Every whiskey has a good story. Hayes Kelman tells one about Red Eye Whiskey.
His award-winning Boot Hill Distillery’s Red Eye is fermented from the corn and wheat grown on Hayes’s Kelman Farms, Sublette, Kansas. Red Eye--51% corn, 49% wheat--is “a beautiful, hand-crafted, trail-aged, frontier-style Kansas whiskey,” he says.
Fitting, as Boot Hill Distillery sits atop Boot Hill Cemetery, in Dodge City, Kansas. It’s stainless fermentation vats, copper stills and tasting room are housed in a 90-year-old brick building once home to the city’s municipal functions--including the jail. The dirt below it was once the final home for the town’s criminal element. Some felons died so suddenly by well-placed bullets that they died with their boots on, it is said. Thus, Boot Hill.
It is also said bodies were removed from Boot Hill during the cold winter of 1879, as the town discovered more valuable uses for its prominent vista.
This is the story 27-year-old Hayes Kelman tells distributors--those critical linchpins who bring alcoholic products to thirsty consumers. Distributors enjoy the story behind the product. “It’s a good story,” they tell Kelman. “We don’t believe it, but it’s a good story.”
There is a short phrase that describes Red Eye’s journey from farm to bottle: “soil to sip.”
“We take products from our farm to make whiskey. We turn our corn and wheat primarily into bourbon and vodka,” Kelman says. Dodge City patrons will sip Boot Hill’s first bourbons this year, with drinks served over the distillery’s 116-year-old neoclassical Brunswick bar. Kelman has been marketing his Boot Hill line since 2016.
Kelman Farms raises wheat, sorghum and irrigated corn and soybeans across the prominently flat terrain of Haskell County, Kansas. Most of the family farm was leveled for flood irrigation. Today, irrigation is by center pivot. Corn yields are generally in the low 200s.
Water is increasingly a management challenge. The Ogallala Aquifer has been declining for decades. Wells on Kelman Farms are pumping at about half their historic levels. The family has even capped some wells for lack of productivity.
Kelman came to believe while still in college that the family farm needed vertical integration on production not so heavily dependent on water. “There has to be something more than just growing the grain, taking it the elevator and then repeating the same process all over again the next season,” he thought. “It’s no secret that we all face the same issues: maximizing production, minimizing inputs. We can bury our heads in the sand and pretend that pressing issues aren’t on the horizon.”
Dryland production is not a happy alternative in Kansas’s hot and dry summers. Fed cattle offer some opportunity. But, Sublette is nearly submerged in large feedlots.
“But, we really enjoy drinking whiskey, so the best idea we could come up with would be to start a distillery,” Kelman says. The distillery multiplies the value of the grain fermented many times over.
FOLLOW THE ROOTS
The distillery idea has some root in Kelman family history--that a farm can be more than a farm.In 1921, an earlier generation of Kelmans moved 400 miles from Kansas City to Western Kansas, “with hope to farm new land,” Kelman says. “My grandfather was a businessman. He wasn’t afraid to get into another industry if it made sense for the farm,” he adds.
Does Boot Hill fit with Kelman Farms--spirits with beans? “We’re at an odd point. Both the farm and the distillery straddle tradition and technology. We know about seed placement and fertilizer rates. Now, we have the ability to dial those down to certain values,” Kelman explains. “We spend hours in the tractor. But, we also spend hours poring over spreadsheets to understand the efficacy of our methods.”
The same is true in the distilling world. “People have been distilling alcohol for thousands of years. The principals have not changed, but our processes have evolved with technology. We use a large amount of ‘distiller’s art’ to produce our spirits--smell and taste. We also use technology to precisely measure sugar and alcohol content,” Kelman says.
“In both, we focus on an end goal. We are thoughtful and purposeful about our decisions,” he says. Continuing the family-farm business doesn’t mean Kelman must farm more. The same traditional work ethics and business processes that bring order and financial gain to farming translate well to other business ventures. “Ultimately, I want to see this farm continue. It’s that exact reason I’ve expanded it with a distillery.”
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