Sourcing Grains for Craft Distilled Spirits

two men standing at bag with grains in their palm

By: Becky Garrison

According to Michael Swanson, co-founder, farmer and distiller for Far North Spirits (Hallock, Minnesota), craft distillers have an excellent opportunity to highlight the difference between a crop grown for flavor compared to a crop grown solely for yield. This distinction affords them unique opportunities to explore how to source the specific grains that will produce a spirit with a particular desired flavor profile.

  Swanson cites rye as an example, as that’s the primary grain he utilizes in his whiskeys, and he observed how this scenario plays out similarly to many crops. As he observes, historically and across multiple countries, winter rye has been grown and sold as a commodity. There are exceptions to this, particularly in pre-prohibition Pennsylvania, where rye was grown specifically for use by the many distilleries across the state. But for the most part, rye was and still is treated as a commodity. However, when they started growing rye to distill into whiskey, they realized that their particular variety had a distinctive flavor profile.

  So, Swanson and his team conducted a three-year crop research study that was the first of its kind. In this study, they grew 15 different varieties of rye and then milled-mashed-fermented-distilled them individually. From this, they could determine that all other things are equal, the variety of rye alone affects the flavor of the whiskey. Also, after barrel aging the whiskey, they found that the aging process amplified the differences in flavor between the varieties. In particular, the open-pollinated varieties showed a much broader flavor spectrum than the hybrid varieties.

  Despite the increase in flavor in the open-pollinated varieties, the hybrid varieties have been quickly gaining acreage across the U.S., Canada and Europe because of their much higher yields. These high yields enable farmers to increase their gross revenue to the point that growing hybrid rye can be almost as profitable as a corn/soybean rotation, with much lower input costs. But growing the majority of open-pollinated varieties at this price point isn’t profitable. Hence, mass producers of whiskey aren’t willing to pay more for open-pollinated rye due to the massive number of bushels that they consume in a year.

Talking About Terroir

  Swanson has observed that craft producers who focus on producing products based on flavor rather than yield are willing to pay more for grains with a broader spectrum of flavor. To this end, craft distillers have started conversations about terroir that are very similar to defining a wine by taking into account factors such as the vineyard where the grapes came from and the AVA where this vineyard is located. Simply put, place matters, with regional differences emerging among whiskeys produced by craft distillers based on where the grains are grown.

  Miles Munroe, master blender for the Portland, Oregon-based Westward Whiskey, views barley similar to how a winemaker considers different wine styles, the different grape varietals and the various climates in which they’re grown.

  “We know that barley types, soil, and climate bring diversity and complex flavors to whiskey. The shape of our custom pot stills and the way we approach distillation allows for the most amount of grain character to come through, so we’re focused on high-quality barley that has a sense of place,” he reflects.

  In recent years, the Skagit Valley in Western Washington State, situated along the same latitude as the Scottish Highlands, has emerged as a major agricultural hub. This distinction led to Copperworks Distilling Company (Seattle, Washington), Westland Distillery (Seattle, Washington) and Westward Whiskey emerging as leading players in the evolution of the creation of American Single Malt as a new spirits category.

Sourcing from Malthouses or Direct to Farmers

  Except for a select number of distilleries that malt their grains in-house, distillers work with a malt house to source and then malt the grains according to the distiller’s particular specifications for a given spirit. These malt houses can ensure that the grain meets minimum specifications so that it can be malted.

  Some craft distillers follow the model of distilleries like Westward Whiskey, where they work with malt houses that source local barley, which gives their spirits a sense of where the grain is from. Miles Munroe, master blender for Westward, chooses two-row barley because it meets the standards of what craft brewers also expect. So, they select their malt houses with these criteria in mind.

  Others, like Tyler Pederson, master distiller at Westland Distilling, work with a network of local malt houses and brokers to source their malted barley. These partners work with regional farmers to select and procure the raw barley they malt to their specifications. Pederson describes this process, “It’s a very involved effort, and we collaborate with everyone throughout our supply chain, even going so far as funding a barley breeding program to develop new varieties for the whiskey industry.”

  Westland’s Colere editions were created specifically to reflect how different varieties of barley offer different flavors. To date, they’ve released three expressions: Colere #1, made with Alba, #2, made with Talisman and their current expression and #3, made with Pilot. How Westland sources its grains was one contributing factor to its achieving B-Corp Certification in 2024.

  A small but growing number of distillers like Far North Spirits purchase their grains directly from the farmer. According to Jason Parker, co-founder of Copperworks Distilling Company, “This represents a new way of doing business where a customer is getting better flavor, sometimes at the expense of a good yield.” He cites his experience sourcing a barley variety named Alba as an example. After they created a delicious whiskey using Alba, they found their local malt house had encouraged their supplying farmers to quit growing it because they found another barley that was easier to malt and produced a higher yield. But it didn’t taste like Alba, and now the flavor it produced is no longer possible to produce.

  To convince farmers to grow specialty grains like Alba that may yield fewer bushels per acre or perform less efficiently in the malthouse, they put the word out to farmers that they were willing to pay the farmers per acre instead of per bushel. Once they contract with farmers to bill by the user rather than the bushel, thereby sharing the risk with the distillery of planting grains for flavor rather than yield, they will contract with a local malt house, such as Link Foods, to malt the barley.

  Before contacting farmers, Swanson recommends doing research into the specific varieties of grains that grow best in one’s particular area. This knowledge will help ensure that the farmer can grow this particular grain variety in a large enough quantity without sacrificing quality such that the farmer can make a profit and the distiller can produce a quality spirit.

  Gabe Toth, lead distiller for The Family Jones (Loveland, Colorado), describes how working with Olander Farms/Root Shoot Malting, which is less than five miles from their production distillery, affords them multiple opportunities. “We can develop local, unique flavor, keep our dollars local and support local businesses. We can also reduce our supply chain footprint, reducing both our vulnerability to disruption and our carbon usage via transit and work directly with our farmers to experiment with new grain varietals. This helps us support on-farm sustainability initiatives or collaborate on other projects that are a result of having direct relationships and even friendships with them.”

Challenges in Sourcing Grain Directly from Farmers

  In Toth’s estimation, price is probably the major factor working against this approach, followed by uniformity. As he reflects, “Commodity agriculture over the last several decades has increasingly squeezed small farmers out of the market, and the relatively small farms we work with don’t have the economies of scale to leverage for competitive pricing. Local grain can also be more prone to variability compared to a large processor that can over-contract and be more selective or blend away variation.”

  However, Parker reminds craft distillers that focus on making value-priced whiskeys, as opposed to flavor-driven whiskeys, that they can’t compete with the big producers on price. Big companies have economies of scale and contracts that are not available to craft distilleries. “So, you might as well chase the one thing you can control, which is good, unique flavor. To do that, you probably don’t want to be putting the cheapest ingredients in but rather use grains and other products that make a real flavor difference.”

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