- Associated Press - Saturday, April 9, 2016

DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) - If things had gone down differently, Davenport could have been the whiskey capitol of the world.

That’s what Frank Hurtte tells the Quad-City Times (https://bit.ly/25NkrSz ), anyway.

“If you think about our agriculture here and use some imagination and some common sense, Iowa should be Kentucky in terms of whiskey,” said Hurtte, a business consultant who has been researching Davenport and whiskey for more than a decade. “Davenport was the place for whiskey at one point, but it’s not the mecca it could’ve been.”

But it might be getting a second chance.

More than a century after Prohibition stunted the could-be boom, Davenport-style whiskey is making a comeback thanks to Artisan Grain Distillery.

Two years ago, Allen Jarosz started making rum, moonshine and unaged whiskey under the name Artisan Grain. Some products already are on the shelves at bars around the Quad-Cities and Hy-Vee stores, and you can sample the spirits most days if you walk in for a tour.

And it’s only the beginning, Jarosz says.

“Davenport whiskey is unlike any other kind,” he said. It’s all about the locally grown corn and grain. And it’s all about the natural Davenport yeast making its way into the open vats in each batch.

“There are shortcuts for whiskey, but I don’t use them. This is the real thing,” he said. “I’m thinking long-term, so I don’t want to be really loud about what I’m doing. I want the anticipation to kind of build a little bit.”

For more than 15 years, Jarosz and his wife, Sarah, have operated Davenport Tractor, which manufactures parts for the antique John Deere tractor line, out of their storefront on 2nd Street.

Jarosz, who owns more than 100 acres of land near Milan, used to think there was nothing more true to his Iowa roots than John Deere tractors. Until he found out about whiskey.

And as he watched restaurants open and craft breweries pop up and industrial buildings turn into lofts, he felt the itch to do more with his space.

“We had a great location, but you don’t just walk by my shop and want to look at tractor parts,” he said. “It doesn’t always grab attention, so I started to think about what would grab attention.”

His mind quickly went to his go-to drink of choice.

“In my down time, I want a really good whiskey,” he said. “So something inside me said to follow that passion and to see if I not just enjoy whiskey, but create it.”

He didn’t learn the ropes overnight. Jarosz took classes at Moonshine University in Louisville, Ky., read dozens of books, watched YouTube videos and made trips to distilleries around the country. But he didn’t realize how much local history was on his side until he teamed up with Hurtte.

“There were so many stories of how this area was tied to whiskey and bourbon and rum,” he said. “It was a lot, and I was kind of like, who else knows about this?”

He even found a tangible sample of those stories - he dug up a 100-year-old bottle buried under his property while renovating his space.

“This craft whiskey thing is really a movement that’s connecting to our past,” Hurtte said.

Now, Jarosz, who is in his 60s, spends most days with his chemist hat on - tinkering with the kettle, a water silo, the still and fermenters. From start to finish, the stilling process takes roughly two weeks and ends with about 50 gallons of finished product. He then lets the liquids age in wooden barrels for varying stretches of time. Moonshine could be ready in a few weeks or months, while some of his rums age for a year. His first batches of bourbon won’t be ready for another two years.

“I call the batches my kids, because every single day, I walk in and check on my kids,” Jarosz said. “You’re always checking on it to see how it’s coming along, but you know it takes time. You have to be patient.”

As far as the craft whiskey movement goes, it’s all about timing, according to Ryan Burchett, who opened Mississippi River Distilling Co. in LeClaire with his brother about five years ago.

Back then, there were about 500 micro-distilleries around the country. Today, he says there’s probably more than 1,000, and there are nine listed in Iowa.

“It’s just growing exponentially,” Burchett said. “It’s possible because the craft beer industry paved the way. You want quality in your own backyard, so you seek it out.”

While Burchett is a few years ahead of Jarosz in terms of aged products, he can tell there’s wide potential for both of them.

“Whiskey is where our market is in Iowa above any other liquor,” Burchett said. “There’s nothing super interesting about vodka, and you don’t think of Iowa when you think of wine.”

But to make whiskey, you need good grain. And you need corn. Burchett makes sure to get his ingredients from places within 25 miles of the distillery.

“Those are our native crops, so it’s almost obvious,” he said. “We have the finest ingredients in our backyard, and it means something more because of that.”

And the distillery is already starting to get recognition. It distributes to 26 states and three foreign countries. Cody Road Bourbon is one of the newest bourbons around, but it’s already being talked about and cracking national lists.

But at both distilleries, there are challenges to overcome. Current state laws won’t allow them to sell cocktails or samples of their products in house, so Burchett and Jarosz can’t host regular tastings or events. Also, as the law stands, they can sell only two bottles per customer per day.

“That’s something we’ve been fighting, and it seems like we’ve made a lot of headway,” Burchett said, noting that there should be a decision in April from state Legislature. “We want to be a place where people can just hang out like a regular bar.”

Burchett and Jarosz know it’s a long road ahead. But to them, whiskey is something that already has stood the test of time.

“Whiskey is a waiting game,” Jarosz said. “We’ve waited almost a century for this to come back, so I’ll keep waiting. I think a big moment is on its way.”


Information from: Quad-City Times, https://www.qctimes.com

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