For most distillers, bars and drinkers across the country, the start of Prohibition in the United States on Jan. 17, 1920, was the onset of dark times.
But for bootleggers in Templeton, Iowa, the era gave them a chance to thrive — and for one distiller, it gave him a chance to build a “brand.”
Iowa actually had statewide prohibition that began in 1916, four years before national prohibition went into effect. During this era, one Templeton man, Alphonse Kerkhoff, was making a moonshine that stood out from the others at the time because in addition to sugar, he was also using rye, and then aging it for at least a year in charred new oak barrels. That bit of spice from the rye, and age from the barrel, gave him the reputation for selling “The Good Stuff,” said Tim Grimes, senior brand ambassador for Templeton Rye.
In the 1920s, a farm crisis hit, and then, the Great Depression began in 1929. But Templeton, with a population of about 350, didn’t suffer from it because almost everyone had some part to play in the growing bootlegging business.
“No one lost their farms, because everyone was in on it, sheriffs, priests, the church, people at the phone company,” Grimes said.
The Good Stuff ended up in Chicago speakeasies via cattle cars that stopped at Templeton. It was even said to have been gangster Al Capone’s drink of choice.
It’s tough to know how much product was sold during that time — one of the drawbacks of an illegal operation — but Grimes said there are records that once a month, the small town received three train cars full of sugar. That’s a lot of moonshine.
Two generations later, Alphonse Kerkhoff’s grandson Keith Kerkhoff, a farmer and distiller himself, decided to turn things legal and launch the brand Templeton Rye in 2006, a rye whiskey with a smooth, sweet profile that was a nod to those sugar moonshine roots.
The timing was right — the cocktail renaissance was getting into full swing, and rye was hard to come by. The brand was a hit — with some later controversy. It was made with sourced whiskey from MGP, a manufacturer in Indiana, and was the subject of a class-action lawsuit for “deceptively marketing” its whiskey as an Iowa product. The brand settled in 2015 and paid consumers refunds of between $3 to $6 a bottle depending on proof of purchase, the Chicago Tribune reported at the time.
Many companies used sourced product, and Templeton wasn’t secretive about their process to whiskey insiders and some reporters, but the lawsuit lead to clearer labeling.
Drinks writer Kara Newman said that the labeling practice controversy tarnished the brand’s cache among bartenders, but that Templeton is a workhorse rye.
“It hits all the right vanilla-and-spice notes without coming on too strong,” she said. “It’s a high-rye bottling, at 90% rye in the mash bill, so it’s still plenty spicy. But it’s bottled at a very approachable 80 proof, which contrasts with the current trend to bottle ryes at 45% or higher, even cask strength.”
And off-premise sales around the globe remain strong According to marketing research company IRi Templeton Rye is the number one selling rye in the $30-$40 price category, and the number three selling rye overall for the last year in both dollar sales and total units.
In a few years, it will be a fully Iowa product. A distillery opened in Templeton in 2018, and, depending on how the product ages, a 100 percent Iowa product could be released as early as 2022. The company is no longer buying new product from MGP, and will use the current stock in experimental releases until it’s used up, Grimes said.
For many years, the brand was known for its 4-year and 6-year product, but that’s starting to expand. In 2018, Templeton released a limited-edition barrel strength that is becoming part of the core line, and is launching a series of special releases, like a maple-finish rye with more to come this year.
The growing distillery complex in Templeton has a visitor’s center and a history museum. But those looking to commemorate a bit of history now as the company has hired “newsboys” to distribute 1920s era newspapers in New York City Jan. 16. Bars in New York offering drink specials through Jan. 19 include Rye House, District Local, District Social, Lucky Strike, and Morandi. In Chicago, Templeton is turning a full page of the Chicago Tribune into a historic paper from the ‘20s, and drink specials are featured at The Darling, Rocks and 2Twenty2 Tavern from Jan. 16 to Jan. 19.