For hours on the drive into and through Iowa, there are cornfields as far as the eye can see. Nebraska may be home to the Cornhuskers, but no state grows more corn than the neighboring Hawkeye State. Here golden-flecked green stalks stretch to the horizon and beyond in every direction. You’re in the heartland in Iowa. And while Kentucky is the home of bourbon, perhaps bourbon’s rightful homeland is the same place all that corn comes from. Which brings us to Cedar Ridge Distillery, located in the town of Swisher just outside of Iowa City.
Founded in 2005 by Jeff Quint, Cedar Ridge Distillery was the first licensed distillery in Iowa since Prohibition. My visit here was just a week after the state was torn apart by a powerful derecho, a calamity which received startlingly little national attention. Thankfully the distillery emerged largely unscathed. Equally important is that their corn supply is still secure, despite some estimates indicating that over 40% of the state’s crops were damaged.
There are now three generations of Quints involved with the distillery. Wife and co-founder Laurie’s parents grow corn on the family farm. And son Murphy Quint serves as director of operations and distiller after a several year stint at Stranahan’s. “It was time to return,” he says.
A good time at that. Cedar Ridge Distillery makes the 3rd best selling bourbon in Iowa, behind a couple of “small” brands known as Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam. Over the years their whiskey has taken huge strides forward, as you’d expect from a once-fledgling operation which now has a 15 year track record. New stills have been installed and production has increased to approximately 2,500 barrels per year. The brand’s stock is coming of age, along with bottled in bond releases.
Quint points to several main factors in the improved quality, beyond simply experience with the craft. “We’ve improved on our blending over the years,” he says. They’ve also increased the proof on their whiskeys, raising the bourbon – made with a 74% corn, 14% malted rye and 12% malted barley mash bill – from 80 to 86 proof, and their single malt from 80 to 92 proof. A fitting move, as tasting their product at cask strength is where it truly shines.