Templeton Rye of Templeton, Iowa

Carmella Schultes

Carmella Schultes

You know Al Capone only drank the good stuff.

His whiskey of choice was Templeton Rye, a flavorful, smooth whiskey made by the enterprising farmers of Templeton, Iowa, that has finally become legitimate after nearly a century of production on the sly.

The story of Templeton, pop. 350, and its whiskey-making farmers began with homemade stills during the post-World War I Depression and has evolved into a thriving business owned by Scott Bush, 34, a Templeton-area native who was determined to bring the bootleg booze — and its history — to the masses.

“It saved the farm back during Prohibition,” Bush says.

Times weren’t great when Prohibition began. The Roaring Twenties have an image of speakeasy-fueled, “Gatsby” mayhem, but in the Midwest it was struggle as usual. Farmers were doing all they could to feed their families.

“Rye was sort of the last grain on the farm,” Bush says. “Back then, there was a lot more sustainable farming going on where they wouldn’t let anything go to waste. If there wasn’t a market for a crop, they would find something to do with it.”

Some Templeton farmers started experimenting with whiskey. They were pretty good at it, and their reputation spread.

That’s when Capone came in. Good liquor during prohibition was hard to find — speakeasies were deathtraps where homemade, bathtub booze could render drinkers paralyzed or even dead. So for those who could afford its $5.50 per gallon cost ($75 in today’s dollars), Templeton Rye was a good drink made from clean ingredients.

“If you had the means, you would drink Templeton Rye and you could be assured that you were getting the highest quality,” Bush says.

One Templeton-area native, Ron Hodne, tells of driving a truck through Chicago and running into an old-timer who, learning Hodne was from Iowa, told him he used to run Templeton Rye for Capone.

“These farmers from Western Iowa refused to cut corners and continued to make their product with a lot of pride and a lot of care,” Bush says. “When the Capone gang got ahold of it, it really because famous and was known as the best whiskey in the house across the country.”

Bush adds, “They say that there was 10 truckloads a week heading from Templeton to Chicago.”

Carmella Schultes

Carmella Schultes

Prohibition ended in 1933 but not for the Templeton farmers, who continued production in small, illegal batches for decades until Bush became determined to resurrect the whiskey legally. Bush’s great-grandfather, Frank, made Templeton Rye in his farm still, and his grandfather told him stories about growing up with the Rye. In 2005, after Bush struggled to finally procure the recipe from reluctant locals, the whiskey was rolled out to the public.

But this story seems fantastic. Clean-cut Midwesterners like Iowans just don’t break the law running booze.

When you’re dirt poor, though, feeding your kids comes first.

“The one thing that folks around here value more than law is their family,” says Bush. “My grandpa would say, ‘I don’t think younger generations have any understanding of how tough it was back then.’ It got pretty desperate for a way to feed people.

“Also, from day one, people looked at Prohibition as kind of a joke. It was one of those laws that people thought, common-sense-wise, didn’t make a lot of sense.”

But it was still illegal, and these farmers weren’t hard-boiled gangsters, either.

“It was shameful to be caught or busted,” says Bush. “There are still folks out there who won’t talk to us about those stories because they’re still ashamed that their great-grandfather got nabbed by the police.”

At its height, pretty much everybody in Templeton was involved in some way with the trade. But since the recipe wasn’t exactly carved in stone on the county courthouse, Bush asked for help from a friend, Keith Kerkhoff, whose grandfather, Alphonse, also had a still. Piecing together family lore and interviews with old-timers, they unearthed Alphonse Kerkhoff’s recipe for Templeton Rye.

“There’s not a lot of documentation because it was always illegal,” Bush says. “So there’s a lot of really true, good, unique history of Iowa, the Midwest, and prohibition that’s going to die if we don’t go out and tell these stories.”

Like, what happened when the law came calling?

“Whenever the feds came to town, they would have to grab the local sheriff,” says Bush. “They [the bootleggers] would make the woman at the phone company make line calls to let them know they were coming.”

And the sheriff wasn’t selling anybody out. Whenever the feds were near he made sure to wear a hat — a signal for the farmers.

“The sheriff never wore a hat unless the feds were in town,” Bush says. “The Kerkhoff family… Alphonse got busted twice.”

Nobody’s getting busted today. A burgeoning craft whiskey movement, much like the craft beer explosion of the past 20 years, is hoping to carve a niche into the mass-produced liquor market and prove that good whiskey doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky, Ireland, or Scotland. Death’s Door produces whiskey in Door County, Wisconsin; McCarthy’s is making single malt in Oregon; Tuthilltown Spirits of New York churns out rye, single malt whiskeys, and bourbon.

“It kind of falls in the with the whole organic / local thing,” Bush says. “It’s been really neat — it’s such a new market.

“It’s small, a, and b, it’s cool because it’s a very open endeavor between craft distillers. If you added up all our revenue we’d be less than one percent of Jack Daniels. We’re really not competing with one another, we’re competing with the big guys.”

Templeton Rye, a single-malt, single-barrel rye, is made from a mash of more than 90 percent rye. (To be certified rye, a whiskey’s mash must contain at least 51 percent rye). It is aged more than four years in charred new white-oak barrels. The fledgling company has had trouble keeping up with pent-up demand due to the four-year aging process — a recent Des Moines Register story detailed liquor distributors’ frustration with the low supply.

Carmella Schultes

Carmella Schultes

In June 2008, Templeton Rye was named Best Overall Whiskey out of more than 4,000 entries at the Los Angeles Wine and Spirits Competition and won a gold medal in March at the San Francisco World Spirits Tasting. It was also named the best whiskey under 10 years old by Whiskey Bible.

“Rye has this huge character,” Bush says. “The knock on rye is that sometimes they’re a little bit harsh. It’s all about balance. We feel that we have a ton of character on the front, and Templeton has always been known for its smooth finish, and I think that’s where a lot of our success has come from.”

Drink it with just a couple of ice cubes. Or it makes a terrific Manhattan, with just bitters, sweet vermouth, and a cherry.

“You start adding sugar, fruit juice to spirit, it can get overpowered quite easily,” Bush says. “That’s one of the big reasons rye whiskey is getting so popular again.”

But the biggest question: When will Templeton Rye be available in Minnesota? “Minnesota will be our next market,” says Bush, who added that he’s heard from a lot of Minnesotans with their own Templeton Rye stories.

But expansion will take time. As a nascent distillery, it’s difficult to gauge public reaction to your product. If you make too much and nobody buys it, there’s a glut. If you don’t anticipate extraordinary demand — like that for Templeton Rye — it takes awhile to react and beef up supplies.

“There’s a reason you don’t see small whiskey companies — we’re putting whiskey away that we don’t drink until 2014,” Bush says. “We’re in this situation — we’re still a small company. We only have available what we have. We’ve been very patiently growing our inventory. Late 2010 is when some of the expanded inventory will become available.”

Can’t wait? It’s available at www.binnys.com for $34.99 and at internetwines.com for $48.53.

As one Templeton old-timer says, “There really wasn’t much said about it. It was just a known fact that Templeton Rye was available, but you didn’t know where it come from and there was certain people who could get it for you.”

Or, as Bush put it, “Anybody from west of Des Moines is within two degrees of separation from somebody who was involved with Templeton Rye.”

For more stories from Templeton old-timers, go to www.youtube.com/templetonryewhiskey.

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About the Author

Jason Walker

Jason Walker was born and raised in Kansas, where he grew up loving his grandmother’s homemade noodles and weekly fried fish. A summer internship in Milwaukee turned Jason and his wife, Leita, into die-hard fans of the Northwoods culture, and they moved to Minneapolis in 2006. Immediately the quality of food and drink in the Twin Cities was impressive – that even the most unassuming bar usually had a decent menu – and Jason knew he was home. Now living in the Fulton neighborhood with two kids, Jason grows tomatoes, cans voraciously, and badgers his neighbors with conversations about restaurants.

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12 Comments

  1. Very well researched piece. I have one full and one almost empty bottle of The Good Stuff in my wet bar. It’s become my sipping whiskey of choice. Even trying to wean my father-in-law off a 30-year-long Jack Daniels’ habit with it, to moderate success.

    Templeton really was at the outer reaches of the Rye Diaspora. Here’s a shoddily written link-blog I did on Rye a few months back on how it got there. http://shefzilla.com/?p=1798

    Also, there’s a

  2. The Iowa Hawkrye07/07/2009Reply

    Just saw a piece on Capone last night on History and it wasn’t nearly as intriguing as this.
    Great, tasty Americana writing – interested in how the recipe was “preserved” … did the old-timers “farmers” keep it on paper, or recite it all from memory?
    Keep ‘em coming.

  3. David Christiansen07/07/2009Reply

    Great article and wonderful pictures.

    Too bad it’s so hard to get in Des Moines. We’ve run out.

  4. mary ellen link07/08/2009Reply

    Great article, well-written! This margarita drinker is thinking she’ll have to try it. Thanks for the good article and pictures.

  5. MoValley Guy07/22/2009Reply

    Just got a bottle last night. It lives up to it’s name.

  6. IowaExPat09/17/2009Reply

    Too bad most of the story is a marketer’s fairy tale.

Trackbacks for this post

  1. [...] Cannon samples the honey of Nature’s Nectar; meanwhile, Jason Walker gets the story on the long-time underground Iowa whiskey makers Templeton [...]

  2. [...] a year ago I was introduced to Templeton Rye. It’s a whiskey produced in a small Iowa town that has only recently begun legitimate [...]

  3. [...] permalink Originally Posted by kilgore_trout it's a marketing thing. marketing makes guys drink putrid swill – see Bud Light. I also think you should lose the privilege to your awesome avatar for such an absurd statement. As for whats the big deal, its a absolutely delicious rye whiskey made right here in Iowa. Its a small batch whisky so every liqour store only gets a rationed amount per month, which sells out extremely fast. At Randalls in Fairview Heights, IL they sold 180 bottles in 29 minutes last Friday. It has also been very well appreciated by experts: "In June 2008, Templeton Rye was named Best Overall Whiskey out of more than 4,000 entries at the Los Angeles Wine and Spirits Competition and won a gold medal in March at the San Francisco World Spirits Tasting. It was also named the best whiskey under 10 years old by Whiskey Bible." Templeton Rye of Templeton, Iowa | The Heavy Table – Minneapolis-St. Paul and Upper Midwest Food Mag… [...]

  4. [...] Warehouse district this August, G. Sheaves talks up the Old Fashioned at Rinata and Templeton Rye (we profiled Templeton — it has a great backstory), Crystal tries Spoon in Apple Valley (if they don’t have a [...]

  5. [...] April 13, 20125:30 pmto7:30 pmSteel Toe Brewing is set to release their Barleywine, Lunker tomorrow at 5:30 at the brewery. Lunker is a 14.4% English Barleywine aged in Templeton Rye Whiskey barrels. As the story goes, the whiskey produced in Templeton, IA was said to be Al Capone’s favorite spirit. You can read more about the distillery and the rye produced in Templeton over at Heavy Table. [...]

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