By law, the mixture of grains that are used to make bourbon must be at least 51% corn, and Nebraska is the third largest corn producer in the nation. The Cornhusker State and bourbon just might be the perfect pair.
Crafting bourbon is a relatively simple process: after at least 51% corn, any combination of rye, wheat, or barley can make up the remainder of a bourbon’s mash bill. The grains are milled and then combined with water in a mash tun where enzymes convert the starch from grain into fermentable sugars. This liquid is strained (the solids are fed to grateful local livestock) and added to a brew kettle where yeast is introduced. The yeast transforms the fermentable sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide, and the mixture finally makes its way to a still—an apparatus that heats, then subsequently cools liquid to condense vapor. Bourbon must be distilled at no higher than 160 proof and aged in new charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years.
Both Brickway Brewery & Distillery and Loup River Distilling distill bourbon in-house. Brickway head distiller Zac Triemert, located in Omaha, employs a copper pot still with an upward angled lyne arm (the piece that connects the head of a pot still to the condenser), which creates a lighter, more flavorful, well-balanced spirit. Brickway’s mash bill is 52% corn and a mix of malted barley, white wheat and rye, all sourced from the upper Midwest and Canada.
Loup River Distilling, located in St. Paul, NE, uses hybrid columnar stills and a mash bill with a higher representation of corn—closer to 80%. The corn is balanced with a smidgen of rye and barley, and all grains are grown by head distiller Eric Montemagni right in his hometown.
Literally field to bottle, Loup River’s Montemagni grows and harvests the grain, which is milled in small batches and placed in the mash tun. The grains are heated to just the right temperature (burnt corn isn’t delicious) and next the mash is pumped into a temperature-controlled fermenting tank to cool down to between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. According to Montemagni, the yeast used is fast-acting, so the fermenting period lasts a mere four to five days. The resultant liquid is then run through two hybrid columnar stills where the new make is distilled to between 140 and 150 proof and placed in new charred American oak barrels from Minnesota. Finally, the aging continues onsite in either the barrel room or the dedicated rickhouse. According to Montemagni, “Nebraska’s high humidity is perfect whiskey aging weather.”
David Mark Young of Golden Sheaf Bourbon is a passionate entrepreneur with a penchant for studying bourbon’s storied past. Years ago, he stumbled across a company that started in 1866, when Nebraska was a mere territory. Before long, his love for bourbon and intrigue about this historical spirit converged, leading him to revive the brand in 2020.
By 1875, years before the Federal government collected income taxes, Golden Sheaf was generating over 90 percent of Nebraska’s revenue. During prohibition, it was one of only eight distilleries in the country invited to continue distilling for “medicinal purposes.” Alas, the owners declined this opportunity and focused instead on supporting the notable Omaha Stockyards.
Golden Sheaf does not source grain or distill spirits; rather, it sources quality spirits from other producers. Young relies on his trained palate to blend, crafting refined expressions for the luxury brand. “As a passionate bourbon guy, I spent a lot of time over the years familiarizing myself with bourbons and products,” recalled Young. With great proof comes great responsibility, and the visionary blender takes his job and palate very seriously, sourcing varied barrels from distillers across the country.
A batch of Golden Sheaf typically comprises three aged expressions, eight years and older. Striving for the most robust, flavorful blend, Young grades the whiskey out of the barrel at 120 proof, then grades again at 80 proof, and finally back up to cask strength before repeating the process blind. “The apex is where proof and flavor are maximized. Our bourbon is a more mature, high flavor, high proof, luxury product,” he explained.
Triemert enjoys fostering whiskey interest and teaching patrons. “Starting with craft beer in the mid 90s, consumers became interested in the process and back stories,” he said. “They’ve now taken that interest and enthusiasm into brown spirits. Bourbon is accessible and affordable, and infinitely more complex than vodka. When people started on this adventure, the biggest thing people saw was Canadian Club their grandpa drank, and now people are like ‘oh wait it’s so much more than that!’”
Montemagni believes bourbon’s popularity is well-deserved and enjoys his bourbon straight up or in a traditional Old Fashioned or Manhattan cocktail. Triemert’s favored way to drink bourbon is with a single ice cube, but he doesn’t judge anyone’s preference. “I like to tell people ‘drink however you like it’ even a splash of coke is fine, start to learn and you’ll grow and have fun doing it. Don’t be super pretentious, just enjoy it.”
These thoughtfully crafted local bourbon bottles grace the shelves across the state at grocery and liquor stores, select bars and restaurants, and many are distributed throughout the country. “We can be found all over, from your average drinking hole to the nicer places,” shared Triemert. This fall, look for Golden Sheaf’s new brick and mortar spot near Oak View Mall, featuring a blending lab, bottling facility, education and retail center, as well as tasting room and venue space.
Nebraska’s affinity for all things local has proven positive for the smaller distilleries, and each of these award-winning Nebraska distillers is determined to continue learning and growing their brand. Interested whiskey drinkers can also find them well-represented at Omaha’s Whiskey Fest this October.
For more stories like this, visit Discover.