Corn. Ask anyone not from this state and that is one thing they will know about our state: Indiana has lots of cornfields. For most Hoosiers this is a problematic view of Indiana. “We’re more than just cornfields,” many proud people from here will say. And we are, we are much more than cornfields. But, we do have a lot of them, and we do grow some of the best corn in the world.
Two childhood friends from Bedford, Indiana, Blake Jones and David McIntyre, noticed that we have this incredible amount of high-quality corn in our state, but the majority of it is exported (corn is our largest agricultural export). They also realized corn is the main ingredient in one of the most-loved libations in the world — whiskey. This begged them to ask the question, “Why the hell isn’t there an internationally known whiskey distiller in Indiana?” It’s a good question and it didn’t have an answer. So, two years ago, the duo set out to start making whiskey in Indiana, using Indiana corn.
After years of chatting about starting their own company, they started West Fork Whiskey.
I’m standing in a warehouse at 86th and Zionsville Road with the four other NUVO editors. We’re staring at two huge, opaque white plastic tubs and some white bags. Blake, a 20-something, dressed like he is off to work at a bank in his light blue button-up, khaki slacks, and shiny, caramel double monkstraps is standing next to his business partner David (dressed in a very similar style since they both have day jobs in the banking industry). They are situated in front of the plastic tubs explaining what led them to here. “It’s June 2014,” Blake says, his voice excited and energetic, like a motivational speaker, “Dave comes to me and says, 'I know we’ve been talking about starting a business together for a while, but I just filed our articles of incorporation and we're doing this.' So, We subsequently cashed out our 401Ks, I’ll be completely transparent with you,” Blake and David can’t help but laugh at the ballsiness of this move, neither can the NUVO team.
It’s a story you can imagine yourself in, you and a friend taking the leap at your life-long dream. For Dave and Blake this is as close to their childhood dream — owning a bar and sharing a bachelor pad above it — as it's going to get, especially since Blake is married.
“We started dumping our money into this company and fortunately we’ve been able to do it ourselves since then.” They haven’t had any investors and aren’t taking any salaries from the business at the moment. But, as in most success stories, they believe in their product and know that their hard work and dedication will pay off in the end.
It all started in motion in 2014, but they weren’t actually able to make any product right away. The distilling industry has many more strictures than breweries, wineries, meaderies, cideries or any other alcohol producing industry. Blake explains the tiresome process, “We wrote our business plan in early 2015 and applied for our licenses. The thing that is really unique about spirits, as opposed to the really lucky beer and wine guys, is that before you can test the still or anything like that — you can’t do it at home — you have to have your equipment and an independent facility before you have the right to apply for a license. That application process can take anywhere between five months and as long as two years. We were fortunate enough that it only took us five months to get through both the federal and state portions, which means we finally were able to start producing in late December.”
If you’re looking at a timeline that is a full year and a half before they even had the opportunity to try and make any product. So, as soon as they got the chance, they dove headfirst into making some booze.
“During the holidays when we had vacation from our day jobs, we took about 12-hours a day in here just figuring out how to run a still,” Blake laughs as he says this, and follows up with, “Well, we pretty much knew how to do that, we had done some training and my brother is a trained scientist.” His brother is the master distiller for the company.
“We have spent a lot of nights and weekends here,” he says, with an affirmative nod from Dave. “At first it was only weekends, but pretty soon we were calling each other up and coming in and working nights. At that time we were working ridiculously hard and getting five gallons out of each run, so give or take 40 gallons a week.” This number is majorly disappointing when you’re comparing time put in to product yield. This is typical with the distillation process since each run through the still produces give-or-take ten percent of the original amount put in and takes ten to twelve hours of labor and waiting, but usually you’re working with a massive still, so ten percent is a large amount.
Despite these small numbers, the guys soldiered on with their small 50-gallon still. “We wanted to get something in the market and to make a good product and then we wanted to scale it up after that. That’s what you see here,” Blake says, referencing the impressive new 250-gallon still they got in earlier this week. He adds a fact that the NUVO team never expected: “We will have between three- and four-hundred barrels in here once it’s all said and done.” He pauses for a moment, I think it’s a mix of pride and fear I see there, before he ends with, “Which makes us arguably the largest craft whiskey producer in the state. It’s a super exciting fact for us.”
That’s an exciting fact for the state of Indiana, because the fact of the matter is we don’t really have many whiskey distilleries in the state. I’m not saying no whiskey is made here, but these other places are also making vodka, gin, rum and many other alcohols. Which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not West Fork’s thing. “We are a whiskey company,” Blake says matter-of-factly. “We don’t want to make vodkas or gins; we just want to be really, really good at making whiskey. We want to stay true to who we are. To be frank, I hate vodka,” he says with a chuckle. “My goal is to be an internationally known master of whiskey.”
After very little time around the guys, it’s easy to believe this will happen for them. For starters, they are diligent about the sources of their ingredients. Blake is patting the white bags next to the plastic fermentation tanks (they’re now using massive stainless steel tanks, but these are still here to remind them of how it all started) when he says, “When Dave and I began the company we really wanted to pay homage to the state that we live in … We use Sugar Creek Malt Company from Lebanon, Indiana. All of their grain comes from within 200 miles of their own farm and mill. The vast majority of what we use, and what you see here, actually comes from their farm.” From corn to rye and even some persimmon-smoked barley there are give-or-take 100 bags of grain piled up on the ground.
He is quick to sing praises of their grain distributor, “If you don’t know about Sugar Creek Malts, they’re this incredible start-up company, too. It’s a guy and his father-in-law who own the business and it’s been running for about 8-months. They decided let’s start hustling and start milling grain and producing grain for the spirits and alcoholic beverage base. All of our corn is from their farm. You will get to taste the product, which was made from that Indiana corn.”
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I know everyone on the team is looking forward to that taste but before we get to it Blake describes something that I have never heard of before. It was something I was wondering about when I walked through the front door into their office. Where is the tasting room? The answer is intricate and disheartening. “It is illegal for us to do tastings from this facility,” Dave says, before sarcastically following up with, “Thank you, laws.” Blake continues this thought. “We can’t do a tasting room, we can't do anything like that.”
You and the rest of the NUVO team may be thinking, just like I am 'I’ve been to multiple tasting rooms in distilleries in this state.'
He quickly answers this question by saying, “Some places like Hotel Tango and Cardinal got in before the law went into effect in 2014. We will be able to do that in three years' time when our waiting period is up. Once we received our license there is a mandatory three year waiting period before we can do anything from this facility other than make the product. So, for example, the product you’re going to try tonight, David and I had to distribute through a company to a liquor store and then we had to go buy our own whiskey. So, you’re not getting a tasting tour from West Fork Whiskey, you’re getting a tasting from David and Blake.”
I could beat around the bush, but I won’t. That is pretty fucked up. It hurts a burgeoning business by forcing them to lose money all around for three years. Anyone in business knows that the early years undoubtedly are the most important and when a company has so many factors going against it, it is going to be a rough road. Luckily the team at West Fork Whiskey is working diligently to get their name out there on a well-made product. The sad part about all of this is the way these laws came into effect.
“From what we’ve gathered, this law came into play due to some lobbying and actions of a couple bigger local brewers and distillers,” David says. He then quips, “So if you want a 10,000 word op-ed on the messed up laws that are in play, and on the small companies that became big companies and now are trying to screw over small guys …” He is joking, but I would truly love to read that.
If that wasn’t enough of a frustrating experience for these distillers, Blake tells us that even after the three year period they “won’t be able to self-distribute, at this point I think we will even have to sell that product to our distributer and then buy it back from them to have in our tasting room.” Despite these road bumps, Dave and Blake are pushing forward as earnestly as ever.
The duo brings us to a shelving unit filled with barrels; they built the sturdy shelves with their own hands, just more proof that they are an industrious team. Looking up at the immense amount of barrels, Blake explains, “What we have is a mix of five- and fifteen- gallon barrels. In order to be whiskey, it has to touch a barrel, it has to be in a barrel in some form.”
The four biggest barrels are situated on the ground; he taps one with his shoe. “The corn whiskey is currently aging in these bourbon barrels, which will be our first aged product out; we will bottle it next week and it will be on shelves in about 2 weeks. Our aging will go anywhere between four months, and years, and years and years, depending on what it is. We will soon be working on our rye, but for the moment we just have the aged-corn whiskey in the bourbon barrels from Balcone, in Texas.”
With their new system in place they have a pretty full agenda of creating different whiskeys, including a wheated bourbon and a rye bourbon. But, for the moment the only product that is available is their corn whiskey, 2 Hour Delay. Right now it’s available in Crown, Elite Beverage, and Big Red Liquor stores. Blake excitedly says, “We're currently in about 15 liquor stores and just got our first bar account actually down in Salem, Indiana. We will be producing close to 100 cases a month soon, like within four months.” While we’re looking forward to seeing everything that they will be creating, for now we have to check out this 2 Hour Delay.
We take a seat in their lobby; Blake’s wife helps carry in some Ball jars and hands them to each of us. Dave opens the new bottle, the label is minimalist with the seal of Indiana making up the background. As the tastes are being poured out of the bottle, it’s amazing to think that Dave and Blake stood in the back of this warehouse and hand-bottled this; they bottle everything by hand and plan on doing that for quite a while.
I must admit, I’m not a huge fan of un-aged whiskeys. I have tried multiple and they tend to be a little harsh-tasting and can often be flavorless, other than the alcohol flavor, like vodka or moonshine. So, when I’m swirling the colorless liquid in the glass, I’m not sure what to expect. We all cheers, clinking our glasses together before taking a sip. I swish it in my mouth, feeling the warming tingle on my tongue from the alcohol. It’s crisp, and most surprising, it’s packed with flavor. The second sip goes down even easier: it’s smooth on the palate and not too overbearing.
As we all sit around, chatting about laws, video games and whiskey, all I can think is ‘Damn, Indy finally has a quality whiskey and it’s just going to get better with time.’