Joe Henry has been part of a Dane County farming family since 1946, growing seed corn and soybeans as well as corn, rye and wheat.
But it wasn't until he and his wife and business partner, Liz Henry, took a drive around Kentucky's bourbon country that it struck him: why not turn some of that Wisconsin red corn into whiskey?
"I thought well, we raise the corn, we raise the wheat, we raise the rye," Joe Henry said. "Maybe this could come to some kind of fruition."
That fruition, as Henry put it, is being bottled this week. J. Henry & Sons Bourbon, costing about $40 for a 750 mL bottle, should be on local shelves by mid-April.
Henry's Wisconsin-born whiskey is aged for five years in an old white barn in Dane, about 20 miles north of Madison on the border of Columbia and Dane counties. Traveling north, drivers on Interstate 39-90 can see it from the highway, on the left about two miles north of the exit for DeForest.
J. Henry & Sons joins just a few other Wisconsin bourbons, including those made by Yahara Bay Distillery, Great Lakes Distillery and 45th Parallel in New Richmond, where Paul Werni also distills J. Henry's bourbon.
The bourbon is named for Henry and his two sons, UW-Madison graduate Joe and Waunakee High School senior Jack, with a label, logo and marketing materials designed by Liz. Even though they have just one product so far, the family hopes to open a tasting room by May.
The J. Henry & Sons Wisconsin Straight Bourbon Whiskey made its unofficial debut at Distill America in February, a local celebration of American spirits.
A few weeks later, the elder Joe Henry brought a bottle of his as-yet-unreleased bourbon in to the Capital Times offices to talk about how it was made and why that process took the better part of a decade.
The Capital Times: How did J. Henry & Sons bourbon come about as an idea?
Joe Henry: My wife and I took a trip down to Kentucky probably seven years ago and did the bourbon trail. You tour all the big distilleries ... all the majors are down there.
I thought, we have a picturesque farm, and we raise all the ingredients. That's how the idea sprung.
Most start-up distillers release gin, vodka and white whiskey first. You went straight for a five-year-aged bourbon. Why?
I wanted to bring out the best bourbon that I could. The spirits industry didn't need another vodka or gin, and it doesn't need another too-young-aged bourbon. The market is competitive enough without coming out with something that's not great.
I thought the only chance I've got is coming out right off with something very good or great. I decided that I'd bite the bullet and suck it up for five years. Our model is not to have a distillery at this time, so we didn't have that big investment cost ... and instead build up an inventory of great bourbon and release it at the proper time.
It's going to be surreal when I actually see this bottle on the shelf at a liquor store somewhere.
How much of your farm is set aside to grown grain for bourbon?
It's a very small amount, only 20 acres. It doesn't take much. We're pretty small right now. Even just to get that amount of seed for 20 acres was a huge project because we started with a handful of seed.
Our primary business is raising seed corn. Our home farm is about 410 acres, and then we have another farm that's about 450 acres. We rent a number of acres — we usually farm 1,500 to 2,000 acres, depending on the demand for seed corn.
What kind of corn are you using to make the whiskey?
We're using red corn that was developed in the 1930s by the University of Wisconsin. The reason I chose that is that when I was a kid, that was a seed corn and we used to ship train carloads of it to the east coast, to the farmers out in New York state. I was always struck by how beautiful it was. These wagonloads would come in and we'd unload them into the dryers, these big red ears.
It's an old hybrid, kind of an heirloom actually, that nobody uses it anymore because plant genetics have improved so much over the years.
The university has small amounts of seed they hold onto but to increase that seed enough to raise enough for what I would need to make bourbon was kind of a struggle.
How many bottles are in this first release?
This first release is a couple thousand bottles. It's a 92 proof bourbon. Our plan is to come out, in the next few months or so, with a cask strength bourbon (about 120 proof). For the true connoisseurs, that's a big deal.
The great thing about cask strength is that nothing has been diluted. It's got a great color, a great nose. It's a little hot, but you add a few drops of water and dilute it to your taste and then sip it.
For the cask strength, people will have to commit to a barrel program (buying a single barrel, or about 200 bottles' worth). But we will offer it at our tasting room at the farm. That's the only way you'll be able to get it.
We've got about 500 (barrels). We're going to save some for seven-year-old product, we'll save some for 10-year-old product. We're going to do some unique things with blending for a separate release.
I used to think bourbon could only be made in Kentucky, kind of like Champagne can only come from Champagne in France.
A lot of people have that impression. The rule really is bourbon can only be called bourbon if it's made in the United States.
Bourbon is a special subcategory of whiskey. It has to follow certain rules and regulations. The mashbill (recipe) has to be at least 51 percent corn. Ours is closer to 60-plus, and we have equal parts rye, wheat and barley malt. Most mashbills are corn and wheat or corn and rye; ours is all three. We raise them all.
There are rules about proof in distilling and bottling, and about aging too, right?
It can only be aged in new, white oak, charred barrels. You have to age it for at least two years in order to call it bourbon — which, it isn't any good at two years, but you can still call it bourbon. If you age it for less than four years you have to indicate it on your label.
You have to bottle it at no less than 80 proof.
What makes your bourbon special?
One of the advantages we have is that our aging warehouse is in Wisconsin and it's not temperature controlled at all. It's not insulated. The huge temperature swings we have in Wisconsin, even day to day and certainly season to season, have an effect on the aging process.
In summer, we can have 100-degree days and then the following week we can have highs of 60 or 70. In the winter we can have 20 below zero. That all has an effect on the spirits in the barrel, how they move in and out of that wood. It's a real benefit to us, because not many people age bourbon the way we do.
I just decided to start making our barrels out of Wisconsin white oak. They're making the staves out of them now.
Can you describe how J. Henry & Sons bourbon tastes?
When you smell it, you'll get the traditional bourbon caramel, vanilla nose. As far as taste? Cinnamon, vanilla, caramel, some dried fruit, cherries. The other day I tasted kind of an apricot. You always get the oaky smell.
This batch isn't necessarily going to be the same as our batch two or batch three, what we do later in the year.
As you probably saw at Distill America, Wisconsin distilling has really been on the rise.
I think it's a huge opportunity for the state to have all these businesses established. There's no reason Wisconsin can't have its own spirits trail, along with being the dairy state. We get a lot of tourism.
It could be the next step for some of our craft breweries.
I would love to have someone make a beer out of our bourbon barrels. You could have a drink of our bourbon and a beer aged in one of our barrels as a chaser. I'd like to do that someday.