Published Feb 20, 2014

Field to glass: Whiskey made with grains from the cover crop research project

By Tomoko Ogawa


I first heard about Mississippi River Distilling Company in Le Claire, Iowa, when I contacted a list of distilleries, breweries and malting companies to ask if they could test our small grains from the cover crop trial project. Mississippi River Distilling Company was the only one that responded yes, and with great enthusiasm too, saying they could take and test all the rye, barley and spring wheat we harvested (a total of ~400 lbs). On top of that, Ryan Burchett, co-owner and distiller along with his brother Garrett, told me they were already purchasing most of their grains directly from the area farmers, within 25 miles from the distillery. Currently, Ryan and Garrett are working with four farmers in their area to directly purchase the ingredients, in addition to the sorghum they purchase from Maasdam Sorghum Mills in Lynnville, Iowa, for their rum. They are also working with two farmers who feed the company’s distiller’s grains to their hogs.

In the fall of 2010, we planted 17 different cover crop species/varieties (16 small grains and one winter lentil) in rented plots at the ISU Agronomy Farm in Boone, Iowa,to test their cover crop quality, as well as their grain quality (you can read more about this research here). We grew the cover crops to harvest the following summer, in July 2011, yielding a total of 530 lbs of grains (after being cleaned to food grade) including rye, barley and spring/winter wheat. The Seed Science Center at Iowa State University cleaned these grains for us. 

Last week, after more than three years since planting the grain seeds, we received two bottles of whiskey here at PFI office from the Burchetts, made with the grains we planted and harvested. PFI staff were so excited to see PFI’s small grains come full circle. One was rye whiskey made with 100% rye from our project. The other one was bourbon whiskey, with barley and spring wheat from us mixed with corn that Mississippi River Distilling Company purchased from local farmers Ryan and Dan Clark in Le Claire. The lag time was due to the fact that crafting whiskey takes time, including at least a year of aging.

In September 2013, we held “Distilling with Local Small Grains” field day at the Burchetts’ distillery. Entering the distillery, visitors are immediately welcomed by incredibly delicious, sweet aromas. With a bright open space and a nice tasting room facing the Mississippi River, it is indeed a fun place to visit. Ryan explained this is just what he and Garrett are trying to create: a welcoming ambiance that will encourage tourism, paired with an authentic process of distilling to make quality products. What is great about the Mississippi River Distilling Company is that every single process involved with creating its line of liqueurs – from milling and fermenting to distilling, aging and bottling – are all done right there.

On their website, you can enter the year, types of liqueur and batch number to find out about the farmers who grow the grains used in different bottles. Last year, the Burchetts purchased approximately 900 bushels of rye; 600-800 bushels of wheat; 300-400 bushels barley; and 2,500 bushels corn for their products. Ryan told us they have invited their farmers to the distillery to taste the finished product, and one of the farmers said it was the first time he saw or tasted the crop he raised.