NOTE: This article has been updated as of Tuesday., Jan. 8 to include project cost information in relation to a federal grant the distillery was awarded in 2016.
DeKALB – Whiskey Acres has got a cozy new 4,200-square-foot visitor's center, which will allow it to serve its famous bourbon all year long.
The original tasting room at the DeKalb distillery, 11504 Keslinger Road, is only 400 square feet, and while it provides a great atmosphere for small spirit gatherings, it's not ideal for bigger parties, or the winter months, said co-founder Nick Nagele.
"With 11 seats, our growth opportunity in [the tasting room] is very limited, and we essentially reached saturation, where we couldn't grow anymore because we didn't have room to put new guests," Nagele said. "[The visitor's center] has the exact same feel as the tasting room, just bigger."
The tasting room was not insulated, causing the distillery to close its doors from December to April. But no more. Ten times bigger than the tasting room, the visitor's center has high ceilings, tables a plenty, an open area with couches surrounding a fireplace, a bar, gift shop, conference room, and more. The traditional tasting room still will be available for those who prefer it.
"Building a new visitor's center is an opportunity for us to become a 12-month operation," Nagele said. "It gives us access to customers four more months of the year, and allows us to have more revenue."
True to the country-home aesthetic that characterizes the other buildings at Whiskey Acres Distilling Co., which sits on a multi-generational corn and soybean farm that's been in co-founders Jim and his son Jamie Walter's family since 1941, the visitor's center was built without using a single nail.
"We wanted to maintain the rather rustic concept we had in our tasting room," Jim Walter said. "So we went with a post and beam barn structure."
Nagele said the business has "a desire to be sustainable in everything we do," and that the distillery is 100 percent solar powered.
Construction began on the expansion in April, which Nagele said incorporates as much sustainability as possible. True to form, Nagele said the outdoor patio was built using flagstone that came from an old sheep barn he and his partners tore down in DeKalb County. And the tasting room is a perfect example of reuse.
"All the furniture, bar tops and mantel [were] made locally by J. Hoffman Lumber Company of Sycamore," Jamie Walter said. "It's reclaimed wood that's made out of Douglas fir."
Though Whiskey Acres received a $250,000 federal grant in 2016 for capital expenses, none of that money was used for the visitor's center.
"The grant terms specifically prohibit those funds from being earmarked for capital improvements," Jamie Walter said in an email Tuesday. He said project costs were covered through internal equity and outside financing.
According to Debbie Armstrong, executive director of the DeKalb County Convention and Visitors Bureau, revenue is a key attribute to the distillery, which opened its doors in December 2014.
Part of the bureau's regular promotion programming, Whiskey Acres is a popular destination for tour groups, Armstrong said.
"We had one come through in October, taking part in our Bold Spirits of DeKalb County passport program," Amstrong said. "Since [Whiskey Acres] is no longer seasonal, we can expect more of these groups to take advantage of our passport program throughout the year."
Whiskey Acres is the first estate distillery to grow its own grain in Illinois and the second in the United States. Armstrong said that since the distillery opened, more than 16,000 visitors, from 40 states, 50 countries and all seven continents, have enjoyed tastings.
The cooking and fermentation process takes five days to a week, but barrel aging can take two to five years or longer, Nagele said as he toured the distillery, pointing out barrels that were made the same year his twins (soon to be 2 years old) were born. About 500 gallons of fermented mash are distilled at Whiskey Acres every day, yielding about 50 gallons of whiskey.
Whiskey Acres also makes rye and high rye whiskeys, vodka and nocino, a traditional Italian liqueur derived from black walnuts.