Experience the Making of Illinois’ First Estate Distillery

While wrapping up the year on two farms and managing a seed corn business, Whiskey Acres takes their harvest from seed to spirit.

Experience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living Magazine

JAMIE WALTER

Everything distilled at Whiskey Acres will be grown on the farm.

Experience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living Magazine

JAMIE WALTER

Nick works full time on the Walter farm.

Experience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living Magazine

JAMIE WALTER

Staff and volunteers pitch in to make apple-flavored whiskey.

Experience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living Magazine

JAMIE WALTER

Nick helps on his parents’ place when he can.

Experience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living Magazine

JAMIE WALTER

"Estate Grown From Seed to Spirit"

Experience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living Magazine

JAMIE WALTER

A rising moon seems to mark the finish line of a long harvest season.

Experience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living Magazine

JAMIE WALTER

Field lunch is everybody’s favorite part of the day. Amanda dishes up the main course.

Experience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living Magazine

JAMIE WALTER

Nick wraps up harvest while preparing to launch the distillery.

Experience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living Magazine

JAMIE WALTER

Nick checks the proof on a batch of bourbon for the Whiskey Acres grand opening in December.

Experience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living Magazine

JAMIE WALTER

Nick greases the combine.

Experience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living Magazine

JAMIE WALTER

Christmas tree hunters Amber, Cindy, Mark, Ashley, Amanda and Nick brave the cold for family tradition.

Experience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living MagazineExperience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living MagazineExperience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living MagazineExperience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living MagazineExperience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living MagazineExperience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living MagazineExperience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living MagazineExperience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living MagazineExperience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living MagazineExperience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living MagazineExperience the Making of Illinois' First Estate Distillery | Country Life Stories | Farm & Ranch Living Magazine

By Nick Nagele Wheaton, Illinois

I’m typing this at my home in Wheaton, Illinois, which sits about 30 miles directly west of Chicago and is as far from a farm town as you can get.
But I’ve just returned from several days at my family’s farm in Sheldon, helping my father, Mark, with harvest. We began in late September, so I’m more than 30 days into the 2014 harvest already. He raises corn and soybeans and has about 50 Black Angus cattle.

I take every opportunity to help Dad with planting, harvest, baling hay, and assorted odds and ends. It’s not where I make my living, but it’s where I find my peace. There’s nothing more satisfying than working the same land with my dad that he worked with his father, and that my grandfather worked with his father. It’s a fifth-generation farm when I’m there.

Sheldon is a town of about 1,000 people 100 miles south of Chicago. I was raised there with two younger sisters. Amber is a graduate of the University of Illinois and will soon be practicing as a physician’s assistant. Ashley is a senior at the U of I and will soon hold dual degrees in animal science and Portuguese. My mother, Cindy, made sure that all of her children walked the straight and narrow and acquired the skills to attend college. I think she succeeded.

I am married to the most patient, supportive, beautiful woman that a farm boy could dream of. Amanda grew up in Willowbrook, Illinois, and attended Miami University in Ohio. I met her at my first job after graduating from the University of Illinois. I traveled the Midwest, promoting and teaching agriculture to high school students. For a brief period of time (Amanda claims it was longer than I do), she was my manager.

She really liked the idea of telling me what to do, so she married me to do it full time. She now works for a public relations firm in Oak Brook and provides counsel on our new business.

In my last job, as a sales rep for Syngenta seeds, I managed a territory that spanned from Chicago to about 50 miles east of Iowa. I left that position when an entrepreneurial opportunity came my way. The idea of opening a distillery was floated to me by Jim and Jamie Walter, who own and operate a farm just south of DeKalb, about 30 miles from Wheaton. Today I am an employee on their farm, an owner and manager of a Golden Harvest and NK seed dealership, and a co-founder of Whiskey Acres Distilling Co.

Whiskey Acres is the first estate distillery in Illinois and one of only a few in the nation. Virtually everything that we will distill we grow on the farm within eyeshot of the distillery. We grow, harvest, clean, mill, mash, distill, age and bottle everything on-site. Our motto is that we control the process “From Seed to Spirit.” Distilling should begin by Christmas, and our historic tasting room—built from rehabbed timber and stone from the farmstead’s original dairy barn—will be open to the public in spring 2015. We hope you’ll come and visit!

WEEK 1: NOVEMBER 1-8
Tractor Cab Date Night

Saturday: It’s a very sad day. I took the day off from farming to attend the funeral for the mother of one of my best friends. She was only 58 years old.
After the services I called my parents and told them I wasn’t ready to see them go any time soon. My mom informed me that she’s planning to live to the age of 120 and move in with me for her last 20 years. I’ll wait awhile before telling Amanda.

Sunday: We always get a late start on Sundays during harvest. I hopped in the tractor at about 11 a.m. and chiseled until midnight. It will be nice to finish harvesting and tillage so I can tackle some honey-dos and start prepping for the distillery opening.

Monday: Early start at harvest today. Amanda took the day off from work and spent the day at the farm. She brought lunch to the field, met with some suppliers and spent a couple hours in the tractor with me. Date night from the tractor cab. We wrapped up harvest around 8, and I headed back to chisel. A flat tire greeted me. I’ll deal with it tomorrow. Early night.

Tuesday: Election Day. I voted early. Harvest went until 7:30. After fixing the flat tire on the tractor, I got back to chiseling and finished around 10:30. Got back to the house just in time to hear our governor-elect’s victory speech.

Wednesday: Started harvest early and chiseled until midnight. In between I spent a lot of time on the phone with seed customers checking on harvest progress. I also talked to our newly hired distributor, as well as our advertising firm, to work on some design updates for our vodka bottle.

Thursday: With a good day today and part of a day tomorrow we’ll finish up harvest. I received a much-awaited phone call from the Illinois Liquor Control Commission to schedule an inspection of the distillery on Monday. If this goes well, we should be just a few weeks away from production. Feeling optimistic, I called our distillery consultant and scheduled him to be here for a week in mid-December to help us with start-up. Fingers crossed!

Friday: Finished harvest! We rolled into the farmstead at around 3 this afternoon. Called my dad, who said he’d finish in about three more hours. It’s been a little better than 45 days of harvesting for me between my dad’s farm and the Walters’. Time for a break.

Saturday: When you’re gone for six weeks, the honey-do list can grow out of control. Thankfully, Amanda is a reasonable woman, so mine wasn’t too bad. I cleaned gutters, mowed leaves and put away patio furniture. Amanda and I went to dinner with my best friend, Sam, and his girlfriend, Mary. It was nice to socialize again.

WEEK 2: NOVEMBER 9-15
We Got Our Permit!

Sunday: Amanda and I drove 20 miles south to meet Amanda’s Grandmother Lynn for church and brunch. At 90 years old, she still lives on her own and drives herself around. Very admirable.

We both got flu shots at the local pharmacy and spent the afternoon relaxing. A much-needed break. I spent some time getting myself organized for tomorrow’s liquor control inspection. I’m nervous because they were vague about what they wanted to see and discuss.

Monday: Up early and to the gym for a swim before heading to the farm. Organized the office that I’ve been absent from for the past several weeks. The liquor inspector came and left us scratching our heads. We passed all of her questions, but there was very little encouragement from her on how long it will take to get our permits.

Tuesday: Ran tillage from 4 a.m. to noon. Headed back home and stopped by the gym for a quick swim. Worked on some paperwork, caught up on farm magazines and went to bed early.

Wednesday: Left the house at 3 a.m. Ran tillage from 4 to noon. Went to the gym for a quick swim. Worked on some paperwork. Sounds a lot like yesterday.
Thursday Left the house at 3 a.m. Ran tillage till 12:30—and finished! Went home and took a quick nap and relaxed. Much to my surprise, found an email from the Illinois Liquor Control Commission with our state distilling permit! Didn’t think there was a chance for this to happen so quickly. Time to get organized for our December start-up!

Friday: Spent the morning entering seed sales into the computer and a few hours doing more distillery paperwork. Also helped polish the still. She really looks like a showpiece.

Amanda and I left to spend the weekend in Champaign and go to the football game with my sisters and parents. Then my mom called and said she was taking Dad to the hospital because he had fallen out of the haymow. We met them at the hospital, where I found him struggling to breathe. A shot of painkillers helped get his breathing under control, and the X-rays determined that he had broken a rib. Doctors sent him home tonight with a prescription for pain meds.

Saturday: Amanda and I spent the day with my sisters at the football game. Missed my parents being there. Illinois lost to Iowa, 30-14. Sure wish the Fighting Illini could put together a better team. Regardless, it’s the family, not the football, that we were really interested in.

WEEK 3: NOVEMBER 16-22
A Post-Harvest Sushi Party?

Sunday: Amanda and I slept in and went to a late church service. Met my former professor and great friend, Del Dahl, for breakfast. Then we drove home and spent the evening relaxing. Dad is doing OK, although I can already hear a hint of stir-craziness in his voice.

Monday: Received a list from our distillery consultant of some final things we need for our start-up, ranging from yeast strains to barrels. Spent the day setting up accounts and shipments.

We have been surprised that the most challenging thing for us to obtain is barrels. The downturn in the housing market a few years back caused several sawmills to slow production. Consequently, air-dried oak is in very limited supply for new barrel customers.

Tuesday: Field trip day. Every step in building the distillery is a steep learning curve. Our electrician is starting work, and he has questions we can’t answer. So we packed up and drove to Galena, Illinois, to tour Blaum Bros. Distilling Co. We spent the entire morning and much of the afternoon getting insights into its distilling business.

I’ve found the craft distilling business to be a lot like farming: If you have questions, just ask. People in this industry have been very helpful and friendly.

Wednesday: Designed and ordered shot glasses for our tasting room. I also worked at finding a source for boxes that we can put our bottles into for distribution.

Thursday: Spent the morning visiting seed customers and the afternoon reviewing the business with my seed rep.

Friday: Delivered lunch to seed customers who are still combining corn. It’s always fun to sit in a combine cab and learn how others have developed their ways of operating. You soon discover that every farmer has his own challenges.

On one farm near a town sprawling with development, we were in four fields in two hours. The field entrances were so narrow that the farmer had to fold the 12-row head down to six rows. And he had to fold down the hopper extensions to get under the power lines. It makes me really appreciate our big, square fields nowhere near town!

Saturday: We had our post-harvest party. Everyone involved in the harvest got together at a local Japanese hibachi and sushi place. It was a lot of fun. About half of us enjoyed the sushi. The other half, not so much.

WEEK 4: NOVEMBER 23-30
A Day to Give Thanks

Sunday: Amanda and I went to church and visited some friends. Made it home and treated today as a day of rest. It’s almost embarrassing to tell you how much rest.

Monday: After a brief warm-up over the weekend, it snowed all day. Only a couple of inches, but the wind blew hard enough to make drifts that my 4×4 truck got stuck in when I left for home.

Tuesday: Worked on lots of little projects. The most frustrating: The USPS assigned us a new mailing address, so we need to change it with banks, vendors, credit-card companies and the government agencies that issued our permits. Changes for the banks, vendors and credit-card companies took less than an hour, but the government changes will take four to eight weeks.

Wednesday: I spent the morning designing and ordering packaging for our bottles, and then spent the early part of the afternoon scheduling seed shipments and confirming customer orders.

Wrapped up work stuff around 4 and headed down to my parents’ farm. We stopped at Grandma Kate’s house for supper. She is 94, and her social calendar could wear out the Kardashians. We really enjoyed supper with most of my dad’s side of the family. Great visit but too short!

Thursday: Up early to help Dad with chores. He’s doing very well, considering his recent broken rib. After chores, back in the house to help with Thanksgiving meal prep.

Grandma Kate, my parents, my two sisters, a friend of my sister’s from Australia, Aunt Janet, Uncle John, Amanda and I made up the chow crew. The Aussie fit right in and had some interesting stories.

She also put the scale of farming into an interesting perspective. She comes from a cattle farm in the Australian Outback. Ten years ago the family managed a herd of approximately 10,000 cows, scattered across 2 million acres! After a decade of drought, that herd has been reduced to 2,500 cows, and the entire farm is going to be sold.

My family’s entire cow/calf herd is grazing on cornstalks in the field that is visible from the kitchen window. I wouldn’t trade!

Friday: Up early with Dad again to do chores. Also helped him repair some fencing, checked on the temp of corn in storage and did a few other chores that he thought better of doing himself.

After chores, we went on our annual Christmas tree hunt. Six adults jammed into my dad’s extended cab truck and drove 45 minutes one way to the Christmas tree farm. It was cold, so we chose and chopped quickly. No arguments.

Amanda and I set up the tree so Dad didn’t have to. Then Amanda, Ashley and I headed into town to the local watering hole to catch up with my high school friends. Great to see them.

Saturday: Helped Dad with chores again, and tried to set things up so he had minimal lifting to do for the next few days. Then it took a while to drag Amanda away from my parents’ new beagle puppy and four friendly kittens. Amanda loves that subcategory of the farm’s livestock herd. And I have to admit, I love playing with them, too. Reminds me of the summers I spent chasing cats around the barn with my sisters.

We stopped by Grandma Kate’s for a quick hug. I always make her house the last stop on my way out of town—sometimes for only five minutes. But that hug from her always makes my trip back home much more enjoyable.

We returned to our house shortly after lunch. Amanda, the slave driver, immediately put me to work decorating the outside of the house. It was almost 55 degrees, so it was very comfortable. But I was secretly hoping for a flash blizzard so I would be forced into the house for a nap. No such luck, but the house looks great.

Sunday: Early church and the realization that today is the first day of Advent and the last day of writing this journal. Time goes by so quickly!

I’m honored to be able to share my hectic life with you, and I’m excited to think about the opportunities and adventures that are ahead for Amanda and me. Wish us luck! And all the best to you, too.

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