ROCK RAPIDS—Rock River Distillation is Dave Ackerman’s “hobby gone awry,”
The craft whiskey distillery, located at Ackerman’s home south of Rock Rapids, is an effort to make whiskey to drink for the flavor of the whiskey instead of as a mixed drink.
“There’s all kind of alcohol on the market if you want to get inebriated, but I’m trying to build a more sophisticated experience if you will,” Ackerman said.
That’s why Rock River Distillation’s slogan reads “There’s no whiskey too strong, only men too weak.”
Ackerman makes two types of “American sipping whiskey” intended for sipping neat — or if you prefer, with an ice cube.
“What I like to think about is it’s when you have time and you can sit and sip with a glass, take in the flavors and just kind of enjoy the experience rather than throwing it back. I really try to do something that creates a flavor that is unique and different,” he said.
His first product is a Double Barrel Bourbon. The bourbon has a smooth caramel and oak flavor, with hints of smoke. It’s aged in American oak barrels with charred interiors. The double barrel technique helps the bourbon age further and intensifies the dark color and oak flavor of the drink.
“That’s what sets me apart because this is what you’d call accelerated barreling. It’s brand-new staves, it’s brand-new charcoal to try to just really nail the whiskey with that flavor,” Ackerman said.
Rock River Distillation’s other product is called Revenant Rye. This rye whiskey is aged in a freshly harvest bourbon barrel for a twist on the flavor, which Ackerman described as brisk, dry and spicy.
Notably, his whiskeys are both 90 proof, slightly higher proof than what’s normally sold on shelves, something Ackerman found he enjoyed while developing his recipes and building the flavor profiles of his products.
The journey to having his first bottles hit shelves has been a long time coming. Ackerman started out making wine in 2013.
Finding that was not quite in line with his interests, he became interested in the craft whiskey movement and began researching distilling processes. During the almost yearlong process of getting his state and federal licenses to distill spirits, he researched everything he could about making whiskey.
“There’s a little bit of chemistry, a little bit of creativity, a little bit of artistry and a lot of paperwork to get to this point,” Ackerman said.
He received his license in August 2018. A month later he was sealing up his first barrel of whiskey.
Under Iowa liquor laws, Rock River Distillation can provide samples or sell bottles from the distillery to individual patrons. Bars, restaurants and liquor stores wanting to carry his product have to purchase it through distributors from the Iowa Alcohol Beverage Division in Ankeny.
Ackerman brought his first bottles of bourbon and rye whiskey to Ankeny in late October. He initially sold it in 375-milliliter bottles, but has since switched to the more common 750-milliliter size.
Like many small distilleries, the need to have a ready supply of product means Ackerman has to supplement what he makes in-house with spirits from other distilleries.
About 40 percent of the straight whiskey is sourced from distilleries in Indiana, which Ackerman finishes in-house through his own process to imbue it with the desired flavors. He hopes in the next year or so to scale up his own production enough to no longer need that.
“It’s grown faster than I had intended it to, yet demand has kind of grown to where I need to keep making it,” Ackerman said.
Although he has been distilling for almost three years, it’s only in the last eight months that Ackerman has been able to get outside feedback on his whiskey. So far, he said the reviews have been positive.
“It’s catching on and I’m getting messages from people who say they like what I’m doing, so that’s encouraging,” Ackerman said.
Several N’West Iowa businesses stock his whiskey, including Todd’s Station and Chase Companies Liquor Locker in Rock Rapids and Schottsy’s Liquor in Sibley. Rock River Brewing Company in Rock Rapids makes a beer called Grandpa’s Bootleg which is aged with oak chips soaked in Ackerman’s bourbon.
Ackerman does not know exactly where else his whiskey has landed since he has no way of telling what retailers purchase it from distributors. However, he and other family members have spotted it at Hy-Vees in Spirit Lake, Des Moines, Council Bluffs and Iowa City.
Going forward, Ackerman hopes to see his product in more local liquor stores, although he has been limited in his ability to do that because of the demands of other aspects of the business, from bottling to keeping the books to selling merchandise.
“I’m covering all the bases, and I’m just one guy. I need to do more exposure, but I’m a one-man show,” he said.
Because of that, he intends to stick to giving tours of the distillery rather than having regular hours. He recently finished an addition to the barn that houses the distillery and is adding a bathroom to the site.