Cedar Ridge: Gold-Medal Bourbon From a Winery
Grape vines may not be the first thing you’d expect to see amid the farms and fields of Swisher, but the rolling hills outside Cedar Ridge Vineyards are dotted with about 5,000 of them. Located midway between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, this family-owned vineyard and microdistillery also boasts a restaurant, tasting room, and gift shop, attracting a substantial weekend brunch crowd in addition to weddings, weekly live music, and other events. What many would not guess when touring the state-of-the-art facilities is that Cedar Ridge holds the honor of being the state’s first legally operated distillery since Prohibition, and is continuing to lead the state’s liquor business.
While the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition laws was passed in 1933, the Iowa state government still held tight restrictions against the production and sale of distilled spirits. It wasn’t until 2005 that the state passed laws allowing smaller business to obtain licenses to sell alcohol outside of state-operated stores, paving the way for independent craft distilleries. Jeff Quint was one person who was eager to capitalize on this major shift in policy: He and his wife Laurie began Cedar Ridge Distillery in 2005 at the Benz Beverage Depot in Cedar Rapids, and operated there for the first four years before moving to Swisher. Their first bottled spirit (and the first legally distilled spirit in the state) was Clearheart vodka, which they were able to begin selling almost immediately because vodka is not aged the same way whiskeys are. But the aged liquors didn’t come far behind, and in July of 2010, Cedar Ridge unveiled their first bourbon.
Bourbon turned out to be a major boon for Cedar Ridge. Less than a year after it first hit the market, their bourbon whiskey won a gold medal for Small Batch Bourbon at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. It had also earned a five-star rating from the New York Times, and markets outside of Iowa began to take interest. In 2015, Cedar Ridge’s wheat whiskey was awarded the gold medal in American Craft Whiskey, along with top awards for their malted rye and bourbon whiskey. The vineyards also enjoy numerous awards and accolades for Cedar Ridge wines, winning “Best Iowa Grown Wine” in 2011 for its dry white La Crescent.
The national attention that Cedar Ridge had begun to garner spurred sales outside of the state. While wine remained their biggest seller in terms of units, its popularity was mostly confined to the Cedar Rapids corridor. The whiskey, on the other hand, found its way into major markets across the country, including Los Angeles, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, and San Diego. Its success outside of the state can be attributed in part, at least, to the craft alcohol trend seen throughout the U.S., from microbreweries to full-scale liquor production. This movement towards independent production is intrinsically linked to the “American Dream” perception of hard-working individuals producing quality product for its communities--a link that is not lost on the consumer. Nestled in the fertile fields of the American Midwest, Cedar Ridge is an obvious model of this perception, and thus prompted the distillery’s milliondollar facelift.
By law, “bourbon” must be made up of at least 51% corn, and what better location could a bourbon manufacturer have than Iowa? By using Iowa corn for their production, cedar Ridge would benefit the state’s export growth in addition to capitalizing on the hyper-American liquor trend. The only missing link was a site that could handle every step of its own spirit production. So began the microdistillery’s expansion, which included an on-site mill, silo, grain scale, mash tun, still house, and fermentation tanks, as well as restaurant upgrades like a remodeled kitchen. The additions effectively doubled their capacity for both wine and spirit production, and allowed for state tax credits.
Most importantly, though, Cedar Ridge’s expansion brings about a “grain-to-glass” experience that consumers are looking for. By processing the grain for their spirits onsite, the company can educate visitors on exactly what the distillation process is, why they use certain grains and barrels, and how it all comes together to produce a superior product. Customers then feel a closer connection to the product, and it becomes something that everyone can feel pride in. And why Iowa? “Our climate in Iowa is always changing,” says Cedar Ridge general manager Jamie Siefken. “It’s consistently inconsistent.” This climate affects the whiskey’s maturation in a particular way, speeding up the aging process and resulting in a flavor profile that is unique to our region. “I predict this craft whiskey boom will slowly dissipate, and transform into more of a regional industry, sort of the way the wine industry in France has become,” Jamie says. “People will recognize Iowa bourbon as different than bourbons produced in Texas or Indiana.” Only time will tell if Iowa bourbon will continue to see the same success it has lately, but it’s clear that Cedar Ridge will be a strong player for a long time to come.
WHEN YOU GO:
Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery
1441 Marak Roadd NW, Swisher CRWine.com: 319.857.4300
Open Wednesday through Sunday Sunday brunch from 9 AM to 1 PM. Live music on Fridays and Sundays year-round.