- Cavan McGinsie
- Blake Jones (left) and David McIntyre (right), co-owners of West Fork Whiskey.
Two childhood friends from Bedford, Indiana, Blake Jones and David McIntyre, noticed that we have this incredible amount of high-quality corn in our state, but the majority of it is exported (corn is our largest agricultural export). They also realized corn is the main ingredient in one of the most-loved libations in the world — whiskey. This begged them to ask the question, “Why the hell isn’t there an internationally known whiskey distiller in Indiana?” It’s a good question and it didn’t have an answer. So, two years ago, the duo set out to start making whiskey in Indiana, using Indiana corn.
After years of chatting about starting their own company, they started West Fork Whiskey.
It’s a story you can imagine yourself in, you and a friend taking the leap at your life-long dream. For Dave and Blake this is as close to their childhood dream — owning a bar and sharing a bachelor pad above it — as it's going to get, especially since Blake is married.
It all started in motion in 2014, but they weren’t actually able to make any product right away. The distilling industry has many more strictures than breweries, wineries, meaderies, cideries or any other alcohol producing industry. Blake explains the tiresome process, “We wrote our business plan in early 2015 and applied for our licenses. The thing that is really unique about spirits, as opposed to the really lucky beer and wine guys, is that before you can test the still or anything like that — you can’t do it at home — you have to have your equipment and an independent facility before you have the right to apply for a license. That application process can take anywhere between five months and as long as two years. We were fortunate enough that it only took us five months to get through both the federal and state portions, which means we finally were able to start producing in late December.”
If you’re looking at a timeline that is a full year and a half before they even had the opportunity to try and make any product. So, as soon as they got the chance, they dove headfirst into making some booze.
“During the holidays when we had vacation from our day jobs, we took about 12-hours a day in here just figuring out how to run a still,” Blake laughs as he says this, and follows up with, “Well, we pretty much knew how to do that, we had done some training and my brother is a trained scientist.” His brother is the master distiller for the company.
- Cavan McGinsie
- West Fork's original 50-gallon still dwarfed by the brand new still.
Despite these small numbers, the guys soldiered on with their small 50-gallon still. “We wanted to get something in the market and to make a good product and then we wanted to scale it up after that. That’s what you see here,” Blake says, referencing the impressive new 250-gallon still they got in earlier this week. He adds a fact that the NUVO team never expected: “We will have between three- and four-hundred barrels in here once it’s all said and done.” He pauses for a moment, I think it’s a mix of pride and fear I see there, before he ends with, “Which makes us arguably the largest craft whiskey producer in the state. It’s a super exciting fact for us.”
That’s an exciting fact for the state of Indiana, because the fact of the matter is we don’t really have many whiskey distilleries in the state. I’m not saying no whiskey is made here, but these other places are also making vodka, gin, rum and many other alcohols. Which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not West Fork’s thing. “We are a whiskey company,” Blake says matter-of-factly. “We don’t want to make vodkas or gins; we just want to be really, really good at making whiskey. We want to stay true to who we are. To be frank, I hate vodka,” he says with a chuckle. “My goal is to be an internationally known master of whiskey.”
After very little time around the guys, it’s easy to believe this will happen for them. For starters, they are diligent about the sources of their ingredients. Blake is patting the white bags next to the plastic fermentation tanks (they’re now using massive stainless steel tanks, but these are still here to remind them of how it all started) when he says, “When Dave and I began the company we really wanted to pay homage to the state that we live in … We use Sugar Creek Malt Company from Lebanon, Indiana. All of their grain comes from within 200 miles of their own farm and mill. The vast majority of what we use, and what you see here, actually comes from their farm.” From corn to rye and even some persimmon-smoked barley there are give-or-take 100 bags of grain piled up on the ground.
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I know everyone on the team is looking forward to that taste but before we get to it Blake describes something that I have never heard of before. It was something I was wondering about when I walked through the front door into their office. Where is the tasting room? The answer is intricate and disheartening. “It is illegal for us to do tastings from this facility,” Dave says, before sarcastically following up with, “Thank you, laws.” Blake continues this thought. “We can’t do a tasting room, we can't do anything like that.”
You and the rest of the NUVO team may be thinking, just like I am 'I’ve been to multiple tasting rooms in distilleries in this state.'
- Cavan McGinsie
- 2 Hour Delay, Indiana whiskey, born and raised
I could beat around the bush, but I won’t. That is pretty fucked up. It hurts a burgeoning business by forcing them to lose money all around for three years. Anyone in business knows that the early years undoubtedly are the most important and when a company has so many factors going against it, it is going to be a rough road. Luckily the team at West Fork Whiskey is working diligently to get their name out there on a well-made product. The sad part about all of this is the way these laws came into effect.
“From what we’ve gathered, this law came into play due to some lobbying and actions of a couple bigger local brewers and distillers,” David says. He then quips, “So if you want a 10,000 word op-ed on the messed up laws that are in play, and on the small companies that became big companies and now are trying to screw over small guys …” He is joking, but I would truly love to read that.
If that wasn’t enough of a frustrating experience for these distillers, Blake tells us that even after the three year period they “won’t be able to self-distribute, at this point I think we will even have to sell that product to our distributer and then buy it back from them to have in our tasting room.” Despite these road bumps, Dave and Blake are pushing forward as earnestly as ever.
The duo brings us to a shelving unit filled with barrels; they built the sturdy shelves with their own hands, just more proof that they are an industrious team. Looking up at the immense amount of barrels, Blake explains, “What we have is a mix of five- and fifteen- gallon barrels. In order to be whiskey, it has to touch a barrel, it has to be in a barrel in some form.”
- Cavan McGinsie
- So many barrels ready to be filled.
With their new system in place they have a pretty full agenda of creating different whiskeys, including a wheated bourbon and a rye bourbon. But, for the moment the only product that is available is their corn whiskey, 2 Hour Delay. Right now it’s available in Crown, Elite Beverage, and Big Red Liquor stores. Blake excitedly says, “We're currently in about 15 liquor stores and just got our first bar account actually down in Salem, Indiana. We will be producing close to 100 cases a month soon, like within four months.” While we’re looking forward to seeing everything that they will be creating, for now we have to check out this 2 Hour Delay.
We take a seat in their lobby; Blake’s wife helps carry in some Ball jars and hands them to each of us. Dave opens the new bottle, the label is minimalist with the seal of Indiana making up the background. As the tastes are being poured out of the bottle, it’s amazing to think that Dave and Blake stood in the back of this warehouse and hand-bottled this; they bottle everything by hand and plan on doing that for quite a while.
- Cavan McGinsie
- West Fork's first aged product is almost ready.
As we all sit around, chatting about laws, video games and whiskey, all I can think is ‘Damn, Indy finally has a quality whiskey and it’s just going to get better with time.’