There’s usually not much to see besides sprawling acres of farmland while driving down Keslinger Road in rural DeKalb County.
So it might be easy to miss Whiskey Acres—Illinois’ only “seed to spirit” whiskey distillery and a lively place to sip cocktails and soak up the summer sunshine.
Nick Nagele, Whiskey Acres’ co-founder, vice president and chief operating officer, said the distillery’s main goal is to introduce guests to fine whiskey that is completely locally sourced.
And if they come for the whiskey, visitors might remain for the vivacious, inclusive atmosphere.
So what does it mean to be truly locally sourced? Well, Nagele is happy to tell anyone who asks, it’s something the Whiskey Acres team takes a lot of pride in.
“On the Whiskey Acres farm, we’re able to make great whiskey because we control the process from seed to spirit,” he said. “Knowing where it’s planted, when it’s planted, why and how it’s planted, selecting the best grains, preserving them through the entire process from the field to your glass—all that allows us control and quality that some people only dream of.”
A tour, tastings and a shot glass can be had for just $10. The distillery is open to the public from April to November between 1:30-8:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 1:30-5:30 p.m. on Sundays. Tours begin at the top of every hour.
“Giving tours allows us to get the customer perspective on what’s important and allows us to figure out what we don’t know about the process so we can be even better equipped to answer any questions they may have,” Nagele said.
Whiskey Acres also offers diverse craft cocktails from the “bold fashioned” (their take on an old fashioned) to the bourbon slush. But they all start with whiskey made with care.
“Local is good, but quality is more important,” Nagele said. “That’s why we don’t cut corners…It’s not easy but it’s the right thing to do.”
Whiskey Acres whiskey is sold in a variety of stores in northern Illinois including Binny’s, Hy-Vee, Marianos, Whole Foods and Schnuck’s.
Beyond craft spirits, Whiskey Acres offers a chance for family grilling on a sunny patio, playing bags or whiffle ball or touring the family-owned farm.
The distillery is dog-friendly and open to families with children of all ages.
“This is about making our space, your space,” Nagele said. “We want everyone to feel welcome.”
The history behind Whiskey Acres
Whiskey Acres’ other founders are Jamie Walter and his father, Jim Walter. The farm that the distillery sits on has been in the Walter family since at least 1897.
Jim Walter said that Whiskey Acres began back in 2014 as a seemingly obvious idea that Jamie Walter had while enjoying a drink on his father’s farm.
“Jamie was drinking a glass of bourbon and looked out at the corn in our fields and just thought well two plus two equals four,” Jim Walter recalled.
Bourbon is made using mostly corn instead of other grains while distilling. Jaimie Walter already knew that his father was growing some of the best corn around, so he figured all they needed was a place to make that corn into bourbon.
So an idea was born to take on a venture to make their own whiskey and bourbon with all local grains. Nagele said he knew the Walters because they used to buy seeds from him for their farm and the whole thing just came together perfectly.
“Jamie came up with the idea, he talked to Jim and Jim said, you know, this is probably a good idea but we can’t do it ourselves,” Nagele said. “Then they talked to me and the three of us became Whiskey Acres.”
Nagele said that they each have unique skill sets which lend themselves to running different aspects of the business, making them the perfect team.
Nagele is the public relations guru—welcoming guests with his homegrown charm and marketing the distillery online and throughout the community.
Jamie Walter is a lawyer with significant experience working in Napa Valley (Calif.) vineyards.
“Jamie…he’s very big picture, you know, how do we streamline the business,” Nagele said. “He doesn’t look at today, he looks at four years from today.”
Jim Walter is a farmer, pure and simple. Planting crops and caring for the earth while doing it is something that runs in his blood. He knows how to grow and select the best grains to produce the very best whiskey.
When they sealed the barrels on their first batch in 2014 and set them to age, all the three partners had left to do was wait.
Nagele said although they had no way of knowing how the whiskey would turn out, it was no surprise to him that it was such an immediate success.
“What’s been a bigger surprise is the customer loyalty and support,” Nagele said. “People who are willing to wait in line in the rain for a new release, the people who come out here every two months to make sure that they have every new product that we make.”
Nagele said that they held a soft opening of the distillery for friends and family in June 2015.
Not long after that, Whiskey Acres was open to the public for tours and tastings. Nagele said that he could not wait to share what they had accomplished with the rest of the community.
For the first three years of production, Whiskey Acres was producing approximately 250 barrels of whiskey and bourbon yearly. After adding a second shift of production this past year, they are now making a little over 300 barrels each year.
Nagele said that bourbon makes up about 70 percent of their annual production. He said their rye whiskey makes up about 20 percent, with their artisan whiskies and vodka making up the rest.
Local and sustainable
The USDA defines “locally-sourced” goods as anything that comes from within 400 miles of production or within the state.
“To us, local almost means can you see it,” Nagele said. “Virtually everything that we’re distilling right now comes from within a mile or two of where we’re sitting.”
Nagele said he feels passionately about allowing for transparency into what they’re doing on the farm and in the distillery. It’s a passion that began when he was young, growing up downstate and inviting friends to his family’s farm to learn more about how their food is grown.
“This portion of the distilling business creates an opportunity for us to invite people to learn about farming and to let people ask questions about what it is we’re doing, why we’re doing it, how we’re doing it,” Nagele said. “And they can do it over a drink of whiskey that was made from the very stuff that we’re looking at all around us.”
Another priority is an emphasis on environmental sustainability. The distillery is powered by large solar panels and all of the leftover grain is given to local farms to be used for cattle feed.
Jim Walter has received the rank of awarded master farmer from Prairie Farmer magazine for his Whiskey Acres work. This title is given to only four people each year for their dedication to being good stewards of the land.
But Nagele said that, for any good farmer, taking care of the environment is just the sensible thing to do.
“The thing about farmers is that most of us are looking to pass the farm down to the next generation and you don’t do that by abusing what you have,” he said. “You take the best care possible of what you have so that your kids, your grandkids can enjoy what you’ve got.”
Looking to the future
Whiskey Acres has already broken ground on a new building for a bar and lounge area. The new space will also feature interactive kiosks where guests can learn more about the different types of grains planted on the farm.
Nagele then looks to construct an outdoor amphitheater to host more live music. They already have occasional live performances on their patio, but hope to create a space where more people can come and drive their cars right up on the lawn.
He said they also hope to sell their own beef one day, making the distillery a one-stop shop for families who want to come and grill out while they enjoy some of the finest whiskey around.
–Spend a day sampling craft spirits at DeKalb’s Whiskey Acres–