With the Grain

Ann Thomas was relaxing in the living room of her Hudson home when her husband, Kevin, surprised her with an unexpected announcement: “I think I want to open a craft distillery,” he said. After working in various positions at Nestlé Professional for the better part of 25 years, most recently as director of business development, Kevin felt a change was in order. “Good luck,” Ann responded with disbelief. “What is a craft distillery anyway?”

They spent the following few years addressing that question. They apprenticed with other distilleries, tested recipes, and built relationships with grain farmers. After five years of market research and concept development, Ann and Kevin unveiled Lakewood-based Western Reserve Distillers, a certified organic distilled spirits producer. “We knew from the beginning that we wanted to be organic,” Ann says.

Finding the right farmer who could provide high-quality local organic grains was a priority. “We wanted to make sure that we were putting back into the environment as opposed to taking out of the environment,” she says. They tested bread recipes using grains from Stutzman Farms, a small organic farm and grain mill in Millersburg, to better understand the flavor profiles of various grains. But Monroe Stutzman made it clear that once they amped up spirit production, he wouldn’t have enough inventory to supply them. He suggested his friend, Dean McIlvaine, from Twin Parks Organic Farm in West Salem.

Dean is a mild-mannered intellect with a dry and endearing sense of humor. An old hippie at heart, Dean got into organics long before it became a trend. He grew up farming and was introduced to the organic concept by a friend while attending college in Iowa. “I thought, well, wouldn’t it be cool to come home and see if I can make this organic thing work,” he recalls. “I’m kind of a purist. I tend to be one of those all-or-nothing people, a gambler of sorts. When I got into organics, it was 100%. I try to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.” Three-quarters of his 850-acre farm is used for organic grain production, including a rotation of corn, rye, wheat, soy beans, hay, and for a long time, spelt. The remaining one-quarter is used for livestock production, primarily cattle, sheep, and hogs.

Dean and the Thomases share the same purpose-driven values. The Thomases were determined to create as close to a zero-waste, closed-loop supply chain operation as they could while also making unique high-quality spirits—which include vodka, gin, whiskey, and bourbon—from local organic grains. They also produce rum, the molasses for which is sourced from organic sugar cane in Louisiana. “When [Ann and Kevin] showed up, it was like a dream come true,” Dean says. “At the end of the day, the relationship with Western Reserve is like the crown jewel for me. Both the culmination of dreams and efforts, and just opportunity.”

A Resourceful Approach

That opportunity is due in no small part to Dean’s bumper crop of spelt. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the market for spelt boomed. At one point, spelt accounted for 50% of Dean’s crop. But two years ago, due to rising domestic prices, grain buyers began seeking cheaper imported spelt, making it difficult for American farmers to compete. The spelt market collapsed and Dean was stuck with a huge crop that he couldn’t unload. Then the Thomases called. Dean’s crop offered them an opportunity to veer from the traditional wheat-based vodka and create an uncommon product.

But once the Thomases finish distilling their Premium Vodka made with Dean’s spelt (or his corn for their well vodka), they are left with a boatload of spent grain. The grain mash, which still contains protein and carbohydrates, is also certified organic. Instead of dumping it, Dean hauls the spent grain back to the farm and uses it for his animal feed or compost. He sells his grainfed pork and beef to Distill Table, the distillery’s restaurant. Dean identifies as a grass-fed beef farmer, but he makes an exception for Kevin and Ann because of their shared vision of creating a full-circle organic operation.

Organic Matters

The Thomases take their organic operation seriously, not only because it’s important to them, but also because they know it’s important to their customers. That said, when most people think of organic, distilled spirits aren’t usually the first product that comes to mind. Most commercially available distilled spirits are made with conventionally grown grains, including wheat.

“Today’s wheat is mostly conventionally sprayed with Roundup, which is the most direct consumption of this carcinogenic herbicide,” Dean says. “And they’re putting it on the mature crop just ahead of harvesting. We’ve been ingesting it through any and all wheat products that aren’t organically grown,” he says, musing about the increased pesticide use in commodity farming and the rise over the past couple of decades in conditions such as allergies, gluten intolerance, and other human health and developmental challenges.

For most organic producers today, organic farming is their method for mitigating climate change. “Climate change is like trying to address a moving target,” Dean says. “Having been someone who’s worked with nature all my life, I see it. Trees are dying. Pests. We have more shear winds than ever. The severity and timing of the weather, it goes from too hot to too cold, or too wet to too dry, and it happens radically. It’s inconsistent and extreme.”

According to the USDA, today’s monoculture commodity crops account for 31% of total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, a known cause of climate change. Monoculture croplands degrade soil to the point where it lacks the microbial diversity necessary to fight off pests and weeds. The result is rampant use of harsh chemicals that kill weeds and pests, but they also kill the beneficial microbes that naturally fight those same pests and weeds. “The chemicals and the methods used today are turning our fields into concrete pads,” he says. “Organics is about the encouragement for diversity, soil health, and soil improvement, rather than degrading the soil. It’s about a clean, healthy environment.”

Organic is a term you hear thrown around often, but there can be confusion about what it actually means. Many people simply think it means “no chemicals,” which makes sense, to a certain degree. But when it comes to the full intention of organic, not using pesticides is simply the end goal. Farmers spend the bulk of their efforts building soil health by rotating crops, adding soil amendments such as compost, animal manure, green sand, or various mineral powders, and planting cover crops, such as oats, clover, rye, and peas. In theory, farmers like Dean aim to reach the point where chemical use isn’t necessary because healthy soil does not support growth for pests and weeds. Organic farming creates a symbiotic relationship between the soil and the plants.

The relationship between Dean and the Thomases mirrors this same dynamic. Their partnership is mutually beneficial to both operations, but it is more than just good business. “We’re making every effort to be as environmentally conscious as possible. Starting with the organic label, all the way through with recycling anything we can,” Dean says. “I feel like I’m almost a family member at times, and having a team that’s trying to promote and improve, it gives a lot of incentive. We’re growing with a purpose. To get into this niche, to be needed, admired, respected, and to be able to give full service has given me a lot more enthusiasm. And at my age, that enthusiasm is everything.”

Thirsty? Check out Western Reserve Distillers and its restaurant, located at 14221 Madison Avenue in Lakewood. Distill Table is open from 4pm–10pm Tuesday –Thursday, 11am–midnight Friday–Saturday, and 11am–4pm Sunday. Visit DistillTable.com or WesternReserveDistillers.com for information. Curious about Twin Parks Organic Farm? Visit OEFFA.org.