Corn and Iowa. The two are inseparable. Whether on the cob, in cattle or in your car, Iowans have myriad ways to exploit this most this most Midwestern maize. The writer W.P. Kinsella even cut down a fictional cornfield to create a bucolic baseball diamond.
Well, a bit east and south of the famous film set in Dyersville, a couple of Iowa boys have created their own field of dreams in the picturesque Mississippi River town of Le Claire, Ia. They use corn, lots of it – to make ethanol.
Not the kind that goes in your gas tank, but the type that rolls slowly over the lips and across the tongue before taking that slow burn journey down your throat.
Ryan and Garrett Burchett are the proprietors of the Mississippi River Distilling Company. Set along the banks of “Old Muddy”, they welcome tourists to witness their pot still alchemy as they turn golden kernels into sippin’-smooth vodka, gin, bourbon and a mysterious ‘artisan spirit’ they’ve dubbed ‘The River Baron’. When you first happen upon – (as I did – taking the family out to lunch) the building, you’re drawn in.
A distillery in Iowa? Are you serious? Did we take a wrong turn and end up in Kentucky? We had to go in and see.
The first thing that grabs you are the bottles emblazoned with logos that harken back to an earlier time of paddle wheelers and river boat captains. There’s the aforementioned River Baron, River Pilot vodka, River Rose gin and Cody Road bourbon.
When you walk into the tasting room, with its expansive view of the Mississippi River, you’re hooked.
Garrett was the brother there the day we walked in. He invited us on the hourly tour he conducts (free - 7days a week 12-4pm). His is a genuine enthusiasm for his craft. Garrett was a transportation engineer, doing traffic studies and highway design in Dallas, Tex. His brother Ryan was the chief meteorologist at Davenport’s NBC affiliate. The distillery project – which opened last year - brought them back together again.
Garrett walked us through the process – interrupted by far too many questions from yours truly (a product of spending a day at Jack Daniel’s reporting a story) – then led us into the tasting room where we sampled his wares.
His vodka is world class – and in fact has been recognized with a bronze medal from the 2011 New York International Spirits competition. For the River Rose gin, they dialed back on the Juniper in favor of citrus flavors, rose petal and cucumber notes.
Many of the visitors enjoyed it (though it was a little too flowery for the wife and me). The artisan spirit is another animal altogether. The Burchett boys mix 80 percent corn with 20 percent wheat for a nose that at once gives off aromas of tequila and bourbon. Garrett calls it ‘butterscotch’. While it sips just fine, the Burchetts recommend it for Bloody Mary’s, a substitute for Margaritas, or anything that calls for rum.
Disappointingly, their bourbon - a small batch they only produce a few times a year - wasn’t available. But they make it just like they do in Kentucky – with one exception. Whereas the Jim Beam barrels are stored in barrelhouses exposed to extreme temperature changes, Cody Road (named for the street the distillery is on – which is named for Buffalo Bill, who was born in Le Claire) is quietly kept in a climate controlled cellar on premises.
Try to visit in March (be sure to dress warmly) when they brew up another batch – or look for it at a local retailer.
Recent changes to Iowa law have been a boon to local distillers (there are actually three craft distilleries here). The state now allows them to sell directly to the public. They can also ship from their website.
If you do visit the distillery, be sure to pick up some of the Irish Dog Bloody Mary Mix from Moline, IL and Benny’s Bloody Mary Beef Straws (think Slim Jim with a hole in it) from Coralville, IA.
Mississippi River Distilling Company is located at 303 North Cody Road Le Claire, IA 52753.