As the largest corn producer in the nation, it’s no surprise that Iowa farms often fuel the state’s distilleries. Century Farms Distillery followed this same route but took a new approach to the distilling process. Owners Amanda and Ryan Bare instead merged their engineering skills and passion for farms to craft a unique method for producing traditional spirits.
After graduating from Iowa State University with degrees in mechanical engineering, Amanda and Ryan moved to Texas. There, she worked for NASA while he worked in the oil refinery industry. Eventually, they moved back to Iowa to be closer to family and Ryan landed a job at an ethanol plant. He became intrigued by the process of turning Iowa corn into fuel and, when he re-entered the oil industry, spent his free time experimenting with turning corn into spirits. As his hobby grew, the couple eventually turned it into an official business plan and set forth in building Century Farms Distillery in their home community of Spencer.
“Engineering is a broad discipline, but it’s first and foremost critical thinking and problem solving,” Amanda said. “Ryan wanted to build and manage his own production plant, so we built it from scratch with the idea of bringing in corn from various producers and farmers throughout the Midwest.”
With five years of amateur distilling experience to build on, they purchased a group of buildings in 2017 and Ryan started designing his own distilling equipment. After connecting with area farms to source the grain, the couple built everything by hand and developed a one-of-a-kind small batch system that keeps the corn from each farm separate, which produces a unique flavor for every batch. They officially opened the tasting room for samples and tours in 2019.
Small Batch Sensation
Though they initially sourced their grain from century and heritage farms, hence the distillery’s name, they quickly realized they wanted to provide the same opportunity to more farms. So, they created the Corn to Whiskey program. Now, farmers throughout the Midwest can turn their grain into whiskey and share their story.
“Whiskey is made all over the country, but Iowa makes corn better than anyone else,” Katie Kardell, Century Farms Distillery’s marketing manager, said. “This gives the farmer the chance to experience the distilling process and have a hand in it. And everything is so unique when you tweak it here and there.”
The process starts when the farmer delivers 50 bushels of corn after which it’s processed and stored in barrels for two years. Once it’s properly aged, the farmer receives an empty 53-gallon barrel and 60 bottles with the farm’s customized label and a QR code that links to the farm’s story page on the distillery’s website. While each farmer’s corn makes about 1,000 finished bottles, the rest of them are sold in stores or served in the distillery’s tasting room. If farmers don’t want to wait the full two years, they can have their corn turned into unaged moonshine instead and receive the final product quicker.
Today, 72 farms, most of which are in Iowa, have participated in the program, helping Century Farms Distillery master its craft and perfect its small batch system along the way. Some of the farms’ products have even won awards; the single barrel bourbons that were created from the McCauley and Walker Farms earned two gold medals at the Major League Spirit Association’s (MLSA) 2023 competition.
Amanda and Ryan hope many more awards are in their future as they continue working with farmers across the Midwest and experiment on their own with new ingredients and flavors. In the meantime, visitors can sample the Corn to Whiskey program’s creations and take a tour of the extraordinary distillery.
The distillery also recently added a food truck to their offerings. It’s owned by TJ Johnson, a local foodie whose grandfather once owned the building when it was a bar called the Alibi. TJ named his food truck to honor his own family’s story, and Curbside Alibi now serves delicious homemade food with plans of following the distillery’s legacy of sourcing its ingredients from local farms.
“Our main mission and value are supporting sustainable agriculture and making great whiskey,” Amanda said. “We have some experimental things going on right now, but we’re making sure we can grow and still stay true to Iowa’s roots. That’s why we do what we do and continue to build relationships with Iowa farmers.”