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Distillery makes Earling a destination for craft vodka

July 15, 2018

EARLING, Iowa (AP) — Before surfacing the idea of building a distillery to his family, fourth-generation Earling farmer Pat Hoffmann kept it only as an idea for a year.

His father, wife and five children farm 600 acres of land in Earling, but only 10 to 15 acres per year are used to grow the corn that makes Lonely Oak Distillery’s North Forty vodka.

The Daily Nonpareil reports that the corn the distillery uses is purchased from an Amish farmer in New York. Hoffmann was searching for an open-pollinated, organic corn variety, meaning the resulting seed of that plant will produce an identical plant, while also not being genetically modified in any way. Hoffmann said the seed originated in the Midwest and is known for making excellent whiskey.

Finding the seed was only part of the Hoffmann’s decision-making process to open a distillery. Lonely Oak Distillery was in the making for six years before finally opening last year. While waiting on a permit, Hoffmann was also waiting on the copper stills he bought from a company based in Germany.

“I’m smart enough to know what I don’t know,” Hoffmann said. “We aren’t trying to re-invent the wheel; we are trying to use the best technology and mix it with what Iowa has to offer. In the last 10 years, I’ve seen distillery licenses become less cost-prohibitive. It’s allowed people like me to distill with the grain we grow here. That is value-added agriculture.”

Instead of feeding corn to a cow to eventually have a steak, Hoffmann said his family feeds corn into a still and makes whiskey, which is way more fun.

“I’ve been farming since I was a child. About 10 or 12 years ago, I went into it financially with my dad. There’s a certain appreciation for farming I don’t think people have until they start doing it. I’ve learned to appreciate the work people I’ve known my whole lives do and never thought twice about,” Hoffmann said.

Once Hoffmann built the distillery and finally made his first batch of vodka, it was time to bottle and package it, but he couldn’t find a neck label that he liked.

“I was so upset over this I started crying. I went back to the counter where I was working, and there was a shiny penny. I saw the penny — our seal on the bottles and our copper stills. And that was it.”

Currently, Lonely Oak Distillery labels the neck of their vodka with shiny 2017 pennies, on an emphasis that it could mean something different to everyone, from the year Lonely Oak Distillery opened.

“I would step over a quarter to pick up a penny,” Hoffmann said. “I know what it means to me when I find a penny. I want it to mean to others what they want it to mean. Maybe it means nothing. I am not sure what we will do once we can’t get those pennies anymore.”

While also farming and holding another job, Hoffmann and his family focus on production. He said his family strives to make something unique, pouring their hearts into every decision. Pat and Amy Hoffmann have five children, ages 20, 18, 10 and 8.

“When you have passion about something and you love it, it’s not like going to work. It’s having fun. My whole family has that passion,” he said.

Hoffmann said his eldest children give tours of the distillery and open the distillery during the week, and they’re working on opening the distillery more hours.

Currently, Lonely Oak sells to stores in Iowa, Nebraska and Connecticut.

July 5-6, of the 1,000 bottles made, 36 were given to the tasting room, and the rest were divided between Iowa and Nebraska. Hoffmann said Lonely Oak will reach another milestone when its first bourbon will be for sale at the distillery. Called Steeple Ridge, it has been aging for the last year. When poured into a glass bottle, the color is rich. “It’s perfect,” Hoffmann said.

After seven years strong, plans to make wheat whiskey, a rye and raspberry and vanilla vodka are unfolding behind the Hoffmanns’ production. Although Lonely Oak has only been open for a year, Hoffmann said he wants to make Earling a destination for locals and people all over the country. He said he wants locals to come back often and see they are doing something new and different.

After weighing the decision to open a distillery, choosing the products and packaging, Hoffmann said opening a distillery takes a family, and that his entire family is involved.

Seven years later, Hoffmann repeated what he said to his wife when the idea surfaced: “This is the idea I’ve been holding on to for a year, and I can’t let it go,” and he said, “She was right there with (me), I could have never done it without her.”

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Information from: The Daily Nonpareil, http://www.nonpareilonline.com

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