When it comes to whiskey, we often think of places like Kentucky, Ireland, or Scotland, possibly even Tennessee or Japan, but Iowa isn’t one of the first locations to come to mind. Thanks to distilleries like Cedar Ridge, however, that is beginning to change.
Cedar Ridge started operations in 2005 as the the first distillery to open in Iowa since Prohibition. From the beginning, the brand knew that great corn makes great bourbon and there are few better places on the planet to grow the cereal grain than the Hawkeye State. In the last decade and a half, that intuition has paid off as the brand has picked up a variety of awards from some of the world’s top spirits competitions.
In this week’s Bottle Breakdown, we sat down with Murphy Quint, Head Distiller and Director of Operations at Cedar Ridge, to get his insights on why such great whiskey is now coming out of Iowa and to learn the varieties of ways the Swisher-based brand recommends drinking their whiskeys.
Spirited Zine: Just to start, can you tell us about the first time you tried whiskey and how that experience shaped the way you look at Cedar Ridge’s releases?
Murphy Quint: I think my first experience with whiskey was the same as most people’s. I took a shot of something cheap and chased it down with cola. Luckily, I didn’t let the experience scare me away from the industry.
While I’ve been working in this industry since I was 16 years old, I didn’t know that whiskey was my calling until I was in my early 20s. I discovered my passion for it while I was working at a different distillery, out in Colorado. That was when I started tasting whiskey and considering all the factors that went into the process: grain selection, mash bills, yeast choice, distillation processes, etc. This is when I started building the foundation that I continue to operate on today.
SZ: Cedar Ridge hails from Iowa, which isn’t known as well as say Scotland or Kentucky for whiskey. But what makes Iowa such an ideal place to produce the golden spirit?
MQ: One thing that led us to start producing whiskey is that bourbon is primarily made from corn. Well, we’re in the middle of the corn capital of the world, yet nobody in Iowa was producing bourbon. We jumped at the opportunity back in 2005 and became the first licensed distillery in the state since Prohibition.
As we got going, we also realized how amazing the Midwest is for aging whiskey. Not only do we experience all four seasons here, but we also have significant temperature fluctuations on a daily basis. These constant temperature and humidity changes cause a lot of movement within the barrel, due to expansion and contraction of the barrel wood. In order to tap into this, we don’t use any climate control in our aging facilities. We also build our barrel sheds low and wide. Barrels are stacked only five high in our sheds allowing each barrel to age at a similar rate. We want to completely embrace Mother Nature’s impact on our whiskeys.
SZ: Obviously, Iowa is known for its corn and your Iowa Bourbon has picked up a variety of awards over the years. What makes the corn in Iowa different from that produced in other states and how does that impact the whiskey in the end?
MQ: The soil. Iowa has some of the best soil on the planet for growing corn. This allows us to grow a significant amount of it at the highest possible quality. Making whiskey is very similar to operating in a kitchen. You want to start with the best possible ingredients in order to create the best possible final product.
SZ: On the other end of the spectrum, you make The Quintessential, which is made from 100% 2-row pale malted barley. What’s the difference to your approach when it comes to making a single malt versus a bourbon? Do you prefer making one to the other?
MQ: The QuintEssential is a fun project for me personally. As one of the few distilleries that also have a winery, we’re uniquely positioned to make The QuintEssential. What this means is that we have access to “fresh” wine casks in addition to the rum, brandy and other spirits we distill on site. In the morning we could be bottling red wine and by the afternoon that same red wine cask could be refilled with our single malt, allowing us to take advantage of the remaining liquid in the cask.
As far as the difference in approach goes, it’s night and day between our bourbon and single malt. With bourbon, we manage the mash, fermentation and distillation. Once the bourbon goes into the barrel, we’re essentially done with it.
Our single malt process is very different. Getting the whiskey into the barrel is only the beginning. We use a multitude of different finishing casks throughout the process, and we strategically marry many of these single malts together in our solera vat before finalizing a batch.
Producing single malt allows me to get a little more artistic and creative with the process. I can use a variety of different methods to shape the flavors and aromas of the final product.
I feel fortunate to have an opportunity to produce two pretty unique whiskeys.
SZ: You’ve now worked with celebrities like Slipknot on bottles of whiskey. Where did the idea of working with the band come from?
MQ: Believe it or not, they actually reached out to us about the opportunity via email. Slipknot obviously has a global following with millions of fans. But at the end of the day, they are an Iowan band and they wanted to work with an Iowan distillery. I think this says a lot about the band and what they stand for. We’re very proud to work alongside them.
SZ: How did you manage to work their ideas into a whiskey?
MQ: I’ve had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with Clown working on this project. What’s most impressive to me is how involved he is. He genuinely cares about this whiskey and has brought a lot to the table.
The most difficult part was creating a whiskey that adequately represents the band Slipknot. They are such a bold band with such a unique sound. Meanwhile, Cedar Ridge whiskey is typically on the more approachable side. So Clown and I had to come up with a creative solution for this. We landed on blending Cedar Ridge bourbon and rye together, which creates a full, bold final product.
SZ: Can you make some suggestions as to what we should pair Cedar Ridge’s various releases with?
- Iowa Bourbon – Our Iowa Bourbon pairs well with BBQ, steak, and pork.
- The QuintEssential – The QuintEssential pairs well with fresh vegetables and fish as well as sweet dishes. For events at the Distillery, we like to pair it at the end of the meal with our signature desserts.
- Slipknot No. 9 and Slipknot No. 9 Reserve – As blends of bourbon and rye, these whiskeys have more bite than our Iowa Bourbon. They pair well with sweet, saucy dishes to balance the spice of the rye like BBQ or pork with figs and apple pie.
SZ: Are there any cocktails you’re making right now that you think are perfect for Cedar Ridge whiskey? And can we get the recipe?
MQ: Absolutely! The hospitality team is always experimenting with new cocktail creations:
- Iowa Bourbon – With our clean, approachable style, our Iowa Bourbon makes great a great base for all sorts of cocktail options. Something unique we serve at our Distillery for our regular Sunday brunch is our “Breakfast Old Fashioned.”
The recipe is simple but the flavor is definitely layered: 2 oz. Cedar Ridge Iowa Bourbon, maple syrup, molasses bitters, bacon slice and orange peel.
Who said you can’t have bourbon at breakfast!?
The QuintEssential – While many people (myself included) prefer our single malt neat, simple cocktails like this classic Penicillin are another great way to enjoy and bring out the rich and complex flavors of the whiskey.
2 oz The QuintEssential
¾ oz Honey Simple Syrup
¾ oz Lemon Juice
3 slices of Fresh Ginger
Muddle ginger. Add ingredients and ice. Shake and strain into a rocks glass with a king cube. Garnish with a lemon peel.
Honey Simple Syrup: Bring 1 cup honey and 1 cup hot water to a boil. Remove heat. Gentle stir until honey is dissolved. Cool before use.
- Slipknot No. 9 and Slipknot No. 9 Reserve
A house favorite is our Root Tonic No. 9.
This summer we created this “Tiki-style” cocktail with our Slipknot No. 9 called the “Painkiller”.
2 oz Slipknot No. 9
3 oz Pineapple Juice
1 oz Lime Juice
0.5 oz Orange Simple Syrup
0.5 oz Creme of Coconut
2 Dashes of Orange Bitters
Build ingredients, add ice, shake and pour into a pint glass. Garnish with a lime and lemon wheel, and a cherry on a skewer.
Watch the Video Recipe: