By Gregory Daurer | Dec 05, 2018
Whiskey Sisters Supply is a family affair.
Stephanie and her younger sister, Felicia, provide grains from their family's farm in Burlington -- which is still run by their mom and dad -- to distilleries throughout Colorado. They also work with five other farms, which contribute to the sisters' inventory of corn (red, white, and blue varieties), oats, millet, wheat, rye, and triticale. As they put it on their website, their grains go from "farm to spirit."
Stephanie credits the farm-to-table movement for changing the culture at large, widening acceptance for craft commodities. "We couldn't have done this 10 years ago," she says, pointing to legislation that needed to be changed in order for the advent of the craft-distilling movement.
And, perhaps, just in the nick of time, too.
Felicia says, "As we slowly got into this business, we started to realize how important it was to bring some economy back to those small town on the plains, because people [outside of rural areas] don't realize the economy isn't as good out there." For example, sometimes it costs more to produce a crop than a co-op is able to pay for it.
"Surviving today as a farmer is really difficult," adds Stephanie. "Our goal is to support the farmers."
Thanks to the sisters, not only are farmers getting decent pay for their labors, distillers in Colorado are seeing dual benefits. For one, distillers can say they use local ingredients within their Colorado-made products. And, secondly, the grains are of higher quality than than they'd get from many co-ops.
Take Whiskey Sisters' corn: It's grown in irrigated fields. From other sources, the corn might be from both irrigated and non-irrigated sources mixed together. Irrigated corn has higher levels of starches, which ultimately leads to better whiskey. Not only that, the sisters have their grains cleaned by a third party which certifies them as 99.9 percent clean, rather than the 97 percent available from many a co-op.
Their first customer was Al Laws of Laws Whiskey House in Denver. "He was really happy with the quality of the grain, what it was doing for the product," says Stephanie, who once had her own fashion line and appeared on TV's Project Runway: Under the Gunn. She first met Laws at a fashion event at which Laws' spirits were being served, and the two began discussing the grains used in distilling, as well as Laws' desire to use Colorado corn. A lightbulb went off over Stephanie's head. Within two weeks, she convinced her family to join her on the new business venture.
The second client was Rocker Spirits in downtown Littleton. "It gives us a feather in our cap as far as [utilizing] a Colorado product," says distiller Nick Hutch of the Sisters' corn, hard red wheat, rye, and triticale. "As far as I can tell, it's top-notch."
At Rocker, the sisters eye the stacked wooden barrels containing spirits made from some of their grains, while a 50-pound bag of their hard red wheat -- milled in Burlington, then stored in silos prior to purchases -- sits atop other bags on a nearby pallet. Aging in one barrel is a whiskey made from triticale -- a hybrid of wheat and rye -- which Felicia describes as tasting "spicier than rye."
In 2016, the sisters had four clients. Today, they count over a dozen -- among them, Bear Creek Distillery, Steamboat Whiskey Company, Cockpit Craft Distillery, Breckenridge Distillery, and Distillery 291. "Every year we've exceeded our goals," says Stephanie; Whiskey Sister Supply tripled the amount of grain it sold between 2016 and 2018, which means "almost weekly deliveries to Denver, rather than monthly." Felicia handles the logistics and operations, managing deliveries, while Stephanie deals with the sales, accounting, and marketing. Weekends often find the sisters networking and socializing together with clients.
The sisters not only promote local farms, they talk up their clients' businesses, as well: e.g., who built that beautiful patio; who has the delicious food-truck fare; who's from a military background; who's the chemical engineer. Stephanie says, "We're less a broker, we're more family."
They joke on their website, "You will become family, but without the dysfunction."
Sure, there's an occasional, interpersonal flare-up between the two sisters. But Stephanie says, "We don't want to lose our sister relationship, and, so far, we've done a terrific job of [preserving] that."
And they don't want to lose their 3,000-acre family farm, Gergen Farms, which their late great-grandfather, Charlie, settled on in 1907. Over the years, the farm has produced soybeans, pinto beans, alfalfa, and sunflowers. Now, with the help of the distilling industry, the Ohnmachts hope to keep the farm in the family for future generations.
The sisters, who live in Denver, invite clients annually out to Burlington to watch the harvest, as their mother serves everyone food. Hutch from Rocker Spirits says, "It's kind of neat to go out there and sit in the combine and watch your corn being thrown into one of the grain trucks. It's a full-blown, grain-to-glass experience."
It's the land where Felicia enjoys watching her son run around during visits in the wide open spaces. "It gets us back to our roots," says Stephanie.
Felicia adds, "I would hope [great-grandfather] Charlie's proud."
Challenges: Finding additional distilleries that want to use Colorado grains. Stephanie says, "If you already have a Colorado farmer you're using, it isn't our goal to take that business [away] from another Colorado farmer. We're looking for people who don't have a Colorado farmer and access to Colorado grains."
Opportunities: Scaling the business model. "We have plans to get bigger," says Stephanie. With about 10 new distilling licenses being issued in Colorado each year, "There's places to grow. It just takes time."
Needs: Stephanie says the company has the same needs as its clients: "For people to experiment and continue to try local spirits -- because as our clients grow, we can grow. There's a lot of fantastic, Colorado spirits available."
Felicia adds, "And supporting the Colorado Spirits Trail: All these people are hustling and trying to make it work."