Corn, soybeans – and whiskey? Small Iowa town prospers with booze

The last time this town had whiskey stills, Prohibition was the law and Templeton Rye was bootleg

The three stages of Templeton rye whiskey, from left: fresh from the still, after four months in a barrel and after four years.
Kevin E. Schmidt/AP

TEMPLETON, Iowa  Nestled among the rolling hills of corn and soybeans in western Iowa, the tiny town of Templeton is seeing its history of Prohibition-era bootlegging repeating itself.

This time around, Templeton Rye is legal, public and part of a broader craft-distillery trend. And taking the hooch legal is bringing jobs, spinoff businesses and even tourists to this rural German Catholic burg of 362 people.

"The distillery people came along at a good time," said Larry Sporrer, executive vice president of Templeton Savings Bank. "There's really a lot of name recognition for Templeton."

The Templeton Rye story dates back to Prohibition, when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution banned alcohol in the United States beginning in January 1920.

Bootleggers sprang up around the country, including in Templeton, population then 373. Rye whiskey was the hooch of choice, with local general stores selling sheets of copper to build stills, kegs and jugs for aging and distribution, and lots of sugar.

The market for Templeton Rye, known as the good stuff, extended beyond Carroll County to Des Moines, Denver, Chicago and beyond. In fact, the quality of the drink reportedly made it a favorite of Chicago gangster Al Capone.

The good stuff

Templeton Rye Spirits
Templeton Rye Spirits

In 1930, Templeton reached its largest population, 428. A 1931 newspaper article included in a history book about Templeton noted that Christmas garlands over Main Street included a little brown jug with the words "Xmas spirits" on it.

In late 1933 the 21st Amendment put an end to Prohibition. Templeton Rye went underground. There were still stories about the good stuff. You had to know someone to get a bottle or even a sip.

Scott Bush, an Iowa native who worked in investment banking, remembers visiting his great-uncle with family one Christmas. "He sat us down and whipped out a bottle and said, 'This is what Dad used to make. It saved the farm during the Depression.'"

It gave Bush an idea: Templeton Rye as a legal spirit.

"For generations, people had cocktail-napkined ideas of taking it legal and trading on the history," said Douglas Burns, a co-owner of the Carroll Daily Times Herald. "And nobody did it until Scott Bush."

Bush asked around about who might still be making the stuff -- and would share the recipe. That led him to Meryl Kerkhoff, the man with the recipe, and his son Keith, who referred to their bootlegging forebears as entrepreneurs.

Volunteers at the distillery

The barrels used to age rye whiskey
Charlie Neibergall/AP

They partnered with an Indiana distillery to produce the rye. But they decided to make Templeton the brand’s home, where the rye is aged in oak barrels, bottled, labeled and shipped.

The presence of the brand goes beyond the distillery. The company's YouTube channel features interviews with elders in the community recounting the history of the bootlegging era. Kerkhoff co-produced the documentary "Capone’s Whiskey: The Templeton Rye Story" in 2011.

And the Templeton Rye presence is evolving. When Dori Rotert started working on the bottling line in the fall of 2006, it was a part-time gig a couple of weeks a month to bring out the first single-barrel batches. Now the distillery employs about 30 people.

"We're bottling every day, all day now," she said. "It's a wide age group, from 82 to 19. We have one gentleman who stocks the pallets, and he's 81 years old."        

Templeton Rye is part of a resurgence of craft distillers and blenders in the United States. There were 86 such businesses 10 years ago and 606 today, said Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute.

"We're growing at a rate of about 30 percent a year," he said. "It's part of the general renaissance in our culture of going back to basics. We want to support American businesses."

He classifies Templeton as one of the craft blenders because the rye is distilled in Indiana. That's something Bush hopes to change someday, with hopes of making the town a travel destination.

As it is, the rye already draws fans to the town.

"We've had volunteer days, and you have people come from all over," Rotert said. "We had a gentleman there for a whole week from California. We've had people from New York. It's a big deal."

Bootleg competition

Then there’s the spinoff business.

Brewpubs in Iowa and beyond are using Templeton Rye barrels to add a distinctive flavor to their beers.

A Templeton construction company, Schoeppner Designs, is making furniture out of the used oak barrels, with some pieces on sale at the distillery. Schoeppner recently bought a vacant building on Main Street to expand.

But there is competition. Talk to folks in Carroll County, and they still mention the good stuff of the bootleg variety.

Sometimes they even pull out a bottle -- often a used one from more mainstream spirits -- of amber liquor.

"It seems like there's some available," said Mayor Ken Behrens. "If you ask the right person, I'm sure you could find it."

Rotert said distillery visitors sometimes ask where they can buy a bottle of the bootleg stuff. Bush said he's aware of the rumors of bootleg competition.

"God bless them," he said. "It's not really something that we worry about."

Burns, who has chronicled the legal rise of Templeton Rye in his newspaper, has his own story.

"Last Christmas I walked to my front door, and there was a bag on my front steps," Burns said. "I opened the bag, and there was a bottle of bootleg Templeton Rye in it. I still don't know who gave it to me."

How was it?

"I really like the legal incarnation."

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