Father, Son Trust God’s Providence for
By Louise Brass, Observer Correspondent
April 27, 2017

 DEKALB—In God they trust — for good planting and growing weather, for a fine harvest, and for all the many elements needed to make hundreds of barrels of rye whiskey, corn bourbon and vodka each year, say the father and son farming team at Whiskey Acres Distillery Co.

They know that faith is a requirement for this job.

“It absolutely is,” said Jamie Walter, a fifth generation farmer at Walter Farms. He operates Whiskey Acres together with his father, Jim, and business partner Nick Nagle.

There’s been a lot of rain this spring, so a little more faith is needed, said Jamie, a member of Christ the Teacher University Parish where the Newman Center for Northern Illinois University students are served in DeKalb. He also serves on a parish committee.

“This year is an example of a year where we are getting a little antsy, he says. “It’s been so wet. We are waiting to plant. Normally, we would have a lot of field work done by now.”

Jamie sits at the bar in a 100-year-old stone building beside a flagstone patio, waiting for the rain clouds to move away from northern Illinois.

“I think there is a certain faith that is inherent with being a farmer — a faith in, and trust in God that He will provide what we need when we need it. The rain will fall and plants will grow on someone’s schedule other than my own.

“We have to have that faith every year,” he added.

Though the family farm is old, Whiskey Acres was incorporated only a few years ago in 2014.  Already it employs a full-time distiller, eight tasting-room ambassadors who give weekly tours, a bookkeeper and a number of interns (mostly chemistry students from NIU). The chemistry of fermentation and distillation is important here.

Already honored

The new business has won more than a dozen national and international double-blind tasting awards, Nagle said.

Last year, Whiskey Acres was awarded a $250,000 USDA rural business development grant for creating a farm-to-bottle operation, meaning the entire operations occurs right here.

“It’s been well received. This is a business people are interested in,” Nagle said. “The idea of making whiskey is something that most people can relate to. But also it gives us an opportunity to have a conversation about farming.”  

The grant is a value-added producer grant, Jamie said, given for businesses that take raw commodities and turn them into a consumer product, bringing the farm and consumer closer together.

“We are truly one of the only real farm distilleries in the United States,” Jamie says. “We do a lot for economic development.”  

The business also regularly contributes to area charitable causes.

Farming is definitely in Jamie’s blood. His great, great grandfather, Leopold Walter, who was of German stock, was a farmer in Ohio before the family moved west into Illinois.

Jamie’s grandfather, Joseph, started farming at the current location in the 1930s.

Jim and his wife Susan, who attend St. Mary Parish in DeKalb, have farmed this site since the 1960s. Jamie joined the farming business in 2000 — when his uncles retired —  after a stint as an attorney.

Both father and son agree, it’s a good life — working together and witnessing the bounty of nature as it develops from seed to finished product.

Products globe-hop

The spirits produced on the DeKalb farm, located at 11504 Keslinger Road, are shipped to at least 40 countries, and as many states, Jamie said.

To date, more than 12,000 visitors have come to the facility, which is a top tourism location in the county.

A group of scientists who visited here took several bottles with them when they left on their research project to Antarctica. A postcard from the edge of that frozen continent arrived recently attesting to their gratitude for the product.

Above a fire place in the Whiskey Acres tasting room, hangs a large black and white photograph, circa 1897, showing Leopold in the center, surrounded by his family. One person holds a jug of what is believed to be whiskey they produced, but only for personal consumption, Jamie said.

Leopold might be surprised if he knew his progeny are shipping whiskey worldwide.

Beneath the photograph, four bottles of the award-winning drinks are displayed, with medals won at competitions, including in California, Kentucky, Denver and Chicago.

“When Whiskey Acres opened, the family, including Jamie’s wife, Kristin, and children, Danielle, Josh, and Sydney, held a blessing service, with Fr. Jeremy Trowbridge, officiating at the private ceremony. 

Both the distillery operation and the fields were blessed.

The facility produces the about 70,000 bottles a year from the farm’s own corn, wheat and rye. The majority of the product right now is in storage for aging.

“Corn is the major ingredient, and we are the “Napa Valley” of corn right here,” Jamie said.

Jim says that he enjoys the independence that comes with this lifestyle, and the chance to meet people.

“It’s all about doing for other people.  That’s where you get true happiness. Since we are dealing with alcohol, we approach this with a lot of discipline. We make sure they (visitors) are the correct age and make sure they are responsible.

The whole process, from planting to readiness for drinking, takes about two and a half years.

“When it comes to farming, it takes a lot of patience,” Jim said. “You put all this seed and money into the ground and pray that God’s willing, and the creek doesn’t rise.”