Dane family starts bourbon adventure

Gloria Hafemeister

Dane — Following the longtime tradition of learning more about Wisconsin’s diverse agriculture, members of the Wisconsin Women for Agriculture recently held a meeting at the tasting room of Henry Seed Farm in Dane, where the Henry family is also making bourbon from their own home-grown corn and grains.

Liz Henry, a former Alice in Dairyland, is applying her communication skills marketing bourbon that her family is making with heirloom red corn, rye and wheat raised right on their own farm.  The Henry family has been in the seed business for several generations, and the addition of the bourbon business is their latest venture.

The meeting began with a tour of the facilities and a presentation from Liz Henry about the venture.

“This is value-added agriculture at its very best," said Henry, a former Alice in Dairyland. "When we market our product, we want to make sure to include the educational component.”

A key part of their plan is to have a Wisconsin-themed product to capitalize on the explosion of locally-made food and drink. And that begins with their corn.

The Henry’s venture began eight years ago when Henry and her husband, Joe, took a vacation to Kentucky and the famous “bourbon trail.”

On that trip, they were told bourbon can only be made in Kentucky, but she said, actually, bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S.

“All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon," Henry said. "Craft distillers, in order to call their whiskey bourbon, must adhere to strict guidelines to maintain quality, character and continuity."

According to the American Bourbon Society, the recipe must consist of at least 51 percent corn, be made in the U.S. and, unlike Canadian, Scotch and Irish whiskey, no coloring or additives are allowed. Only new charred barrels can be used for aging, and they can only be used once.

The barrels must be stored on their side in ricks, which allows for airflow throughout the storage building. Temperature fluctuations and extremes are also important because the changes affect how the bourbon reacts with the oak.

Their bourbon is made from a special heirloom red corn that Joe chose for nostalgia sake, mixed with some traditional yellow corn. They also raise some rye and wheat for the mix.They source their Wisconsin malt from a company in Chilton, making their bourbon an all-Wisconsin product.

The Henrys devote about 25 acres to red corn, 25 acres to wheat and 25 acres to rye for their product.

“Our heirloom corn only produces about 65 bushels per acre, while the yellow corn is closer to 200 bushels per acre," she said, "but we want to use our special corn.

“Bourbon made elsewhere is just from number two yellow corn that the distilleries buy.”

At this time there is no still on the Henry farm. Instead, they create their own recipe, raise the ingredients and then have it custom made off the farm. If their sons decide to join the business in the future, there are many possibilities for bringing the whole process home to the farm.

While her husband was eager to get into this venture, his experience on the farm helped him understand the importance of using assets in the most efficient way and not necessarily doing all the layers of production right on the farm.

After just one year, sales have expanded significantly, the bourbon is available at 400 locations and it has also moved into the Chicago market.

A unique product

Henry admitted it is quite an investment getting started. Barrels need to be specially made and cost $200 each. They source white oak from Wisconsin, but since there are no coopers in the state, they need to send the wood to Minnesota to have the barrels made.

The aging wood produces tannins. “We want some tannin but not too much or the bourbon will be bitter and dry," Henry said.

White oak barrels, made from Wisconsin lumber, are aging bourbon in the former dairy barn on the Henry farm at Dane.

The barrel is also placed over a fire to “toast” it, thereby releasing the sugars into the barrel. When this process is done, they cannot use any other wood than white oak or the fire will produce an off-flavor in the barrel. The barrel is then charred inside before it is finally time to fill it with the newly brewed product.

Since the barrels cannot be used again for aging bourbon, the Henrys sell them to others who utilize wood barrels, including maple syrup producers who say their syrup develops a unique taste from the slight flavor of the bourbon left in the wood.

The Henrys' venture meant remodeling the barn to hold the barrels and remodeling what had been Joe’s family’s farm home into a tasting room and offices.

“Like any farmer who has a huge investment in equipment, seed, feed, livestock and supplies before seeing a return, we had our investment in this venture for more than five years before seeing a return,” she said.  “It’s frightening, but like other farmers, we just hoped we would make it.”

Patience counts

Henry said most people going into a venture like this would start out selling vodka that does not need aging, but they chose to be patient and wait five years before bottling and marketing their product. That meant having their money tied up in the investment for many years before seeing a return.

The business was a good fit for her husband, who grew up in the seed business. Henry said he loves production and is very exacting and particular.

Marketing a liquor product in three states means a lot of paperwork.

“We need to account for every barrel we make," Henry said. "If we would drop a barrel, and it spills, we need to take pictures to prove what happened to it. If we give some away, we need to account for it."

One reason the couple started the venture was to open new possibilities for their sons to eventually take over the family farm. She said their sons were not necessarily interested in continuing the family seed business as it had been when they were growing up on the farm, but this new venture offers possibilities for expansion and adding value to the corn grown on their farm.

The name they chose for their elite product is J Henry Bourbon. The name reflects the names of Henry's father-in-law, who started farming at the Dane location in the 1940s, as well as her husband, Joe, and sons, Joe Jr. and Jack.

Their first batch of 10 barrels was produced in 2009, and the next year they made 70 more barrels. Production increased to 100 barrels in 2011 and 150 barrels in 2012.

The first sales were in 2015 after the product made its debut at Distill America in Madison. In the short time since it hit the market, it has won numerous prestigious awards.

Like the craft beer and wine industries, craft distilling has also been on the rise in recent years. Nationally, the industry could hit 1,000 craft distilleries in the next two years.