Siouxland Stories: Retired Siouxland educator turns barn into his own distillery

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(KCAU) — The operation is all under one roof, inside a barn built by a former educator and football coach. It’s a whiskey business that started out as a way to keep Dave Ackerman busy in retirement.

Ackerman spent most of his life working with the next generation of Siouxlanders.

“I was in education for 30 years. I was a shop teacher and football coach for eight years, and I was a high school principal for eight years, and I was a superintendent for 14 years. I retired just a few years ago. This was kind of, when I retired, I wanted to do something fun and something that kept me busy and this is what I came across,” Ackerman said.

The barn became Rock River Distillery, now home to what Ackerman called the “American Sippin’ Whiskey.”

“It’s just a one-man operation, it’s just me,” Ackerman said.

However, before the barley came the grape.

A trip to California inspired him to plant a northern, hearty variety. But, those grapes didn’t take off as expected and the product he did made went cold, literally.

“So what happened is, I had seven carboys of wine and it got real cold one winter day and it all froze. I figured it was ruined, so I Googled it and I’d come to discover that I’d performed ‘ice distilling’. It said, just pour the red liquid off. So that was about a 40% alcohol raspberry brandy, I suppose it was. It was very tasty, it went over very well,” Ackerman said.

Despite the happy accident, Ackerman shifted his focus to spirits.

“After I got looking into it, and perhaps watching a few episodes of Moonshiners, you think, well you know what? I think I could do that. So I applied for my license, did a bunch of researching. Took about eight months to get my federal license, took another 6 months to get my state license. In the meantime, I did a lot of experimenting, trying to figure out what I liked,” Ackerman said.

And, what he liked was a strong oak and smoke flavor. Ackerman said that is what he tries to duplicate in his recipes.

“I got a copper still because copper works best with making distilled spirits and started experimenting and having fun,” Ackerman said.

Ackerman explained the process of how the whiskey is made.

“The couple things that make a difference in the taste of a whiskey is your mash build. Our bourbon starts off with a 21% rye, 75% corn and 4% malted barley. You make a mash, you make a beer, you ferment it as soon as you can, get it into the still and from the still it goes into the barrel for two years, in order to be called a straight whiskey.”

“After two years in the barrel, it comes out looking like this. And what we’re trying to do is add a secondary flavor to it, we have a barrel accelerator, we hit it with the oak and the char, increase the surface area, really expose the whiskey to a lot of the oak. So from there, this is five weeks in the barrel accelerator.”

“By the end you come out with something that’s dark, something that’s very complex with oak and smoke flavor and it’s very smooth.”

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From there we proof it down to 90 proof, about 45% alcohol. I like a little bit of extra alcohol bite in it. And it’s a craft whiskey, so it’s made to be consumed carefully and slowly. It’s a sipping whiskey, American Sippin’ Whiskey. It’s a sophisticated experience, a reflective experience is what I’m going for,” said Ackerman.

Ackerman said the community liquor stores and bars statewide have been supportive and seem to be enjoying the new product. For now, he’s still running the distillery on his own.

It’s either gonna fail miserably, and that’s okay. It could take off and keep me busy for a number of years and that’s ok too. And on the other hand, maybe somebody else wants to jump in on this with me and we’ll see where that goes. For now, I call it a hobby gone a-wry. It was something I was having fun with and now it’s grown into a small business I’m enjoying.”

Ackerman adds the enjoyment factor is what started his business in the first place.

“I produced it as an American Sippin’ Whiskey, it’s about the experience. It’s about taking time and tasting the actual whiskey itself. Contemplating life, and being reflective. That’s my thought process behind it. If one wants to become inebriated, there’s all kinds of things out there to do that, but this is a craft whiskey, like a craft beer. It’s something you want to taste, and take in and enjoy the moment, so that’s what this is about,” Ackerman said.

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