Catching The Spirits

The launch of an on-farm distillery adds value to the grain crops grown on this Wisconsin farm

Image by Rick Mooney

A lot of people told me I was nuts,” says Tom Perlick ‌when he announced he and his son, Scott, were ‌launching a distillery as a way to add value to
‌the crops grown on their 3,000-acre farm in northwest Wisconsin.

Tom, though, saw a distillery as a pathway to sustainability. “In this part of the world, it’s hard to compete on a commodity basis,” he says. “We just don’t have very good soils. Finding ways to add value to what we grow is necessary to stay in business.”

Now in its third year of operation, Tom and Scott’s “Perlick Distillery” is going gangbusters. Customers are flocking to their on-farm tasting room to sample and buy American Yeoman Vodka, made from wheat produced at Perlick Farms. The father-and-son team also has developed a solid network for selling their product through a variety of retail outlets. All indications are the best is yet to come.

LIVING THE DREAM. Tom first started thinking about starting an on-farm distillery business 10 years ago. Like many other farmers, he harbored a longtime dream of having his son (Scott) join him in the family farm. But, Scott, who was serving in the U.S. Air Force at the time, had shown little interest in farming as a career.

For a while, Tom considered building a winery. But, after some initial research, he concluded it wouldn’t work. “It was pretty clear we wouldn’t be able to grow good grapes here,” he says. “Our climate just isn’t suitable.”

Then, a grain buyer from Japan visited Perlick’s farm to look at the rye crop. “I started thinking that if someone from that far away was interested in our rye, what could we make out of it? And I thought, ‘Why not start a distillery, make rye whiskey and add value to our crops that way?’ ”

When Scott came home on leave a few months later, Tom brought up the idea. “He just looked at me like I’d lost my mind,” Tom recalls.

During the next several years, the subject of a distillery occasionally came up in conversations between Tom, his wife, Christine, and Scott. “We’d laugh and joke and say, ‘Wouldn’t that be kind of fun?’ ” Tom says.

MAKING PROGRESS. The turning point came in 2013. Scott had left the Air Force, earned a bachelor’s degree in applied social sciences and was in law school. About halfway through his law studies, family conversations about launching a distillery business turned more serious. “Finally, I said, ‘You have a legal education,’ ” Tom relates. “ ‘You figure out how to get it all legal and how to make the product. I’ll supply the crops and provide the infrastructure. And, we’ll market it together.’ He said ‘OK.’ ”

During his final year of law school, Scott spent seven months obtaining the various federal and state permits required to operate a distillery. With the permits in hand, Scott was able to begin experimenting with different formulas for making vodka from wheat. “The regulations for doing this are pretty complex,” he says. “My legal training was invaluable.”

IMITATION FLATTERY. In setting up a business plan, Tom and Scott opted to focus on wineries rather than other distilleries as a model. “We toured a bunch of distilleries,” Tom explains. “A lot of them are in industrial parks. And, the people making the spirits don’t really know where the grain they’re using to make the product is coming from.

“We wanted to be more like a winery where customers go out into the country and see the grapes growing, and watch the wine being made. Then, they go off to the tasting room and sample the product, and buy it. Here, the emphasis would be grains and vodka.”

Sifting through ideas for a product name was part of the planning process, too. Eventually, American Yeoman emerged. “One of the definitions of yeoman is ‘a person who owns and cultivates a small farm,’ ” Tom notes. “It fit really well with what we wanted to do.”

In the end, the elaborate, detailed business plan boiled down to just two sentences. “First, we wanted to add value to the grain we grow. Second, we wanted to make the absolute finest product we could.”

EXPANSION. Perlick Distillery, housed in a renovated, two-story barn built in the 1920s, opened for business in May 2015. The first floor was home to the still. The second floor (the old hay mow) was devoted to a small tasting room where customers could come to sample and buy the vodka.

As soon as the tasting room opened, customers began to flock in steadily. “We didn’t do any formal advertising,” says Tom, noting that the tasting room is open four to six hours daily Thursday through Sunday. “It was just word of mouth. People would come and find that it’s just a nice place to sit and have a cocktail made with our vodka. Then, they’d go tell their friends about the experience.”

For a secondary income stream, the Perlicks signed on with a regional alcohol distributor. American Yeoman began appearing in restaurants, taverns and liquor stores in northwest Wisconsin.

Within a year of opening, the Perlicks realized they were going to need a larger facility. “We just couldn’t keep up with the demand,” Scott says.

They started renovating a 1940s-era Quonset shed they were using for machinery storage on a second farm located a quarter of a mile from the original distillery. In the new setup, Scott quadrupled production. He figures he’ll be able to double production again in the same facility if demand requires.

The Perlicks moved into the new facility in June 2017. Since then, traffic at the tasting room has steadily increased. With the addition of two more distributors, American Yeoman is now selling in 200 outlets.

GOALS. Long-term, the Perlicks’ goal is to funnel most of their grain crops to the distillery. In 2017, roughly 15 to 20% of their wheat was used in vodka.

They’ll eventually make vodka from other crops--corn, rye and barley--and then branch out into making other spirits--whiskey, gin, etc.

While the new business has proven to be profitable, Tom says there have been other, more personal, rewards. “I love having people here and telling our story, and talking about agriculture,” he says. “Most of the time in farming, you never get to see the end use of the crops you grow. Here, I get to see people enjoying the vodka that Scott makes from the wheat that I grow. I’m having a ball.”