J. Henry & Sons
We were recently passing through Central Wisconsin after visiting family. I mentioned to my wife that we could weave in a quick farm-to-bottle distillery tour on this blustery day. "Of course there's a distillery on the way", she said with a sly wink. I enjoyed their bourbon before; now it was time to take in the entire story at J. Henry & Sons.
Three Generations of Growers
Three generations have called the 900-acre farm that forms the core of the operations home in Dane, Wisconsin, just a short drive north of Madison. J. Henry & Sons has been receiving a good amount of positive press of late, and we wanted to soak it all in.
The tour begins in the farmhouse that had served as the family's residence for many years. Today, it serves as a tasting room, cocktail bar, and gift shop. Our bartender-tour guide was a master of multitasking as she whipped up signature bourbon cocktails for guests to enjoy as they walked around the property and dished up the history of the family business without a misstep. Cocktails can be a little sweet for my palate, but if they strike yours, be certain to indulge in the Old Fashioneds offered both unsmoked or smoked with a variety of woods (the cherrywood smelled incredible).
We learned that since 1946, the Henry family had been operating this crop and dairy farm. During the farm crisis of the 1980s, patriarch Joe Henry and wife Liz wondered if they could continue the family business. Making the tough decision, they each took off-farm jobs to help save the family farm. They also began seed operations - growing seed for other growers. The results of their hard work and determination didn't come overnight, but the sound business decisions they made have helped to ensure the farm can remain in the family and the seed corn business remains a core part of operations.
Not unlike farmers of the nineteenth century, they mulled the idea of a value-added product and taking some of their grain crops and turning them into their own product. The corn, wheat, and rye used in their bourbons are all grown onsite; the malted barley comes from northern Wisconsin, so the product can be called an all-Wisconsin bourbon. The corn, in fact, is an heirloom red corn that was developed at the University of Wisconsin 1939 and was grown by Joe's father more than 80 years ago.
Once we've learned a little about the family and the bourbons produced, it's time to check out the operations onsite. You won't find, mashing, distilling, or bottling at the farmstead - only barreling and aging. Our guide shared that a barn has been earmarked for bottling installation in the near future. Distilling equipment is waiting, as well, as the family is striving to maintain a "cash operation" and avoid sinking "seven-figures" for the necessary Vendome stills.
That would appear to be a sound, Midwestern, frugal philosophy. In the meantime, distillation takes place at 45th Parallel Distillery in New Richmond, Wisconsin. There, the distillate is shipped back to the farmstead, placed in barrels with a #3 char and allowed to age in the former dairy barn - now converted to a modern-day rick house storing about 500 barrels. A second barn had been converted into a warehouse to help meet rising demand.
Mother Nature provides the rest over five successive Wisconsin summers and winters. That is an important point to make. Kudos to the Henry family and others, such as Whiskey Acres, Wilderness Trail, and New Riff, who, unlike many smaller craft distillers, are not rushing products to market. Like our guide, I'm looking forward to the day when this family-owned distillery can begin to distill their own product onsite.
At the tasting, we sampled the following bourbons: flagship J. Henry & Sons Straight Bourbon, Patton Road Reserve, and La Flamme Reserve, with all of these sharing a common mash bill of 60% heirloom red corn, 14% wheat, 14% rye, and 12% malted barley.
J. Henry & Sons Straight Bourbon: The four grains provide for a soft and gentle bourbon, corn-forward, though plenty of vanilla and a cherry nougat are present. There are layers of flavor in this 5-year-old bourbon 92-proof bourbon, which ends with a medium-long finish of vanilla, oak char, and spice.
Patton Road Reserve: This 120-proof cask strength expression had been newly added to the lineup when we visited. It bears the same mash bill as their flagship bourbon and has been aged for 5 years. While I was expecting plenty of heat from this one, I was surprised (in a good way) with warm corn pudding, vanilla, and even some cocoa notes on the back of the palate. The finish was similar to that of their flagship expression, though a tad sweeter.
La Flamme Reserve: Rounding out our sampling was their newest, limited release - their flagship product finished in armagnac (brandy) barrels. This copper-color bourbon was full of cinnamon apple pie notes to compliment the cornbread and vanilla sweetness. It was rich with baked fruit notes balanced with cinnamon red hot candy and oak. My wife and I agreed on this unique expression and snagged a bottle to add to the collection.
I do enjoy "buying local" and supporting small businesses when their product is a solid one. J. Henry & Sons did not disappoint. While not the most traditional distilling experience, I raise my glass to this Midwestern producer who is producing a unique product with a unique flavor profile. I look forward to touring again as they seek to expand operations and their lineup.