The floodgates open and water rushes in. The entire building starts to tremble—cobwebs shake, beams shudder, a haze of flour shoots into the air. Turbines and belts from the 1870s are whirring just like they have for over a century.
This is Schech’s Mill, the oldest water-powered mill with its original equipment in the state. It’s nestled in a pastoral glen in the Driftless region, where Beaver Creek carves though the oak-filled bluffs on its way to the Root River.
This is where Christian Myrah mills the grain he grows in Spring Grove, Minnesota. Myrah, a fourth-generation Norwegian farmer, is turning these grains into whiskey at RockFilter Distillery and when it opens in late June, RockFilter will be selling what could become the best whiskey made in Minnesota.
“Whiskey is grain-based and we’re raising grains, so the liquid lends itself to whiskey,” Myrah says, adding that they won’t be making gin, vodka, or probably any other spirit. “Gin and vodka you can make today and sell tomorrow, so we probably made the wrong decision for the business. But we want to focus on what we what we know and love.”
Let’s get the clichés out of the way—grain-to-glass, heirloom varieties, organic farming—RockFilter has them all. But if there’s anything we’ve learned from the very young examples of local whiskey, it’s that superior grains make superior spirits (the AC Hazlet rye at Far North Spirits is the other prime example.)
The miller at Schech’s, Ed Krugmire, pours Christian’s corn into a hopper, which drops the kernels between a pair of thousand-pound stones, French quartz, once lugged across the undulating Driftless landscape by horses. It comes out finer than grits but coarser than meal. It’s warm from friction and downy as goose feathers.
For the purposes of making whiskey, milling grains here is both anachronistic—most distilleries purchase grains and have a small electric mill on site—and inconvenient—it’s a few mile trek from Christian’s farms through winding, albeit beautiful, country roads.
But there’s something to be said for these grains being handled by a first-name chain of custody—grown by Christian, cleaned by his dad, milled by Ed, distilled by Dave (Wray, an alum of Indeed Brewing.) For such an agricultural product, many distillers across the country sit at a shocking remove from their raw materials—ordered from a catalog, their provenance unclear. The ultimate advantage of farm-direct spirits is not to have a homey feel-good story, it’s to work with a material that no one else has.
“Everything we do, we want to differentiate,” says Tim Blanski, Myrah’s business partner at RockFilter. Blanski is a woodworker—he salvaged the barnwood that adorns their cocktail room, and the cherrywood they used to smoke their rye. “Growing is an advantage, sure, but a disadvantage, too.” He’s referring to all the extra problems that, in the pursuit of a unique bourbon, can happen in the field.
Birds like to eat the hull-less oats Christian seeded this spring. He tried to grow a Mandan red corn and it failed miserably. Heirloom grains don’t grow uniformly, and that makes harvesting more difficult. And Christian’s livestock have gotten into his corn—hence the name of their Oaxacan green corn bourbon, Fence Jumper, and its tagline, good fences make more bourbon.
“The cradle of corn civilization is Mexico—it’s the heart of what they do,” Blanski says. “Oaxacan green corn is, in our opinion, the best organic corn we can grow. It’s been known for millennia to produce rich flavors that we’re banking on coming through in the bourbon.”
They do. After having aged in 15-gallon oak barrels for only a year, Fence Jumper shows a remarkable depth of flavor—a nuanced corn sweetness that levels out just as the smokiness from a touch of rye creeps up on the finish. Most importantly, it shows none of those wet hay or green grass flavors that often haven’t smoothed out of a whiskey at such a young age. It’s a spirit that’s good now, but begs to be imagined at two years, four years, and beyond.
Christian is experimenting with several grains on his family’s 350 organic acres, where he also raises grass-fed lamb and beef. Sorghum, rye, oats and triticale (a wheat/rye hybrid) will all find their way into RockFilter’s spirits. Their flagship bourbon, Giants of the Earth, has rye and sorghum complementing the corn to add a deep, pecan-like nuttiness. Their third bourbon, Stone’s Throw, has more of a peppery rye character coming through. In the future, they’ll experiment with a blackened blue corn bourbon, and their first rye whiskey will contain applewood-smoked oats.
Outside Schech’s Mill, farm cats laze in the sun near a silo full of corncobs. Geese honk at each other on the banks of the creek, and later they’ll eat leftover grist from the mill. “This is a grade-A trout stream,” Blanski says as we survey the land. “Lots of browns and rainbows. Some of the best spots are right here.”
We wind along the ridges that skirt the oaks, scaring up bluejays, leaving these dramatic valleys behind us for the docile main drag of Spring Grove, where the RockFilter cocktail room will open in late June. It’s impossible to say exactly how the spirit of this landscape makes its way into RockFilter’s whiskey. But it’s clear that something special is taking shape here.
113 Maple Drive
Spring Grove, Minnesota 55974
Cocktail room opening and product launch
June 23-24, 2017
Giants of the Earth
60% corn—20% rye—20% sorghum
Bronze at American Distilling Institute, 2017
Silver at Heartland Spirits Festival, 2017
75% Oaxacan green corn—25% cherrywood-smoked rye
Silver at American Distilling Institute 2017
Bronze at Heartland Spirits Festival 2017
Their third bourbon, not yet scheduled for release.
60% corn—20% rye—20% oats
Bronze at Heartland Spirits Festival 2017