It’s a balmy and gray early summer morning in central Missouri, and Gary Hinegardner is strolling the fields behind his distillery. Row after row of bright green corn shoots stand in furrows plowed into the dark soil. The air is heavy with humidity, and storm clouds gather in the distance, promising rain.
Hinegardner, a career agronomist before distilling, has spent more than a decade now experimenting with corn varieties that were once plentiful, but have since largely been lost to the more common strains used for animal feed and ethanol production. Here, however, in this particular field, Hinegardner is bringing back to life some 44 different heritage strains of corn — specific to Missouri — that he intends to make into whiskey.
“I’ve grown more kinds of blue corn here in New Florence, Missouri, than anybody else in the world. And this is my 11th crop,” he says. “From the 1900s to the 1940s, everybody was worried about ‘What’s gonna happen to grandpa’s corn?’ They packaged it up, and stored it in a place in Ames, Iowa… and that’s what we got out, and planted,” Hinegardner says, referring to the USDA seed bank at Iowa State University.
“Last year we grew 129 different varieties as part of the Missouri Heritage Corn Project,” he says, a project Hinegardner founded and now oversees. He uses many of these grains to make some highly acclaimed spirits.
Hinegardner, distiller and owner of Wood Hat Spirits, is a key player in what has become one of the fastest-growing and diverse communities of craft distilleries in the country. Missouri has of course long been known to most as a “beer state” — St. Louis is the home of Budweiser, and the craft brewing scene has been a huge across the state since the 80s. In fact, most distillers in the state will tell you they come from a beer background.
Missouri also has a thriving wine industry. In 1980, the region around Augusta, MO, became the first federally recognized American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the U.S., eight months before California’s Napa Valley. It should come as no surprise then that the state is now easily a top contender for one of the best places in the U.S. for making craft spirits.
Missouri’s unique suite of resources, regulations, and culture make for a nearly ideal environment for craft distilleries to thrive. Take, for example, the natural resources available: Any grain that’s fermentable, plus fruits such as apples and grapes, limestone water throughout the state, and vast white oak forests used to make the world’s best barrels.
“Pick any agricultural product, and Missouri is one of the top three states producing it,” says Tara Steffens, co-owner of Pinckney Bend Distillery in New Haven, Missouri.
At just over a decade in business, Pinckney Bend is one of the longest-operating craft distilleries in Missouri, and is, along with Hinegardner, a founding member of the Missouri Craft Distillers Guild. Steffens and partner Keith Meyer have taken full advantage of the state’s unique environment to develop their acclaimed line of spirits. Although they are known primarily for their gin, they also produce whiskey and brandy, and were the first distillery in Missouri to produce a canned cocktail.
“We like to say we are a gin distillery with a whiskey problem,” Steffens says.
One of the guild’s most notable achievements so far was spearheading the creation of the Missouri Spirits Expedition, launched in 2019, and which includes over 30 craft distilleries scattered all over the state. Given the size of the state, touring all of them in a single trip would be impossible, but visitors can pick up maps from participating distilleries and tour them at their leisure. You can download one from the Expedition’s website.
Missouri, with its motto “The Show Me State,” lays special claim to fostering a culture that rewards “Prove-It-ness.” If you think you can do it, Steffens says, “then show me. Go do it.”
Hinegardner agrees. “Missouri people, we don’t tend to be followers,” he says. “Show me you can do it. Prove it. That is something central to Missourians. We’re proud of it.”
Given the rich resources available, and a relatively permissive regulatory environment, Missouri has become a thriving destination for aspiring craft distilling entrepreneurs.
“We looked at several other states, but we decided on Missouri,” says Dave Weglarz, owner of Still 630 in downtown St. Louis. “And what sealed the deal for me was the regulatory environment. You can distill, have a tasting room, sell bottles out of your tasting room. This all helps you compete.”
Weglarz is renowned in the distilling community for his vast flavor library of tinctures and distillations of single botanicals. One of 630’s biggest attractions locally are their small runs of one-off specialty spirits, which they’ve been releasing every month now for five years. This summer they released a range of specialty finished peated malt whiskies conditioned in a variety of barrels such as apple brandy and sorghum.
Spirits of St. Louis Distillery, which operates within the Square One Brewery & Distillery, has been in operation since 2009. They are the only distillery operating in Missouri that sells their products strictly on site, in conjunction with a thriving restaurant business.
“For me the idea of making the same thing over and over can get kind of boring,” says owner Steve Neukomm. He and his team make seventeen different spirits, including falernum, agave spirits, a winter gin and a summer gin, and a gin they call MO Gin, which uses only botanicals native to Missouri. “I like being able to make different stuff and change it for the season. It just gives me and my distiller a chance to play with some new flavors.”
Missouri, like any state, isn’t yet an entirely perfect place to operate a distilling business, but that’s something Hindgardner, Steffens and Weglarz, and the Guild have been working hard to help change. The Guild, created in 2019, is currently focused on winning over state legislators to how craft distilling and spirits are an enormous benefit to the state and local communities.
“We’ve grown from five, to over 40 member distilleries, in 4 years,” says Lynn Weber, who is the current guild president. “That’s something worth noting.”
Weber is co-owner of Edelbrand Pure Distilling, which is one of the more boutique small brands operating in Missouri, although their advocacy impact is well known in the craft distilling community.
Edelbrand is a spirits shop that takes their time macerating botanicals and fruits to make their award-winning brandies and eaux de vie. Weber is also helping lead the charge to get the current state tax codes simplified into something more fair compared to the beer and wine industries, which long have proven lucrative for the state. This excise tax issue is the number one pain point for Missouri distillers: As in many states, the beer and wine industries have a very big head start creating a favorable tax code for their products. The Missouri craft spirits industry still has a ways to go.
“Spirits still carry this little bit of stigma,” Steffens says, noting that canned cocktails are taxed at a much higher rate than beer or wine, despite actually containing less alcohol. “It’s hard to complain though, Missouri is a wonderful state with lots of options.”
For Hinegardner, he considers running a craft distillery in The Show Me State a privilege. It allows him — like all the other distilleries in this unique state — to pursue an individual vision.
And as for the name “Wood Hat,” you’ll immediately know why once you visit the distillery, or meet him at an ADI Conference. Hinegardner apprenticed long ago with a master woodworker who taught him how to carve impressively fashioned hats, out of wood. He displays and wears them proudly.
“We’ve got some pretty ingenious things happening here,” he says. “You’ve got one person that wants to make whiskey, and then the next one says ‘I want to do something different.’ It’s where the uniqueness comes in.”
Check out ADI’s website for the upcoming Craft Spirits Conference & Expo for a list of distillery tours, including all of those mentioned here, and many others.