising year for our agaves. So far, we expect our agaves to continue on their path and we expect our current growing agaves to be one of our best fruitful and floral crops. Although, we still have about 4-5 years before we can harvest.”


The Embajador Tequila team understands what their agave needs to become truly exceptional, and how they can use it even after distillation to benefit themselves and others. “Agave fibers are very versatile, they have been used to make clothing, rope, and baskets. About 10% of our agave fibers are also given to local farmers to utilize as fertilizer.” They work to support their community, create high-quality craft tequila, and to make a difference through their business practices. “After the cooked agave fibers have given us the last drop of their sweet nectar, we send them to our biomass hurst boiler to produce energy for our distillery. We are gradually becoming a self sustaining distillery.”


“If it was easy, everyone would do it. We are proud to be a farmer owned and operated soil-to-sip distillery.” - Hayes Kelman, Boot Hill


Eau Claire Distillery 

Situated about 35 minutes southwest of Calgary, Eau Claire Distillery lives in the historic hamlet of Turner Valley. “Eau Claire is a handcrafted, small batch producer of an array of spirits, but our true raison d’etre is to produce world class whiskey.” Turner Valley has a checkered and illustrious past, one that heavily involves whiskey. To the east was a house of ‘ill repute,’ and to the west a general store. In the hills, there is an aptly named landmark called Whiskey Ridge that once hid moonshine stills. And finally, on the north end of town is the notorious street called Whiskey Row.


They chose Turner Valley as their home to be close to their ingredients, harvested from Alberta homestead farms. “Alberta is known as one of the best producers of barley and rye in the world, so it is only natural that we turn that agricultural gold into fine whiskies,” owner and founder David Farran explains. “If we ship our grain to Scotland to make scotch, why don’t we make it here at home? For the first time, now we do.” Eau Claire Distillery is located in the former Turner Valley Movie Theatre and Dance Hall, a building once used as a town hall, political rally centre, and community gathering spot. This location is not only interesting, but it is also conveniently situated in the foothills, making it easy to draw water from the Canadian Rockies, influencing the spirits’ flavours.


“Eau Claire produces its spirits from local Alberta grain. Eau Claire Distillery is a Certified Farm Distillery which is a unique designation that refers to our own farming operation, much like an estate winery.” Farm-fresh ingredients and historic hand-crafted methods define Eau Claire’s rightfully artisanal spirits, while their spirits redefine taste and quality one ‘grain-to-glass’ experience at a time. “Our farming operation includes traditional horse farming for special edition rye and single malt whiskies.”


Not only does Eau Claire use their crops to create high-quality craft spirits, but they utilize their resources after distilling, making the most of every harvest. “We use our spent grain to make crackers for our onsite tasting room, charcuterie board, and dipping trays. We also give our spent grain to a local farmer as feed for their bison.”


While their location is idyllic and their work is ideal, it’s not easy to build high-quality products solely on homegrown ingredients. “Consistency of the yield varies from year to year. We don’t always get the perfect crop and barley. [But] we have enough fields in different climates throughout the province of Alberta to alleviate any issues with a specific crop. Last year we had a drought and an early snowfall, so it was hard to get the crop off. So far [this year’s weather] has been perfect. [We] had early rain, so if we get warm weather for the rest of the summer and can keep the hail off it will be great. This year we will probably have twice the yield.”


Photography by Beau Knight Jury, provided by Boot Hill Distillery

Boot Hill Distillery

Boot Hill Distillery’s story began in 2014 when western Kansas farmers Roger and Hayes Kelman and Chris Holovach decided to invest in western Kansas’ first-ever craft distillery. With a craftsman’s eye for the highest quality ingredients, home-grown grains, and a dedication to ethically sourcing ingredients they can’t produce in-house, they bring new meaning to sustainability and transparency in craft distilling. “I am a fifth-generation farmer,” head distiller Hays Kelman says. “Boot Hill Distillery was built as a vertical integration to our family farm. We believe it is important for the consumer to know the origin of their products. There is no better way to know that we are using and creating high quality products than to be person that tills the ground, plants the seed, tend to the plants, harvests the grain, and ultimately turns the grain into high quality spirits.”


Photography by Beau Knight Jury, provided by Boot Hill Distillery

Each of their spirits are distilled in 500 gallon batches, carefully crafted from growth, to harvest, to milling, to mashing, fermentation and distilling, then eventually bottling. “The main benefit is we know exactly what we put into our products. We know the entire history of the grain.” They utilize a custom-crafted pot still/two column setup to ensure that every spirit is crafted for maximum drinkability, while still being a wholly unique product of Dodge City. 


Photography by Beau Knight Jury, provided by Boot Hill Distillery

Dodge City’s legacy was built on the ashes of a campfire and the footprints of a bar, and they’re proud to be continuing that legacy at Boot Hill Distillery. “While the farm is a commodity-based business and therefore does not necessarily need to market to consumers, the distillery has been a great tool to share the fact that farmers are feeding the world and we are really trying to do it all as sustainably as possible. Sharing the story of our farm distillery is a great way to advocate for farmers.”


Boot Hill’s spirits truly are “from soil to sip.” From the moment the seed goes into the soil to the moment you pour their spirits into your glass, they’ve had full control over the final product, ensuring that every single bottle that you purchase is the highest-quality spirit available anywhere in the world.


“The primary difficulties are logistics, planning and storage. When we decided to make rye whiskey, the first thing we had to do was track down a rye seed (rye is not commonly grown in our area) then plant, raise and harvest the rye. Part of our crop was lost to hail damage, so we only have a small amount of rye this first year to experiment with.” Boot Hill distillery was born from a barrel and forged in the dust, and no amount of rain, snow, or hail can stop them from persisting to succeed. “If it was easy, everyone would do it. We are proud to be a farmer owned and operated soil to sip distillery.”


Partial Farm Distilleries

Fish Hawk Spirits

Fish Hawk considers themselves makers of fine, hand crafted spirits. They distill every drop themselves, capturing the essence of Florida from the sweet aromatic ingredients grown in-state. They aim to make the finest spirits in the world while using local, natural, raw materials strongly associated with Florida. “We source all ingredients by proximity to our location, if we can find in Marion County, we do, if not, in Florida,” master distiller and COO Matthew Bagdanovich says. “There are a few ingredients we use that do not grow in Florida so we source from US growers. We grow many of the botanicals we use here on the property.” Hibiscus is one of the many botanicals they grow on the Fish Hawk Spirits property. This hibiscus is used to create products like their Rainbow River Rum, Absinthia Rubra, and their La Septima Rum. 


Clayton Distillery

Mike Aubertine grew up on his family’s dairy farm in nearby Cape Vincent, land his brothers and sister still own today. Because of his roots in farming, sourcing locally was important to Mike Aubertine and the people of Clayton Distillery. All of their products begin on their fifth generation family farm in Cape Vincent, New York, which is now used for growing corn, rye, and alfalfa. They also purchase corn from Gracie Farms in Watertown, New York and wheat from Robbins Family Farm in Sackets Harbor, New York. Malted barley is purchased from Pioneer Malting in Rochester, New York, and through a brewers supply group. Today, their 190 proof, 100% corn alcohol, used as a base for most of their products, is as clean and smooth as anything you can find on the market.


Lock 1 Distilling Company

Founded in 2015 with a desire to craft their own distilled spirits, three cousins brought their skills, craftsmanship, ability, time and finances together to form a distillery. Lock 1 Distilling Company is the first distillery to open in Oswego County since prohibition. The distillery sits right across the street from Lock 1 of the Oswego Barge Canal, the same canal preferred by bootleggers as the main artery from Canada to NYC. Just like the spirits they produce, their equipment is handcrafted and designed in house to yield the highest quality small batch products possible.


They decided to become a farm distillery because of the skills they each had prior and they have since grown to produce multiple award-winning spirits. Despite challenges with state and federal taxes, along with this season’s heavy rain in the spring and early summer, Lock 1 Distilling Company has continued to create quality craft spirits. The distillery is handmade by the owners, from the stills, to the mash tuns and condensers. In addition to making spirits like Ryze Vodka and Inferno Cinnamon Whiskey, Lock 1 uses their leftover spent mash as animal feed, while their leftover produce is used to create a farm to table dining experience inside the distillery.


Farming is risky, terrifying, and much of it is out of your control. But for those who actually make it, the lights turn on and everything feels like magic. These distilleries have explained the steps that go into the process, from planting the seeds to bottling the spirits. Now that they’ve done the hard part, it’s our job to appreciate the effort and enjoy the final product.