Farm Distilleries were common before Prohibition. The excise tax on distilled spirits made them less common after the American Civil War, but they continued to exist up to the beginning of Prohibition. With Repeal came stricter regulations and it became financially unfeasible for farmers to do legal distillation. With the changes in laws starting with deregulation of the industry in the 1980s, distilling spirits on the farm once again became something that was possible. There are a growing number of farm distilleries in the United States and I could have picked other families as the unsung hero for this article, but I chose Ted Huber and the Huber family because I feel they are a shining example of the farm distilling movement.
Those living in the Louisville area are familiar with Huber Farm and Orchard. They are the place where a short trip into Southern Indiana can get you fresh strawberries, peaches and other produce as well pumpkins in the fall and Christmas trees for the holidays. They are a local institution that has been around for generations. In fact, the Huber family purchased their land in Southern Indiana almost 175 years ago. The family came from Germany where they had owned a farm, vineyard and distillery for seven generations, making wine and brandy. It was only natural for the family to do the same once they came to America. They have been in America now for another seven generations and making wine and brandy with the exception of Prohibition and the years following that dreadful chapter in American history.
Six of the seven American generations have been distillers but credit must be given to Carl T. Huber, the generation that kept the family farm going and turned it into a profitable venture during prohibition and the years that followed that dry era. In the early 1970s they started to make wine again as Indiana laws were changed to allow them to do so. Within a few decades, laws again changed and they started to make brandy and they are now making whiskey. They have two different distillery licenses and two different operations as the Brandy and Whiskey operations are separate productions at the Starlight distilleries.
Ted Huber is the sixth generation of this American farmer family. His sons are joining the business as the seventh. Ted grew up with the wine production part of the business and led the efforts to create first a brandy distillery and then a whiskey distillery on the family farm. His history in viniculture has influenced his distilling operations. His still houses are kept very clean and he prefers sweet mash whiskey over sour mash because he feels it gives him better control of the resulting spirit.
He is also very knowledgeable about the effects of the barrel on the final product. He looks at barrels as a wine maker looks at barrels. He is always experimenting with barrels to get the best result. Currently he has been doing an experiment with char levels, as well as experiments with the level of toast not only on the staves, but also the heads. Having tasted some of these experiments I was amazed at just how much these experiments with the heads change the flavor of the whiskey. You will never see palletized barrels at Starlight Distillery warehouses! Ted has even gone so far as to take some oak trees at the farm and cut them down, made barrel staves, air dried them for years and had a cooper make them into barrels. Ted loves his cooperage experiments and they are paying off by giving the local market some fine spirits.
Ted in addition is not afraid to play around with grains. He grows his own corn and rye on the farm. He is experimenting with several heirloom varieties of corn. He also has a deal with an Indiana Malthouse to provide him not only with different styles of barley malt, but they will also malt grain to his specification. He has discussed a rye he had malted with some of it done as chocolate malt. He has two mash bills for his Bourbon with one being barely legal with 51-53% corn, 20% rye, 20% barely malt and 7-9% wheat (also grown on the farm). The other mash bill is 58-60% corn, 20% rye and 20% malt.
Ted also likes to play with beer malts in his whiskey. The person he hired as his whiskey distiller came from a local brewery and is very knowledgeable about the different malts and how these malts effect the flavor of the beer. For now these experiments are special bottlings that can only be purchased at the distillery and they are not frequent releases. However he is releasing a rye whiskey made with 20% chocolate malt later this year. I was fortunate enough to taste this whiskey when he brought some to a meeting of The Bourbon Society and I think it is excellent.
The Huber family has a business that includes a produce farm, a winery and two distilleries. The whole family is involved as Ted’s wife Dana is involved in marketing and promotions of the business and his sons Christian and Blake have joined the business as part of the distilleries. They are modern farmer distillers who are not afraid to innovate but are still true to their heritage.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller and Michael Veach