We tend to think of Kentucky when Bourbon is mentioned, and this is no accident: the distillers on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail have spent huge sums creating their brand image. While anywhere from 85% to 95% of America’s Bourbon is made in the Bluegrass State, depending on the estimate you believe, the fact is that it can be made anywhere. Having a limestone aquifer as a water source helps, as does having a climate warm enough to mature the whiskey in a reasonable amount of time, but state lines are not a boundary.
Here’s what’s important: to be labelled as Bourbon, a whiskey must be made in the U.S. and composed of at least 51% corn. By law, it must also be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol) and matured in new, charred oak barrels. It should enter the barrel at no more than 125 proof and be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof or 40% alcohol.
In that light, the idea of Bourbon produced in Iowa becomes far less unusual. For starters, the state is corn country. When Jeff Quint established Cedar Ridge in 2005, he drew on that agricultural heritage as well as on the legacy of his grandfather, who made brandy from local ingredients. Quint launched Iowa’s first Bourbon in 2010, in a facility that also happened to be the state’s first legal distillery since Prohibition.
The initial challenge with Cedar Ridge for me wasn’t the geography but the outfit’s multiple focuses. They produce a number of other spirits in addition to Bourbon, and also make a line of wines from hybrid grapes designed to thrive in cold climates. It’s hard to do many things well.
Their Iowa bourbon Whiskey ($40) has a mild tan color and a nose exuding whiffs of honey, spice, vanilla and salted caramel. The spirit is light and soft on entry, with the caramel and spice flavors predominating. In the mid palate, a strong herbal element kicks in and carries onto the finish, mixed with pepper accents and a balancing note of sweetness. Overall, it would be fair to describe it as high-strung and charming. I’m not sure it would stand up in a Manhattan, but it could definitely be a more flavorful substitute for Scotch in cocktails such as a Rob Roy or Rusty Nail.
Cedar Ridge also produces Wheat Whiskey ($40) and Malted Rye ($45) as well as Single Malt Whiskey ($55).
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.