Whiskey from the Heartland

Jeff and Murphy Quint know as a state, Iowa is perceived as uncool. The father and son duo also know it contains pockets of coolness. They’re aware of this because they’re responsible for Cedar Ridge Whiskey, one of the deepest reservoirs of hipness to be found in the Hawkeye State.

“We don’t overplay the Iowa card when we market our whiskeys, but the fact that we do come from Iowa does have a cool kind of cachet on its own,” states Murphy, Cedar Ridge’s Director of Wholesale Business Development. “It’s the kind of coolness that probably wouldn’t exist if we weren’t producing whiskey in a fly-over state.”

The cool vibe stemming from the whiskeys, ryes, and bourbons Cedar Ridge produces from their Swisher, Iowa facility is indeed hip, but it’s not hipster like some small-batch American whiskeys. It’s simply an organic by-product of a familial passion spanning generations and continents. The Quints are ninth- and tenth-generation farmers and fermenters whose adult beverage-making heritage traces to Germany; specifically, the tiny Mosel River-hugging city of Wintrich (population: 954). The family established the Weingut Quint winery there in the early 1700s, and it’s still one of the Mosel region’s most respected viticultural establishments. “Doing what we’re doing at Cedar Ridge is in our blood and hearts,” explains Jeff, a former CPA who heeded his lineage’s call when he and his wife Laurie opened Cedar Ridge in 2005. “We’re very lucky we get to act on our passion. Normally, people can’t.”

Cedar Ridge’s Facility in Swisher, Iowa

He’s doing his bloodline proud – not to mention the spirits industry. The American Distilling Institute named Cedar Ridge “Distillery of the Year” this past April, and their Single Malt Whiskey hauled in “Best American Craft Whiskey” honors – not mention a double gold medal – at last year’s prestigious New York World Spirits Competition. Jeff states that the secret to their award-winning success stems from their unique distillation process, which includes distilling at a higher proof and aging in non-temperature controlled barns, a process that relies heavily on Iowa’s natural temperature fluctuations.  According to Murphy, these tactics allow them to infuse the state’s personality into each bottle. “Our whiskeys represent Iowa well,” he states. “They’re not loud, harsh, or rude. They’re mellow, approachable, and inviting, like your average Iowa resident.”

While passion, heritage, and state pride provide inspiration, the actual fuel for their spirits-making process comes from an abundant local source: corn. Contrary to what the University of Nebraska’s nickname may lead you to believe, Iowa is the king of U.S. corn production. In 2016 alone, the state produced a whopping 2.7 billion bushels of the grain. Jeff’s attached to this massive production by proxy, in a way that indirectly connects Cedar Ridge to his farming roots. “My wife’s family still farm 800 acres, and that’s where we get our corn to make our whiskey,” he says.

Cedar Ridge relies heavily on Iowa’s weather for their aging process. (Cliff Jette/SourceMedia Group)

To an Iowa resident like Jeff, using Iowa’s corn to make whiskey is only logical, and its ubiquitous nature was a big reason he wanted to make the spirit in the state. Those outside Iowa’s borders may not readily make this link, which is something the distillery’s staff is prepared to handle. “It’s important that we educate our customers on why a whiskey from Iowa makes sense,” Jeff explains. “Bourbon whiskey is made from corn, and since Iowa’s the leading producer of corn in the country, there’s no real disconnect between what the state’s known for and what we’re doing here.”

Murphy also admits they also encounter whiskey aficionados that approach Cedar Ridge’s products with a cynical eye, thanks in part to Daily Beast’s infamous 2014 article on craft distillery production. “Almost every day, we get people asking us if Cedar Ridge is actually made in Iowa or if we get our bourbon from Indiana,” he says. “Some will even question whether or not what we’re making is bourbon. These questions don’t bother us in the least, though. We always see them as an educational opportunity.”

They have plenty of opportunity to teach the masses. About 85,000 visitors swing by their facility every year, and their grounds have become a hot spot for wedding ceremonies. And as more whiskey lovers become aware of Cedar Ridge’s story and their spirits’ drinkable excellence, the temptation to expand their production to reach the ever-growing throng of fans seems poised to loom larger every year. However, the Quints firmly state their desire with Cedar Ridge is to keep things small. “We want to remain craft and 100% privately owned,” Murphy states. “Our artistic vision would be interfered with the minute we sell out to someone, and that makes us uncomfortable. You can’t compromise on quality.”

Spoken like a true Iowan.