Talking With Mississippi River Distilling’s Co-Owner and -Distiller
By Richard Thomas
Iowa’s Mississippi River Distilling isn’t found near a media-friendly major city, such as New York or Chicago, but they have nonetheless risen to become one of the “Four Kings” of American craft whiskey. Started in 2010 by the Burchett brothers, both of whom jumped from white collar office jobs into the then-nascent micro-distilling sector, they have since become fixtures in the Mid-West craft spirits scene and shown just what can be done with small barrel aging along the way.
Recently I was fortunate enough to ask co-owner and -distiller Ryan Burchett about his experiences in running a thriving Iowa distillery, and about where Mississippi River might be going next.
RT: Mississippi River has been in the distilling business for five years now. What have you learned about whiskey-making in that time?
RB: It’s been a great evolution. Our biggest gains from a manufacturing stand point have been out of public view. But our brewing techniques have improved to a point that we are getting 5 to 6 times the yield form each mash compared to when we started. That means a lot more whiskey being laid down. We’ve added a new mash tank that nearly triples our brewing capacity and just opened up a new barrel storage facility that triples our storage space. So we are putting down a lot more whiskey.
As long as we keep putting down more than we take out, the whiskey is inventory is always getting older and more delicious! We trained in Germany back before we started and have stayed in touch with our friends over there. In June, one of our distillers is headed to Germany to visit distilleries over there while one of our trainers is coming here to spend some time with us and work on some new recipes, increasing our yields and trying some new techniques.
RT: Iowa is often described as the best place on Earth for growing yellow corn, and you do call attention to your local Iowa corn farmers. A lot of small distilleries tout their farm to bottle aspect these days, but do you think your Iowa corn has an impact on your bourbon? Is it the sort of thing you can taste in the new make, or…?
RB: Unless you start getting into other varieties of corn (white corn, etc.) I don’t know that you would notice a huge distinction in yellow #2 corn from Iowa vs. elsewhere in the distillate. But the big thing for us is the freshness and the quality gained by going straight from the farm to our own mill. There have been days when we have literally taken delivery of corn directly off the combine. It’s being milled straight into our mash tank. There are no intermediaries. No treatments. It is truly straight from the farm to your rocks glass and that brings a quality that I do believe is discernible. Each bottle is numbered so you can cross reference your batch notes on our website. There you can see the names of the family farmers who grew the grain and what went into each batch. To me, it’s bigger than terroir. It’s about being a part of the local economy in a very grass roots way. We truly put the family farm into a bottle.
RT: You run a whiskey school, basically a whiskey weekend holiday trip. What kind of people do you get signing up for those classes?
RB: Our whiskey school is geared toward consumers that just really love whiskey and want to experience it from top to bottom. People get to do every part of the process in a day and a half. We mash, distill, barrel, bottle, taste, cook with and of course drink whiskey! It’s been a blast every time we’ve done it. We’ll do our next school in the spring of 2016.
RT: I’ve heard your Four Kings collaboration with Journeyman, FEW and Corsair is back in business, this time with a rye whiskey. I take it the original Four Kings did well then?
RB: Our Four Kings Bourbon collaboration sold out in just a few days last year. We are gearing up to release the rye collaboration on June 25 in Chicago. It’s going to be a blast and it’s an honor to be associated with these three other wonderful distilleries. We are already making plans for another round next year. It’s so cool to be part of such a unique project. The rye whiskey really turned out great.
RT: Speaking of rye, your Cody Road Rye is a 100% rye whiskey. That isn’t the most common rye mashbill, because making an all-rye whiskey isn’t a very straightforward process. Could you tell us about the difficulties in making an all-rye whiskey, say vis-a-vis making your bourbon?
RB: Rye is such a bear in the mash tank. It is high in complex sugars and has a much different protein profile than other traditional brewing grains. The result is that the mash takes a lot more water and results in a thick and sticky mash. In the fermenter and in still, it foams like mad which causes all kinds of production headaches. But we went with a 100% rye mash bill so people could really experience the grain in a new way. Our rye is very clean and fruity with the trademark rye spice lingering behind. If it wasn’t such a beautiful spirit in the end, we would have given up on the 100% mash bill a long time ago. But it is probably my favorite spirit we make because it is so unique.
RT: You share Iowa with another whiskey company that caught a hurricane of bad press this year, Templeton Rye. Now that they have come clean and changed their labeling, do you think they will be able to put all the negative publicity behind them with their fellow Iowans?
RB: Those guys are good friends of ours and have been for a long time. I applaud them for their efforts and wish them nothing but the best. I am confident TR will be around for a long, long time.