Mississippi River Distilling
Robert Birnecker, right, with Kothe Distilling Technologies of Eislingen, Germany, talks about placing the pear-shaped head of the still at the Mississippi River Distilling Company on Thursday. The microdistillery is scheduled to be open for business Friday. (Kevin E. Schmidt/QUAD-CITY TIMES) Kevin E. Schmidt

LeCLAIRE, Iowa — Two brothers and a custom-built German still are behind Iowa’s newest microdistillery, opening this week in LeClaire and a symbol of what many think could be a solid growth industry for the state.

“We kept waiting for someone to tell us ‘You’re crazy,’ especially the banks,” Ryan Burchett said.

He and his brother, Garrett, natives of Harlan, Iowa, are on the verge of opening the doors of the Mississippi River Distilling Co.

Mississippi River Distilling will be the third microdistillery in Iowa. The others are Cedar Ridge Vineyards, Winery & Distillery in Swisher and Templeton Rye Spirits in Templeton.

According to Tonya Dusold with the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division, there are 10 serious inquiries in Iowa about starting distilleries.

“Considering it was zero a few years ago, that’s pretty impressive,” she said.

The Burchetts said location was a big factor in opening a microdistillery in LeClaire.

“For us, it was the proximity to the interstate,” said Garrett Burchett, a transportation planner for Richardson, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. “People are going to come and see the river, and LeClaire just fit what we were doing from the start. Our niche is all about local. 

 “Everything we do is tied into the local economy — local ingredients, all of our grain, everything we make will be made from corn, wheat and barley sourced within 25 miles of this building.”

Local chamber and tourism officials are enthusiastic about the new business.

“It is really exciting because it is something different and it brings another layer of tourism to LeClaire,” said Debbie Mulvania, president of the LeClaire Chamber of Commerce. “It meshes well with the shopping and the restaurants and everything else we have going. It’s something unique.”

Tours of the facility will end in the tasting room, where visitors will look across an old-fashioned bar through a large window to the focal point of the business, the custom-built German still. Patrons will be able to sample the spirits, 2 ounces per person per day, and ask questions. 

Another room located at the front of the building will contain a retail shop with everything from T-shirts to drink shakers and products. Iowa law allows patrons to purchase two bottles per person per day.

Initially, the Burchetts plan on producing vodka (River Baron Vodka) and gin (River Rose Gin), both from a fermented mixture of corn and wheat. The gin contains Iowa rose petals and locally grown cucumbers in the botanical mixture. The bourbon will be distilled sometime in January from a triad of locally grown wheat, barley and corn then aged in 30-gallon charred oak barrels. It could be ready in the fall of 2011, depending on a variety of factors.

Current excitement over the opening seems to have created just the right mixture from the slightly sour past year in LeClaire.

“The last year has been really tough on LeClaire with the bridge out and the economy so bad, and all of a sudden we have some good news come to us,” said Donna Walley, LeClaire tourism manager. “All of downtown LeCaire is really cute and charming, but this is one of those things that makes more people want to come to LeClaire.”


Big national growth

Spirits are going through a renaissance that has already transformed the bread, wine, beer and cheese industries.

On the heels of the microbrewing boom, new microdistilleries or “craft distilleries” are thriving from coast to coast, according to Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute in Hayward, Calif.

“We had a 20 percent growth in the industry nationally last year — 226 distilleries in 2010, up from 202 in 2009,” Owens said. Some of the recent entrants are in Indiana, Kansas and the latest in LeClaire.

Owens said the renaissance in the industry is distinctly local.

Ryan Burchett, a meteorologist with KWQC-TV6 in Davenport, agrees.

“Prohibition killed small distilling in America, and it’s just now coming back, whereas in Germany, for hundreds of years, if you were a farmer and you had grain left over at the end of the year that you didn’t want to spoil, you could get a permit from the government and you could have a small still of 150 liters or less,” he said. 

“Small stills are everywhere across Germany and Austria,” he said. “These guys have been making smaller stills for years and years and years, so while there are American companies starting to get into making them, the Germans are so far ahead of the game on that scale that’s where everyone is going to purchase most of the new stills in America.”

Small distilleries no longer need to think in terms of national distribution. The focus is on taking care of the local marketplace, making sure products are distributed in their region and letting people know who they are.

“When they come out to the distillery, they want to meet the person who made what they are tasting,” Owens said.


New law sparked changes

On July 1, Iowa law changed, allowing distilleries to offer samples and sell for off-premises consumption.

“The idea of the change was specifically to allow the distilleries to be more of a tourist destination like the wineries and breweries,” said Dusold, of the state alcohol division.

The small distillery is becoming part of tourism, Owens said.

“People will say, ‘Hey, there’s a moonshine still 200 miles away’, and they are going to go drive and look at it, buy a T-shirt, hat, a bottle of vodka and take it home.

“It’s just got that kind of romance, tradition and history, and that’s what people are interested in.”

Scott Bush, president of Templeton Rye Distilleries, and Jeff Quint, owner of Cedar Ridge Vineyards, were the driving forces behind the change.

Bush’s company, which started in 2001, produces one product, Templeton Rye Whiskey.

“The ability to sell product at the distillery is nice for us, but it’s not that big of a deal for Templeton Rye because we are never going to sell more than a percent or two at the distillery,” Bush said.

“What it did was open the door for additional distilleries in the state,” Ryan Burchett said. “There will absolutely be more than there are now. I think there will be a dozen to 20 distilleries in Iowa in the next 10 years.

“The law change was our go moment, going forward on buying the land, building the building and doing everything we needed to do.”

Jamie Siefken, general manager at Cedar Ridge Vineyards, said, “It was a huge, huge, huge victory, on July 1, 2010, being able to sell our products here. We released Iowa’s first bourbon since Prohibition in 1920 on that day.

“We had a huge party that weekend; hundreds and hundreds of people came out. It brought people out that never even knew we were out here.”