ONALASKA — The mission behind the launch of La Crosse Distilling Co. is right there as the first tagline in their logo: “Farmer Forward, Driftless Pure.”
“We all have the highest regard for farmers in our company,” according to Chad Staehly, who founded the distillery in 2018 with Nick Weber and Mitchell Parr. “Where it all starts for us is in the field.”
Staehly said much of the reasoning behind the decision to found the distillery came from being able to take advantage of the organic farming and other resources in western Wisconsin.
“We thought it would be awesome to capture that in the form of spirits,” he said July 10 at an Organic Grain Resource and Information Network field day at McHugh Farms.
La Crosse Distilling Co. was founded with a goal of partnering with area farmers to create organic spirits, which led them to McHugh Farms in Onalaska. Patrick McHugh of McHugh Farms connected with La Crosse Distilling Co. in 2017. That connection has led to McHugh Farms now growing about 100 acres of rye, wheat and corn exclusively for the distillery.
McHugh took over his family’s farm in 2010. He started transitioning to organic several years ago in an effort to diversify. He currently farms both traditionally and organically. He added hemp on 35 acres he is transitioning to organic this year and another acre and a half on land that is already certified organic.
“I grew up with hybrids and GMO crops, so it’s been quite a venture to learn and go back and learn more of the history of how we started to farm now that we’re starting to grow pollinated crops,” McHugh said.
“It’s interesting how you get a different frame of mind of what you think of soil health and crop health.”
For the distillery, McHugh is growing about 35 acres of an open-pollinated 90-day variety of Wapsie Valley corn and about 30 acres of Abruzzi rye with genetics similar to a variety that was available pre-Prohibition, McHugh said.
“It comes down to flavor. That’s the main key for the distillery,” he said. “Today’s newer genetics, and even some of the varieties that are organic, don’t quite offer the flavor the old ones do. The newer corns are bred for energy and feed value, so it’s hard to get the quality flavors you are looking for in a whiskey in those types of grains.
“That’s why we opened it up to go with a quality grain we know has good flavor.”
McHugh’s willingness to work with the distillery on bringing in the varieties that work for them is a big benefit for the company, according to Parr, the company’s distiller.
“With vodka, where you are going for neutrality, things like heirloom varieties of rye or wheat aren’t that appealing, because you’re not trying to have a taste signature,” Parr said. “But when we go into things like the whiskey, the Abruzzi makes more sense for us. Those old, ancient heirloom varieties that are open pollinated have such interesting characteristics to them, and it really does come through in the process.”
Parr said he has been making bourbon for several weeks and that he can tell when they are using yellow corn versus the variety called Wapsie Valley.
“When that Wapsie is added, it starts to smell like berries,” Parr said. “You can smell the fruitiness popping out. It’s a very intriguing thing, and it’s kind of fun to use them.”
Parr said working directly with organic farmers allows him to ensure he will be getting enough of the grains he needs to create his products. La Crosse Distilling Co. currently makes two batches of spirits a week, each using about 1,500 pounds of grain. Staehly said they hope to quadruple that in the next year.
“It makes so much sense that we’re here,” he said. “I know where the resource is at. I know Patrick is growing this corn. I don’t have to try to talk a farmer across the country into selling me his stuff, and I’m not having to scamper around trying to find it. It’s grown right down the road, and I know where to find it.”
In addition to the grains they source from McHugh Farms, the La Crosse Distilling Co. also works with Meadowlark Organics in Ridgeway and they are looking to expand and add to the number of organic farmers they are working with, Staehly said.
“We have a vision to grow this company to a national, and hopefully international, spirits company,” he said. “And we’ve really set out to work directly to family farmers.”
Staehly said the distillery has plans to add pollinator habitat and introduce beehives to some farms they work with in the coming years.
La Crosse Distilling Co. mills the grains on site in downtown La Crosse and does their distilling in-house as well. McHugh is able to take the spent grain, which has been tested and is able to be fed to livestock, back from the distillery.
“We’re trying to have a closed loop and full-circle system within the distillery,” Staehly said.
Staehly said the decision for the distillery to go 100-percent organic was made pretty late in the process of creating the business. They are certified organic by MOSA, the Midwest Organic Services Association, out of Viroqua.
“Amazingly enough, given our backyard and the nearby resources, we’re able to procure these ingredients for a comparable price to conventionally grown grains,” he said. “It was a no-brainer for us to go for it and try to operate within that box.”
When Staehly, Weber and Parr decided to start a distillery in La Crosse, there were about 800 craft distilleries operating in the country. In the four years since they started working on the idea, that number has more than doubled, Staehly said.
“The growth in craft is taking a chunk out of the big dogs,” he said. “It’s part of this whole movement that’s happening of people wanting to support local and wanting to know what’s in their products.
“For us, a big piece of it was to try to keep dollars as local as possible and support as many local businesses and farmers as possible.”