Iowa City, Iowa – Whenever I travel, I use my phone to look up the nearest restaurants, parks, gas stations and the like, depending on my want or need. But after our son’s regional gymnastics competition, on a whim, I typed in “nearest distillery to me.”
Up popped Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery. Less than 15 minutes away in Swisher, Iowa, my husband and I discovered a gem of a craft distillery. Just off the highway, on a county road situated in the middle of cornfields and Midwestern farm, complete with red barns and trucks, a gorgeous, modern tasting room stood beckoned us, and its modern yet rustic architecture wouldn’t have been out of place in Napa or Sonoma. On a Saturday afternoon, the parking lot was almost filled, and walking up to the door, we could see rows and rows of vineyards behind the tasting room and distillery proper.
Inside, Cedar Ridge was doing a brisk business of lunch, private parties and tasting tours, and it was no wonder. A sign inside read “2017 Distillery of the Year,” American Distilling Institute, and after tasting owners Jeff and Laurie Quint’s Iowa bourbon, single malt whiskey and rye, I could see why. While all three were delicious, the bourbon wouldn’t have been out of place in the bluegrass of Kentucky, except, as bartender Tina Nedbalek told me, it’s made from 75 percent corn, grown by relatives not too far from the distillery, and as I learned from my tour with the very knowledgeable Valerie Collins, it’s made from well water that’s been purified by reverse osmosis before it’s distilled in European pot stills.
The winery and distillery got its start in 2005, but they were making wine and distilling spirits from leased space at Benz Beverage Depot in nearby Cedar Rapids. They were the first distillery to open its doors in Iowa since Prohibition, and at the time, Iowa law didn’t allow for distilleries to operate tasting rooms. The law later changed, and in 2009, they began operations in their own space where they are now. Today, their spirits and wines are available in about half of all states, along with exports to France and Denmark.
Jeff Quint, who is the master distiller, has deep distilling roots, as his family has privately distilled beverages for several generations. His father, Howard “Howdy” Quint, used to distil local apples, and Jeff Quint pays homage to his heritage with Howdy’s Apple Pie, a distilled apple liqueur, similar to schnapps, which is made with only fresh apple juice from Wisconsin, cinnamon and sugar.
Tours are free, as are first tastes, and Iowa law allows up to three tastings of spirits and six tastings of wine. After that, you’ll need to buy a glass, a bottle or a cocktail, and the prices for all three are extremely reasonable, with glass of wine going from $5 to $7, spirits for $6 to 8, bottles running from $12 to $25, and cocktails running from $9 to $10. The wines would hold their own, against vintages from bigger wine regions (besides locally grown fruit, grapes from Lodi, California and the Finger Lakes are brought in), and the cocktails are as good as ones we’ve tasted in major cities.
Collins designed many of the cocktails on the menu including a delicious play on the Sazerac, made with Cedar Ridge’s malted rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bittes and fennel simple syrup.
The bar also shares prep space with a gourmet kitchen that churns out delicious pizzas (do try the smoked gouda and braised ribeye), snacks and salads (my husband says the house salad is easily one of the best he’s ever had, made with a bourbon vinaigrette and sweet corn).
Adam Steffensmeier and his friend Kayla Meaney, who are originally from Cedar Rapids, headed to the distillery for the afternoon from the University of Iowa because Steffensmeier was taking a class on booze (wine, beer and spirits), and he had to write a paper on something locally made. “It’s close to Cedar Rapids, but it doesn’t feel like you’re in Cedar Rapids,” Meaney says, as she sipped her Five Seasons Merlot blend.
The two took the tour, and Steffensmeier says he found more than enough information to write his paper. My husband and I found the craft wine and distillery to be both charming and sophisticated, and we plan to make a trek here again – when we’re in town this summer for our son’s diving meet.
And we both plan to ask Google for the nearest distillery the next time we’re in an unfamiliar environs.