Murphy Quint remembers — not so fondly — digging post holes for the trellis system at the family vineyard in Swisher, Iowa. He was 14 years old at the time and pitching in as his mother and father, Jeff and Laurie Quint, were about to launch Cedar Ridge, a small family winery.
"Our original business plan was to make wine, he said. "It was a family affair. I planted vines. My mom planted vines. Digging post holes, that was the hardest." The vines were typical of the Midwest: Marquette, Marechal Foch, Edelweiss, etc.
The winery was not only a success; for Iowa, it was a bit unique. It had a still to make grappa and grape brandy. To this day, it is the only combo winery and distillery in the state.
But the landscape has changed dramatically. Founded in 2005, the winery has gradually morphed into full-blown whiskey production, and the distillery was recently named 2017 distillery of the year by the American Distilling Institute.
Using three pot stills imported from Europe, Cedar Ridge produces 60,000 cases annually of reserve Iowa bourbon, malted rye whiskey, wheat whiskey and a solera-style single malt that utilizes used wine, rum and port barrels in the aging process.
"Whiskey was not on our radar in the beginning," Murphy remembers, "but I pushed hard for us to have a whiskey focus. It just made sense in Iowa, where we are surrounded by all this grain, especially corn."
Cedar Ridge has a tasting room that is strategically situated halfway between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Previously, it could only serve Cedar Ridge wines, but the law was recently changed to allow the distillery side to strut its stuff.
"Locals thought of us as a winery because it was illegal to serve cocktails in the tasting room," Murphy explained. "But outside of Iowa consumers think of us as a distillery."
The major thrust of Cedar Ridge whiskey seems to be Iowa bourbon. While the state of Kentucky might claim bourbon has to be produced within its borders, the legal definition of bourbon is simply that it must be made from at least 51 percent corn and aged in new American oak barrels.
Whisky production started in 2010, but Murphy says, "After we got going, we had this realization that bourbon is made from corn, and everyone in Iowa grows corn."
I recently nosed and sipped the spectrum of Cedar Ridge whiskies, and I must confess to a fondness for the single malts. That said, the Iowa bourbon and malted rye are beautiful sipping whiskies. The wheat whiskey was a bit one-dimensional and seemed to my palate to be best suited for mixing in cocktails.
Cedar Ridge spirits are distributed throughout the United States, though no one region of the country has access to the entire lineup. For more information about this unique wine-to-whiskey project, visit the distillery website at CRWINE.com.