SPRING GROVE, Minn. — Kentucky may be the world’s bourbon capital but according to Christian Myrah — founder of RockFilter Distillery — the Driftless region is the perfect place to make it.
The distillery started operations in 2016 and opened its cocktail room a year after. It was started by Myrah, a Spring Grove native who joined the Navy after college and served as a combat fighter pilot for more than 11 years before moving back to his hometown, where he worked on his family’s farm while remaining in the Navy Reserves. He was sent to Afghanistan in 2013.
“They were looking for folks with aviation experience to go run drone units in Afghanistan, so I wound up being in charge of a ScanEagle drone unit in eastern Afghanistan, supporting Green Berets special forces,” Myrah said.
Afterwards, he returned to the farm once again, where they raise certified organic grains and cattle, and had an epiphany.
“Sitting on a tractor one day, I decided this isn’t quite as exciting as what I was just doing, so let’s figure out a way to make this grain a little more exciting,” he said.
Only a handful of people have been involved in the operation which ranges from the farm to distillery. The farming work is done by himself and his father, with the exception of some hired hands during harvest season.
Variety of organic grains
“Everything we make here comes from grain that we grow,” Myrah said. “It all starts in the dirt.”
Myrah said that bourbon has to have at least 51% corn in it by definition, and the distillery uses anywhere from 55 – 70% corn in its bourbon recipes. But their certified organic farm grows a variety of grains that are used at the distillery.
“We have corn, rye, oats, sorghum, triticale — we use oaxacan green heirloom corn and some of these ancient heirloom corn varieties,” Myrah said. “Six to seven different grains, I guess that we’re using across the different recipes that we’re producing right now.”
He said they grow more corn than they need for distilling so they’re able to sell some as a cash crop, but the rest of the grain is planned precisely for distilling.
“For some of the specialty grains, I’ll just grow a few acres, or enough to do what we need for that year, or maybe for two years worth,” he said. “And with farming, the seasonality and the variability of the seasons sometimes affects yields and crops and things like that, too, so there’s some things we can’t plan for.”
The fertile soil which grows the grain for the distillery is certified organic, and has been for the last 20 years.
“We certify our whiskey and bourbon organic,” he said. “It’s not going to prevent hangovers or anything like that, if you drink too much of it, but it’s more about the process, how we treat the land, the soil and everything from start to finish.”
RockFilter Distillery is housed inside of an old creamery in downtown
Etched on the outside of the building are two different years — 1909 and 1923.
“The creamery co-op was established in 1909, and then this building was built in 1923,” Myrah said standing inside the large building. “It was originally built to make butter in, and then the production area we’re standing in right now was added on to the original building a number of years later, to make cheese.”
He said after the creamery closed down in the ’70s, the building was home to a feed store, before it became a Culligan water dealership, and then a fiberglass factory.
“There was a lot of resin and fiberglass on some of these walls,” Myrah said of the state of the building when they moved into it. “There’s been a lot of different things in here over the years.”
The bones of the old creamery work perfectly for what it’s being used for today.
“It’s a good building for our purpose,” Myrah said. “There’s floor drains in every room.”
Myrah said the Driftless region in southeast Minnesota really lends itself to whiskey and bourbon. He said the geology in southeast Minnesota is similar to what it’s like in Kentucky, the best known place for bourbon production.
“There’s all these resources here in the Driftless region, everything from the grains to the limestone filter water,” Myrah said.
All the water they use in the distilling process comes from a well they have on the farm, which they have tested frequently for chemicals.
“That water has the mineralization and things that help with our fermentation process,” he said. “Everything that really you need to make whiskey is right here in this in this region, so let’s put all those natural resources together and make a world class whiskey and bourbon right here.”
Right now, the distillery distributes its products throughout Minnesota and is also in North Dakota and South Dakota, but is looking to distribute throughout Wisconsin and Iowa as well.
Myrah said the distillery produces around 5,000 gallons of whiskey per year.
“Everything we do goes into new charred white oak barrels, and sits and ages for an undetermined amount of time,” he said. “We age it until it’s ready.”
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