In 1920, Prohibition turned American farmers into outlaws, and numerous farms throughout the nation began distilling, storing and selling alcohol for the bootlegging industry. Templeton, Iowa, was one of those places, where a number of talented people began selling a popular whiskey known as Templeton Rye. Prized for its smooth finish, it quickly became Al Capone’s favorite whiskey, and the product became popular in hundreds of underground speakeasies throughout the Midwest.
After 85 years, the staunch laws of Prohibition are long gone, but the popularity of Templeton Rye is not. After years, and many illegal bottles, the first legal batch was produced in 2006. Currently, 4800 bottles are produced a day, equal to 800 cases, each hand-labeled by volunteers. “This town only has a population of 350 people, so when we first opened, we put an ad for volunteers in the church bulletin,” said Cheryl Kerkhoff, daughter-in-law of the original recipe holder and master distiller, Meryl Kerkhoff. “Now we have volunteers of all ages, our oldest is 82. He says being active and on his feet with us keeps him young.”
Templeton, Iowa is located on a stretch of open countryside 2 hours from Omaha. Peaceful and bucolic, it is difficult to picture the high adrenaline presence of bootlegging that permeated every corner. “The drop off site for whiskey money was in the Sacred Heart graveyard outside of town,” said Andrew Tomes, Iowa Brand Ambassador. The headstone of Reverend Bernard Al Shulte, who passed in 1913, provided a place for money exchange, with a loose cover that popped off to reveal a hiding place below. A grave of a Reverend was a perfect spot. “The police never suspected that a Reverend's grave would be a pickup site,” said Tomes.
Meryl Kerkhoff learned from his father Alphonse how to both distill the rye and keep quiet. “Alphonse was really involved in the success of Templeton Rye during Prohibition,” said Cheryl. Earning his outlaw stripes, he was arrested three times for distilling and selling.
In 2001, Scott Bush was eager to re-establish Templeton as a legal business, and asked a lot of questions before being directed to the Kerkhoff’s, who held the original recipe. “Meryl didn’t make it easy,” said Cheryl. “In fact, when Scott first called, Meryl hung up on him.” Luckily, Scott remained persistent. After much debate, and the recipe scrawled on a piece of paper, Meryl appointed his son Kevin to represent him. Today co-founders Kevin and Scott have kept the recipe as close to authentic as possible, and have even begun growing their own Templeton rye crop to use in future batches.
The bottlery welcomes guests with a massive display of whiskey barrels in the driveway, and complimentary beers were available to prepare our pallets for The Good Stuff. Inside, the Tasting Room is an inviting space with awards, information and countless newspaper articles on the success of the whiskey. The back bar, which still stands, was built in six years after the town of Templeton was founded, in 1888.
After a Manhattan (or two) we began our tour in the bottling room, one of the liveliest places in the distillery. New bottles go through three stages in this room: an air rinser, a filler and a machine that places labels on the front and back. The most fascinating part of the process is at the end of the line, where one volunteer corks each bottle by hand. After securing the top, the bottles are passed through more volunteers who place each of the remaining 5 labels by hand.
After the bottling room we visited barrel storage, where new batches of Templeton Rye were maturing in their snug homes. It’s a long process. The rye sits for 4 years, absorbing the char and oxygen in the 53 gallon barrels. “Each year, about 2% of the whiskey evaporates from the barrel,” said Cheryl. “It’s called the angel’s share.” A small price to pay for the final product.
A lot goes into making a bottle of Templeton Rye. Each batch spends time in the reverse osmosis machine, as well as in the lab to ensure each drop is of top quality. The original four spout bottle filler is still in the lab that was used when the brand first began production in 2006. “In a year’s time, we estimate over 30,000 bottles of Templeton Rye were filled with this machine,” said Cheryl.
As a last stop, we entered a room where the original still for the Prohibition era Templeton was used, along with a number of other devices, bright with copper, stood in front of fuzzy photos on the walls of Al Capone, and barrels swollen with Templeton. The history of not only the product, but of an entire community, was evident on every wall in the room. Back in the tasting room, we had a few more whiskey gingers, and enjoyed a taste of American history with The Good Stuff.
Templeton Rye Distillery
209 E. 3rd St.
Templeton IA 51463
Templeton Rye is distilled and aged at Lawrenceburg Distillers in Lawrenceburg, Indiana and bottled in Templeton, Iowa.