Proof of Concept
October 6, 2022
Written By Adam Buckallew
A grove of cedar trees stands out among the fields of corn and soybeans along U.S. Highway 36 in northeastern Missouri. Here, amid the flat, fertile farm ground just outside of Monroe City, Sweetwater Distillery sits tucked behind the evergreens.
Owners Andy and Heather Utterback opened the doors to the distillery in May 2020. From the start, business has been brisk. The couple has sold nearly 20,000 bottles of alcohol in two years, and they estimate they’ve served more than 60,000 cocktails from the bar that provides a view of their production area.
Before jumping into small-batch distilling, Andy was a tank welder by trade. He and his wife, Heather, attended Moonshine University in Louisville, Ky., to train in the art of spirit making. Andy’s welding skills allowed him to build Sweetwater’s still on his own in eight months. While Andy was assembling the still, Heather took care of the state and federal registrations and other paperwork necessary to open the distillery.
The couple began by fermenting locally grown grain to make whiskey and vodka. Their custom yellow corn whiskey mash bill, or recipe, calls for a medley of 95 percent corn, 4 percent barley and 1 percent rye. The high percentage of yellow corn creates a unique flavor profile. It opens with traditional whiskey flavors and mild sweetness then finishes with hints of buttery corn on the cob.
The buttery flavor of the yellow corn brings a distinctive taste to Sweetwater’s vodka, which some people say reminds them of cake or butterscotch.
“Our vodka has its own flavor that’s different from almost any other vodka you will drink,” Andy said. “Making our own vodka was one of our best decisions. It’s got a signature taste that comes from our all-corn grain mash.”
The yellow corn is grown by Heather’s parents, Marvin and Wuanita Hathaway, of North River Farms in Monroe City. The barley is also Missouri-grown, and only the rye comes from out of state.
Another locally grown grain has become a focal point of the Utterbacks’ distilling strategy. Jimmy Red corn, an heirloom variety rescued from near extinction, is the star of Sweetwater’s other whiskey and a soon-to-be-distilled vodka. The rare blood-red, flint-hard dent corn variety has an unusually large and flavorful germ. Jimmy Red corn was once a prized ingredient for moonshiners before heirloom varieties fell out of favor for higher-yielding modern corn hybrids. Whiskeys and bourbons made from Jimmy Red benefit from the corn’s high Brix (sugar) content.
“It has a sweetness to it that stands out and a bit of a spice note,” Andy said. “It goes down smooth.”
“Heirloom varieties provide unique tastes different from what you get from mass-market distillers,” he continued. “I also love the rich storylines and history behind heritage corns like Jimmy Red. Its roots can be traced back to Native American cultivation. Everything’s better when it has a story to go with it.”
Monroe City farmer Todd Hays has grown the Jimmy Red corn for the past two years for the Utterbacks on a farm roughly two miles from the distillery. In 2021, he started with 17 acres and expanded to 27 acres of the crop this year. The heirloom corn lacks the uniformity and predictability of modern hybrid corn, with stalks ranging from eight to ten feet in height, but Hays appreciates the challenge of growing it.
The Utterbacks are looking to expand their distilling operations—which are powered by propane supplied by MFA Oil. Andy wants to build a cooling system for the distillery this fall and, eventually, the state’s biggest pot still. The couple is also gradually working to increase the length of time their spirits are aged, with plans to introduce a three-year straight bourbon and other aged products in the future.
To learn more about Sweetwater Distillery, visit Sweetwater-Distillery.com or call 573-406-4051.