Templeton Rye founder Keith Kerkoff visits Denver, tells the story behind the spirit
Keith Kerkhoff's grandfather began distilling Templeton Rye whiskey during Prohibition.
In hard times, people are often forced to find ways to make money. Sometimes those means of generating much-needed revenue aren't always legal. Growing up in rural western Iowa in the 1930s, Keith Kerkhoff was the son of a farmer searching for ways to feed his family. The family had a history of farming, but also of making whiskey. One day Kerkhoff's grandfather pulled him aside and said, "We're going to do something today and you can't say anything to anyone about it..."
What Kerkhoff was introduced to that day was the art of making whiskey. Originating from a family recipe scrawled on a piece of paper, that whiskey is known today as Templeton Rye. Kerkhoff traveled to Denver Monday night to introduce his whiskey at Star Bar, where he offered whiskey samples and stories of his whiskey's once-outlawed origins.
He knew his father and grandfather had been involved in illicit spirits production, but he had never been exposed to their secret operations. At an early age, Kerkhoff questioned his father, asking, "Isn't grandpa going to show us how to make whiskey? Because that's kind of something that you inherit. It's our heritage, and I think it's something that should be passed on." At that time, Kerkhoff was in eighth grade. His father's response was, "Don't concern yourself about it."
Kerkhoff's grandfather eventually revealed the blueprints of his long-hidden distilling methods. "The first time I learned from my grandfather," he explained, "he showed me a hydrometer." A hydrometer is a cylindrical glass instrument that measures the specific gravity -- or the density -- of water. It's a tool that's indispensable to a brewer or distiller. "If you break this," Kerkhoff's grandfather warned, "we're out of business."
While they are available today at Walmart or any brewing supply store, during Prohibition you didn't just go to the pharmacy and ask for a hydrometer. You had to be clever. "What my grandfather did," Kerkhoff said, "is he posed as a doctor. He called down to some pharmacy in Omaha, Nebraska, which is about two hours away, and he asked to pick up a hydrometer. When my grandfather walked into the pharmacy it was on the counter, with the words 'Dr. Kerkhoff' written on the box. He was really proud of that. When he showed off the box with the words 'Dr. Kerkhoff' written on it, he said, 'You better respect me, I'm a doctor.' "
As Kerkhoff regaled the crowd with humorous stories, whiskey samples were passed around. Templeton is distilled from a grain mix containing 90 percent rye, which is a key characteristic that distinguishes it from predominantly corn-based bourbon. The rye used in Templeton comes from Europe, where it thrives in the cooler climate. The whiskey is aged four years in new oak barrels before being bottled.
"My grandfather continued to make it," Kerkhoff said of his family recipe, which went out of production from 1933 to about 1999. Kerkhoff was approached by a family friend who wanted to resurrect the locally made whiskey, known as "the good stuff."
"When we started our company, our first batch was 68 barrels," he explained. "That sounds like a lot of whiskey, right? Well, I can tell you that today we have 23,000 barrels aging." Compared to Jack Daniels, which has 1.2 million barrels aging, Templeton is still considered a small-batch whiskey.
"It was limited to Iowa and Illinois for a long time and a lot of our success was just dumb luck," Kerkhoff said. "What happened is, we were in Iowa, and we only had 68 barrels that we got into the market. People got a taste of it, everybody wanted it, and you couldn't get it. You'd stand in line for it. Finally we made enough product a few years back -- now we're in 49 states."
As Kerkhoff's new company grew, he hired Michael Killmer as Templeton's first employee. Killmer moved from Iowa to Chicago to help promote the whiskey as a brand ambassador. He joined Kerkhoff at Star Bar to help explain how the company evolved.
"We just followed the natural bootlegging ties to Chicago," Killmer said. "Chicago was our second market. We were there for five years while we were amping up supply. Templeton Rye is all about the town of Templeton in western Iowa. We have the Kerkhoff family recipe, but the very unique thing about Templeton is that they were actually aging their whiskey in a time of rot-gut stuff."
During Prohibition, Templeton Rye was dubbed "the good stuff." Most other whiskeys were simply moonshine. The quality of the Kerkhoff family whiskey didn't escape the notice of notorious gangster Al Capone, who was busy bootlegging in the Chicago area. Capone favored Templeton as his drink of choice, and even supplied it to speakeasies in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. Legend has it that Capone, jailed for tax evasion in 1931, had bottles of Kerkoff's whiskey smuggled to his cell on Alcatraz Island.
Producing Templeton wasn't easy during Prohibition, which banned the distillation of spirits from 1920 to 1933. "The sheriff was on the side of the bootleggers," Kerkhoff said. "One of the signals was when he was wearing a hat. That meant that the revenue agents were close, so watch out." Regardless, Kerkhoff's grandfather was busted three times by agents roaming the region on the lookout for illegal stills.
"We lived a mile and a half south of Templeton," Kerkhoff said, "and you have to understand that during Prohibition, Templeton Rye drew a lot of hobos. These hobos would walk onto your yard and ask you for a cup of coffee, or whatever. Well, one day my grandmother was out in the yard, and this hobo comes walking up and asks for a cup of coffee. She obliged him and gave him a cup of coffee. The next question was, 'You wouldn't happen to have any of that Templeton Rye, would you?' She went over to the garbage can and slid the garbage can over -- they always kept a bottle underneath the garbage can. She gave him a drink. Well, then he revealed that he was a revenue agent."
Kerkhoff told another story about a run-in with revenue agents that took place one winter. After a light snowfall, the farm buildings on Kerkhoff's property were covered with a light dusting of snow -- except one. The hog house, where the illegal still was producing whiskey, generated enough heat to prevent snow from accumulating on the roof. That lack of snow was a signal to the agents, who discovered the still. They smashed the still and scattered the grains, which were consumed by Kerkhoff's hogs.
These days, hogs are still eating those grains. "We're doing a really cool project," Kerkhoff said. "Being from Iowa, we wanted to do something good with the spent mash. It's called the Templeton Rye Heritage Pork Project. We're feeding Iowa Duroc pigs our spent mash. We're actually going to be shipping one of those pigs to Justin Brunson at Old Major. It's a unique way to utilize everything." Kerkhoff's Duroc hogs are also available for purchase, by visiting www.TempletonRyePortkProject.com.
Templeton Rye is available at Star Bar and also at Argonaut Wine & Liquor.
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