Posts Tagged Iowa

(Mostly) In Defense of Templeton Rye

I generally describe Templeton Rye as the only whiskey I’ve found “drinkable,” a statement of positivity and willful, deflective naivete. I generally don’t go for whiskey, but I like Templeteon, and lest I believe I was suckered in by the marketing, I’m going to stand by that half-flippant flavor assessment amid recent controversies over the beverage’s origins that have now resulted in a lawsuit.

During my own life as a university alumni-publication journalist-marketer, however, I interviewed and wrote a 2011 piece on one of the company’s founders, Keith Kerkhoff, and have subsequently referred to it in at least one blog post that details my RAGBRAI trip through the town. As such, I thought I’d offer some insight, context and thoughts on the whiskey’s origin controversy, Iowan identity and the state’s increasingly prominent distilleries, wineries, and breweries.

In short: the quibbles over many of the controversy’s specifics are somewhat overstated, though it does raise questions of media, agricultural distribution, small places, and identity. Which I guess is my field, so every damn thing raises those questions.

Templeton Rye rose to prominence on the strength not just of its flavor, but on a heckuva marketable story: that present-day Templeton Rye(tm) is based on Prohibition-era ‘white lightning’ so good that Al Capone asked for it by name, and it earned a 300-resident farming village the nickname “Little Chicago.” This is, of course, the sort of story that one could reasonably expect to be heavily garnished, though the idea of some connection between our legally-sold contemporary beverage and an old Templeton-area recipe has been maintained as foundational to the brand’s image.

The company’s website presently, prominently phrases its beverage as being “[b]ased on the original Prohibition era recipe and aged in charred new oak barrels.” Due in part to U.S. laws requiring alcohol to be sold state-level distributors, Templeton Rye’s first batch was sold primarily in Iowa, and Iowa factors heavily into the beverage’s marketing campaign. The booze’s label has heretofore said: “PRODUCED AND BOTTLED BY TEMPLETON RYE SPIRITS, LLC, TEMPLETON, IOWA.”

So Templeton has happily draped itself in Iowaicana, though as for what it has specifically claimed, at least one of the self-described “revelations” that the Des Moines Register and the Daily Beast have been describing have long been knowable (if downplayed by Templeton’s branding), and in fact was mentioned in my puff piece (which gives a good primer on the company’s legend, founding, and early successes): that it is not, in fact, distilled  in Iowa, but a facility in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

During my discussions with Keith, he portrayed Templeton as his physical home, the spiritual (figuratively speaking) home of Templeton Rye, the home of Templeton Rye Spirits LLC, a useful marketing tool, and a place in which some bottling and/or labeling happened. It was clear that the connection was personal and symbolic, though limited practically.

Similarly, if anyone thinks that what they’re buying in stores is close to what Capone himself swilled, that would betray a strong lack of knowledge about history and booze. Scale-produced whiskey is distilled at length (for Templeton, four years) and standardized in ways it wasn’t in the Great Depression’s backyard stills. For analogous info and more background reading, I’d recommend Ambitious Brew by Maureen Ogle (who, incidentally, teaches at Iowa State University) which discusses standardization of output as one of the primary challenges of the American beer industry through the 20th century.

So these concrete things – the Lawrenceburg distillery and the modifications to the recipe – don’t strike me as terribly problematic. However, all of this does rely on an origin point, the idea of some connection – often and presently stated in Templeton’s materials – that the present-day beverage bears some unique, deliberate, specified relationship to a beverage that was being made in Templeton, Iowa, in the 1920s.

And the challenge to that is the accusation “stock MGP recipe,” which – if found to be true – I will find problematic, because it would mean the company crossed the line into outright peddling bullshit rather than leveraging the fuzziness of myth.  As best I can tell at present, however, the phrase originates in the Daily Beast article as an insult hurtled by “one micro-distiller who actually makes his own whiskey.” I will note that something I wanted for my 2011 article (and was not able to get) was more info on how the olde recipe was adapted. At the time, I chalked it up to the process being proprietary.

So basically, Templeton Rye Spirits, LLC, is a company that was founded by a few people from Iowa. One of them was Keith Kerkhoff, of the town of Templeton, which may have had a reputation for good un-aged whiskey in the 1930s. He inherited a whiskey recipe from his grandfather through his father, and as Keith told me the story, that recipe was the reason that Vern Underwood and larger-scale distiller MGP chose to contract with their start-up. These things were not secret. From there, MGP did their thing, and Templeton Rye ran with the original story for the marketing. What ‘their thing’ is will likely be uncovered in greater clarity in the near future.

So, is Templeton Rye ‘Iowan’? is it ‘Prohibition-era’? Is Iowa hip enough now that companies want to be us? Am I still ‘Iowan’ now that I’ll be in England for another four years? Is whiskey actually generally kind of a terrible-tasting beverage and we’re only now just able to admit it?

These are questions that I’d leave to you, dear reader, to ponder.  The outward-facing story of Templeton Rye is a heckuva story – our reaction to the stories behind it speaks to how we juggle the romance of myth with the ambiguities of how the whiskey-sausage gets made. It is also the challenge of marketing, a process which smooths over the rough edges and ambiguities of reality that I find interesting, then flounders as the complexities of life inevitably appear.

In the years since I wrote on Templeton, I’ve seen an expansion of small breweries, wineries, and distilleries in Iowa. I saw a pizza pub in my little hometown of 3,000 people decide it was going to stock 127+ bottles of beers.  I’ve met representatives from Iowa boozeries at various tastings, and they are certainly very aware of (and talkative about) how and where their ingredients are sourced and processed (its often multiple places). If you meet them, ask them about it!

I also toured the Mississippi River Distilling Company, which makes a rye whiskey – Cody Road – distilled in Iowa with German technology. The name itself is taken from their homebase LaClaire’s most famous native: ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, a showman who adapted the myths and practices of his preceding era, the Wild West, and made a career indulging both. The name “Cody Road” is a tribute and permutation, a riff on the past, a tapping into the collective American and global consciousness – and of course, indirect. The whiskey has little to do with William Cody the man or his era, but rather, makes a small claim in the heritage of place. Honesty is clarifying that connection and its claims, while culture and identity are having the latitude to indulge the soft edges of myth.

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Grid of Plenty: Wright County, Iowa

Every time I see the land from the air, I’m surprised: at how far the horizon stretches, at how it can change each season, at how abstract and surreal the place where I lived most of my life can look. North-central Iowa is perhaps one of the regimented-looking places on earth – a grid of farmland on an endless plain that stretches in all directions – and the changes that come with the seasons and weather flow through it on a massive scale.

It is sometimes called ‘flyover country’, a term whose often pejorative connotations are somewhat sad and ironic given that the airplane was a thoroughly Midwestern invention. Transportation is a necessity here, and because of it there’s a tendency to think that the landscape stretches on forever.  When I was middle school if I wanted, say, the newest video game release, it was up to me to beg my parents to haul me and whoever else wanted to come along to the nearest town with a Wal-mart. From Clarion (population 3,000, my hometown, the seat of Wright County), it’s one hour to Ames. Forty-five minutes to Fort Dodge. One and a half to Des Moines. Three to the Twin Cities. One forty-five to Storm Lake, where I live. One fifteen the other way on Highway 3 to Waverly, where I went to college. Even today, visiting friends means traveling five hours along these roads. So if you live here, you drive a lot, in straight lines, for hours at a time.

The mythology of the land (of course) is probably that of the farmer, though the reality is that, while there are still many people involved in agriculture – the last several generations have consolidated their landholdings and many have been bought out by corporate interests, and thus there are fewer ‘farmers’ about.  My grandparents, who were farmers, could look out over their land and see their neighbors, identify who farmed what throughout Butler county, but today, we mostly drive the grid without knowing who owns what. This is not to say the land area is cold or isolating – far from it. I think of the atmosphere of my hometown, I think of it as a warm and  welcoming place, and the drives from spot to spot as peaceful and – a few recent unfortunate and uncharacteristic crashes aside – quiet. But living here, one does absorb an amazing sense of place and the vastness of it all, because of how often you must practically deal with the vastness of it all. This is also, perhaps why most of the pictures I’ve taken (or at least, uploaded online) of the area have been from the air, and even the ones on the ground have emphasized those lines and that scope.

Because my dad has a pilot’s license and flies regularly for fun, I’ve been lucky enough to grow up seeing the land from a small aircraft. You miss a lot of the detail when flying above the clouds. That medium distance is really ideal from which to understand where you’re driving when you’re down there on those roads. It also gives one time to contemplate how surreal it all looks – the expanse, the grid. Up there, it’s not just a distance, but an aesthetic object and an oddly abstract one at that.  Look out far and it can go on for ever, in fall or spring (like those brown ones posted here, taken this Easter) it looks like a desert despite the fertility the dirt hides. Look closer in the right light, and contours prominently appear. Depending on the seasons, the rains and snow melt, there may be some improvised and agriculturally unfortunate rivers and lakes. It is simultaneously one of the most consistent yet constantly changing, repeatedly rejuvenating landscapes one can see.

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