- Associated Press - Sunday, May 7, 2017

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Rich Eggers uses the word “allegedly” a lot.

He’s careful when talking about his whiskey-making days before he had a license to do so.

And he’s even more evasive when talking about certain acquaintances who may or may not carry on Carroll County’s Prohibition-era tradition of making and selling bootleg whiskey.

Don’t get Eggers wrong, he isn’t ashamed of any of this. It as part of the area’s rich history that serves as the inspiration for his Iowa Legendary Rye.

“This is the purest whiskey on the market,” Eggers told The Des Moines Register (https://dmreg.co/2qJQ2V7 ). “These were damn good people. They were not criminals. I want to honor that and the way these people cooked moonshine.”

To be clear, Eggers said he isn’t interested in concocting some faux connection between his product and that made a century ago in Carroll County’s barns and fields. He learned the trade from those who still operate outside the law.

And he said his rye recipe comes directly from Lorine Sextro, who survived the Great Depression thanks to the art and science of bootlegging.

It’s a not-so-subtle dig at Carroll County’s other rye maker, Templeton Rye, which has marketed its brand as having Prohibition-era bootleg roots. Templeton Rye is said to have been enjoyed by Chicago gangster Al Capone before the whiskey was resurrected legally in 2006.

Eggers bristled at the mention of Templeton Rye. And not only because Templeton Rye actually is made in an Indiana distillery, a controversy that culminated in consumer lawsuits and a pledge to bring distilling Templeton Rye’s home to Templeton.

“Al Capone was a criminal. They should have shot him and left him in the street,” Eggers said. “These people were good people. They did this to feed their families and to pay for their farms.”

But Eggers is more interested in talking about his craft, which he learned years ago in a barn.

Who taught him? He’s not telling.

In his distillery, he approaches the four stainless steel stills and blue plastic mash barrels with an altar boy’s reverence. He’s got a story for the antique mash bucket and each rusty antique farm implement that decorates the tasting and retail space.

And he’s downright giddy pouring up tasters of his unaged white rye whiskey and his caramel-colored aged rye, which has sat around in 15-gallon white oak barrels for at least two years.

Unlike other whiskeys distilled from a malted mash or with enzymes, Eggers said his operation is totally old-school. His mash has only four ingredients: rye cereal, sugar, water and yeast.

“It’s a lost art,” he said. “The way they made whiskey years ago was just like I’m doing. I’ve got the original recipe here.”

Eggers opened his distillery in 2014 after his wife, Lisa Chase, gave him an ultimatum: make whiskey legally - or don’t come home.

He came home and opened the small distillery on Main Street in Carroll, selling white whiskey in 2014. His aged rye hit store shelves last year.

The operation is nothing like the scale of Templeton Rye, which enjoys coast-to-coast distribution.

But Iowa Legendary Rye’s small scale is an asset, not a roadblock, said Lew Bryson, a longtime author and journalist covering the beer and spirits industries.

Bryson thinks the brand runs the risk of looking like a “copycat.” But he said it has a lot going for it.

Rye’s reputation is on the rise, having come a long way from the days when it was mocked in cartoons. And consumers continue to migrate to craft distilleries and locally produced spirits.

Especially those with an interesting backstory.

“If I were them I would lean hard on that story,” Bryson said.

Iowa Legendary Rye has an advantage that many other ryes lack, a traceable origin and a locally made product.

“There are a lot of ryes, not the majority of them, but there are a lot that are currently masquerading,” Bryson said. “They either don’t say where they’re actually made or they shade it.”

Iowa Legendary Rye doesn’t have the issue.

“They’re making it in Carroll County, so that I think adds a lot to it,” said Bryce Bauer, who authored the book “Gentlemen Bootleggers: The True Story of Templeton Rye, Prohibition, and a Small Town in Cahoots.”

Bootleggers during Prohibition often used sugar to produce their whiskey, a practice that largely was abandoned once production became legal again, Bauer said.

“It’s really what a lot of that stuff was,” he said, “so it’s really bringing back the authenticity.”

Iowa Legendary Rye has struggled to gain out-of-state distribution, although it is making inroads with the help of Hy-Vee stores in Iowa.

Some potential buyers have confused them with Templeton Rye.

“It’s just a matter of making sure people understand what they’re buying,” Chase said. “If you want something that’s truly a homemade small batch, that’s us.”

To some degree, the confusion is expected: the couple views Templeton-area ryes as more of a genre because of the many people who once bootlegged in the region. At one point, hundreds of whiskey-makers were distilling around the area, Eggers said.

“There were many Templeton Rye recipes,” he said. “Some of them don’t even have rye in them.”

In a statement to the Register, Templeton Rye co-founder Keith Kerkhoff said the company “wishes success to the entire Iowa distilling industry.”

Changes to Iowa alcohol laws will boost further development of Iowa distilleries, he said, in the way of capital investments, job creation and rural tourism spending. Iowa legislators recently approved changes that would allow distillers to mix cocktails and pour drinks for their patrons.

“Templeton Rye intends to do its part, and we recently celebrated the groundbreaking of our $26 million distillery in Templeton with more than 300 local residents, employees and loyal customers,” Kerkhoff’s statement said.

When Phil Sextro heard that the makers of Iowa Legendary Rye were using his mother’s Prohibition-era recipe, he had to see for himself.

“I compared the recipe that I had and it was exactly right, including the size of bucket my mother used to do the mash,” Sextro said. “Everything that they’re doing is basically exactly as my mother did it.”

Sextro is a retired podiatrist. His mother began making whiskey when she was pregnant with his sister, who’s now 82.

While it was hush-hush during Prohibition, later in life his mother proudly told the tale of cooking 300 gallons a night.

“And she would tell anybody who knew here that, yeah, during the bad times we were cooking whiskey,” Sextro said. “It’s how they saved their farm.”

At the height of production, the family was shipping whiskey to Kansas City, Chicago and Denver. And Sextro says his mother, who died in 2006 at the age of 95, never got caught bootlegging.

After he visited the distillery in Carroll, Sextro left pleased that they were honoring his mother’s legacy. And though he may be partial, he can’t complain about the taste.

“I like it,” he said. “In fact, I bought a case of it to bring back to show my kids what Grandma’s whiskey tastes like.”

___

Information from: The Des Moines Register, https://www.desmoinesregister.com


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