Something wild

Hamilton County's Wildcat Distilling Co. was named for Wildcat Cave where infamous outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow hid out after robbing a nearby bank.

-Messenger photo by David Borer
Julie Coleman, left, and Ann McLaughlin enjoy refreshing beverages at Wildcat Distilling Co. Tasting Room in downtown Webster City.

Perhaps Webster City can thank Bonnie and Clyde for the retro, forward-thinking spot downtown where a cocktail can soothe even the most urgent thirst.

Wildcat Distilling Co., whose brick and mortar Tasting Room occupies 626 Second St., serves up camaraderie and its namesake whiskey.

The business was named for Wildcat Cave, where infamous outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow hid out after robbing a nearby bank.

“At least that’s the story told around Duncombe,” distillery owners and siblings Brad Lemke and Alissa Nelson say.

“Our grandparents told us the story about Bonnie and Clyde,” Nelson says. “We’re not sure if it’s true, but it makes sense, since they often hid out in secluded areas and robbed three gas stations in the area. The story is part of local lore and it’s fun to tell to customers who ask how the distillery got its name.”

Wildcat Distilling started making whiskey in 2020. The goal? Bolster revenues to preserve the family farm.

They found the best way to do that was to add value to grain by turning it into whiskey.

“We’re a smaller farm that can’t compete on volume alone,” Lemke told C Magazine, a publication of CHS, which is a diversified global agribusiness cooperative owned by farmers and local cooperatives across the United States.

The farm is 460 acres.

“If you look back through history, the primary use for grain that wasn’t sold for food or livestock feed has been alcohol.”

Hence, the farm-to-glass story: “Till, mill and distill.”

Lemke started farming his family’s land in 2014, a few years after his grandfather, Alvin Isakson, retired.

In 2017, Lemke remembers selling corn for $3.10 per bushel, well below break-even in Iowa.

That tough year is seared into Lemke’s memory. “We needed another steady income source to survive,” he says.

Lemke, Nelson and their spouses decided to use their talents and the marketing hook of the cave to cash in on the artisanal spirits craze.

U.S. craft spirits sales are growing 10.4% annually, according to the American Craft Spirits Association.

Lemke, a former operations manager with a fertilizer manufacturer, is the head distiller due to his knowledge of chemical processes. His wife, Amanda Lemke, runs the Wildcat Distilling tasting room in nearby Webster City.

Nelson and her husband, Tony Nelson, have full-time jobs in creative design and marketing and sales, respectively, and use their skills to promote and support the business.

About 20% of the farm is devoted to growing grain for whiskey, including yellow corn, Jimmy Red corn, hard red winter wheat, cereal rye, barley and sorghum. Corn is the primary grain used.

“We pride ourselves on being a farm-to-glass distillery. It doesn’t take much grain to make a batch of whiskey — about 600 pounds or just over 10 bushels,” Lemke says.

A batch typically fills 24 to 48 750-milliliter bottles, sometimes more. Whiskey yield varies due to corn starch content and fermentability.

“There’s quite a bit of value (turning grain into whiskey),” he says. “If corn is worth $3 per bushel, we can make it worth almost $80 per bushel.”

There’s a learning curve to adding specialty crops and small grains to what had been a simple corn-soybean crop rotation, Lemke told C Magazine. Agronomists with Landus Cooperative, based in Ames, help the operation acquire seed, fertilizer and other inputs and provide agronomic advice.

“I planted grain sorghum for the first time this year (2023) to make a new whiskey. When I had questions about seeding depth and rate and crop protection, Landus came through,” Lemke says.

Helping farmer-owners succeed is the primary goal, Matt Carstens, Landus president and CEO, told C Magazine.

“We’re farmer-focused and our job is to provide them with everything they need,” he says. “Whether it’s a value-added venture or not, we remain diligent in providing opportunities to help family farmers.”

Wildcat Distilling sells six whiskeys ranging in price from $28 to $42 per bottle, with plans to expand production to include bourbon and other spirits. The team’s production goal is 380 bottles per week. Wildcat products are sold by regional retailers, including Hy-Vee stores.

Lemke adds, “At our Tasting Room in downtown Webster City, we not only sell our craft spirits by the bottle and by the glass, we also have a wide assortment of beer and wines available.

In addition, the Tasting Room is a destination for specialty events hosted by various groups, including local nonprofits. Arts R Alive in Webster City and LIFT WC are two examples.

LIFT will host a reservation-only fundraiser there on March 2.

In the spring of 2023, Arts R Alive hosted its affiliate, SculptureOne, and the artists whose work was being installed in West Twin Park for the 2023 Art in the Park season.

So while Wildcat Distillery is a boost for the family farm, it’s something else important.

It’s value-added for downtown Webster City too.


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