Jerry Nelson: South Dakota spirts
It was unexpected to find a bourbon distillery out in the middle of the rolling farmland of eastern South Dakota. A distillery that isn’t merely making “here’s mud in your eye” rotgut. We’re talking about spirits that its creator describes as “upscale” and “boutique.”
My wife and I have been to Kentucky, the undisputed center of the bourbon universe. We toured a few distilleries and learned that the proper way to enjoy bourbon is to sip it slowly, instead of quickly tossing it back like cough syrup. We associated bourbon with picturesque white board fences and Thoroughbred racehorses – each worth approximately as much as an aircraft carrier – grazing placidly in verdant bluegrass pastures.
This stands in stark contrast to the bourbon-making facilities at BlackFork Farms. Amidst fields of corn and soybean stubble, nestled beside a towering grain bin, sits a cozy new tasting room. A distillery is currently being installed in a nearby machine shed. The next farm is about a mile away; the nearest settlement is Brandt, population 106.
Gordon Ommen is the sparkplug behind the first whiskey distillery in Deuel County. At least the first legal one.
“My family has been farming in the western Minnesota and eastern South Dakota area since 1889,” Gordon said. “I’m the fourth generation to operate our family farm.”
Gordon got the inspiration to start a bourbon business in an unusual place.
“About seven years ago, I was bicycling across Europe and stayed at a hotel in Budapest,” he said. “At the end of the day, I went to the hotel’s bar and asked the barman if he could recommend a good whiskey. He brought out a jug of artisanal bourbon that was made in Vermont. It was really good, and a light came on in my head. There I was, halfway around the world, enjoying a bourbon that was made by a small distillery in New England. It occurred to me that there was no reason why we couldn’t do something similar on our farm. It would be unique, and it would be value-added agriculture.”
As his new distillery began to take shape, Gordon hired an outside distiller to make some bourbon using Gordon’s unique recipe. Bourbon has to be made from a mash that contains at least 51% corn. Gordon has taken things in a new direction by using a very traditional corn, albeit with a distinctive twist.
“We use smoked Native American corn to make our bourbon,” Gordon said.
Why flint corn? And how does one smoke grain?
“We have bred all of the character out of #2 yellow corn,” Gordon said. “Native American corn has more germ and a rich, nuanced flavor profile. We have smoked our corn by hooking up a floor dryer fan to a biscuit smoker. We then pushed the smoke up through the bottom of a grain tote.”
One of your whiskeys includes oats. Where do you source your grains?
“We grow all of our grain on this farm. This includes a German rye that has exceptionally large kernels and an extremely robust flavor. After our distillery is completed this summer, we will do everything right here, from grain to glass.”
You already have a quantity of pre-release spirits on hand. Is there anything unique about your aging process?
“Our bourbon is aged for at least four years and some of it is double-oaked,” Gordon said. “This involves an initial aging in an oak barrel, then transferring the bourbon to a second cask for further aging. One our bourbons is aged in Mongolian oak. After we ramp up to full production, we might convert a steel grain bin that my dad built in the 1970s into an aging room. The big temperature swings that take place in the bin should enhance the aging process.”
Tell me about the new equipment that’s being installed.
“We have hired an Italian company to build a pair of customized copper stills for us. In Italy, every still is given a name. The names of two of my ancestors will be engraved on our new stills.”
The price point of your bourbon might seem a tad steep for some.
“Our bourbons are designed to be sipped neat at room temperature or with a single ice cube. If you prefer to have a mixed drink, you should buy a cheap whiskey.
“We want our bourbon to be similar to a successful pheasant hunt. We want it to be both a destination and an experience, something to be savored and enjoyed with friends.”
Who knows? The day may come when a bartender in Budapest recommends an artisanal bourbon that sprang from the prairies of eastern South Dakota.