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The whiskey distillery is hard to miss as you drive into the tiny western Iowa farm town of Templeton. A sky-high stack of whiskey barrels topped with American and Iowan flags — aka the “Templeton Rye Barrel Tree” — towers above a sprawling 20-acre production facility that welcomes visitors with a small history museum and guided tours.

Above ground and aboveboard, today’s Templeton Rye, introduced in 2006, is a reboot of the underground (and illegal) Prohibition-era hooch made by Templeton townspeople. Templeton Rye’s first heyday was from 1920 to the 1930s, when it was dubbed “The Good Stuff” and was reputedly the favorite of Chicago mobster Al Capone.

Opened in 2018, the $35 million Templeton Rye Distillery and Visitor Center presumably quiets any complaints that the 21st-century product was, at first, deceptively marketed as Iowa-made craft whiskey, when it was actually distilled in Indiana and bottled in Templeton. Related lawsuits were settled in 2015. The first all-Iowan good stuff, aged for four years, will be sold in 2022.

I’m not a whiskey drinker, but I am a sucker for a maker’s tour. And I’m a history buff who loves a good story. I got this and more (yes, there’s a tasting) during a 90-minute tour in two buildings, each with modern and rustic touches. The low-slung, western-looking visitor center is clad in brown metal siding with wood posts, a slanted copper-colored metal roof and dormer windows. The distillery, also a long, brown metal building, has a flat-faced tower resembling an old-fashioned grain elevator.

Prohibition lore

On a Friday in August, I joined 13 other visitors from as far away as North Carolina on a tour led by a resident of Templeton (pop. 338). It began in the visitor center museum, which documents Templeton’s colorful bootleg history via re-created old-timey scenes, signs with folksy narrative, historic photos and memorabilia.

Although I’d already wandered around the free museum, the tour ($10) added good value, and the guide entertained us with local lore. Facing hard times after World War I, enterprising farmers and townsfolk — including the grandfather of a co-founder of today’s Templeton Rye — began producing whiskey and hauling it as far as Denver and New York City.

We learned that the bootleggers included a former mayor and a justice of the peace. A 10-year-old boy’s chores included hiding whiskey in his dad’s truck. Deliveries were made weekly to the Iowa Statehouse in Des Moines, where a local tavern also reportedly sold the good stuff to a young Ronald Reagan, then a radio broadcaster.

Even the local priest and sheriff kept the town’s secret. Word has it the sheriff wore a white hat to alert whiskey cookers of a raid. Hogs did their part by creating a stench that masked the smell of cooking booze.

Walking past an old rocking chair, we learned how “grandma” used to “rock the rye,” with a 10-gallon barrel attached to the back of the rocker. This was believed (incorrectly) to be an aging method. We saw replicas of the many clever hiding places for whiskey jugs and bottles — inside a corn crib, under a livestock barn, and my personal favorite, a hollowed-out gravestone. An elevated fence post was a signal of whiskey hidden within.

Modern process

From the museum, with its old-fashioned copper still (donated by a bootlegger’s granddaughter), we moved abruptly into the 21st century, entering the distillery that includes a very different modern-day, 36-foot-high copper column still, imported from Scotland.

The still’s windows offered views of yellow mash sloshing around as it is heated with steam and cooked, pulling the alcohol from the grain. The grain falls to the bottom. The alcohol rises to the top and condenses into a liquid.

A production operator guided us along a second-floor catwalk, past large gleaming machinery, including 14 metal fermentation tanks, each 25 feet high and 10 feet wide, holding 10,000 gallons and named after a former Templeton resident.

En route, the guide explained in detail the process of converting rye (and some malt barley and yeast) into whiskey: grinding the grain; cooking, fermenting and distilling; aging in barrels; cutting to the desired proof and bottling. The guide mentioned that his job includes whiskey-tasting. “Do you need help?” a male tour-goer asked.

We also watched a video showing how workers use blowtorches to flame-char the insides of the 10-gallon American white oak barrels. The char helps provide the whiskey’s smoky flavor and caramel color. Sadly, the automated bottling line was not in action, but a video showed how it operates.

The strong stuff

After signing a whiskey barrel, we were ushered into a small, dark aging room with barrels stacked on their sides and signed by earlier visitors — about 7,000 to date. Then we walked through a hidden sliding door into a brick-walled room — aka “The Speakeasy” — where we bellied up to the bar for a free shot glass of Templeton Rye Special Reserve. It’s barrel-aged for six years instead of the usual four, and only available for purchase in the visitor center gift shop for about $55. (Tour-goers receive a $5 coupon.)

Marketed for its aroma (“dry, grassy and natural spice”), taste (“caramel, butterscotch, toffee and allspice” hints), body (“deep amber color, lingering and slightly chewy”) and finish (“wonderful balance, clean and silky smooth”), Templeton Rye won two gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in April.

The good stuff was strong stuff for me. I took a few sips, which stung my lips and throat. But I left with a newfound appreciation for what it takes to make Templeton Rye today — and what it took back in the day.

More information

About 4½ hours southwest of the Twin Cities, Templeton Rye is open for four tours daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. There is no production on Saturday, so the still is not running and the bottling line may be down.

The tour costs $10 for visitors ages 21 and older, free for those younger. The museum and tasting (21 and older; bring ID) are free from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (1-712-669-8793; templetonrye.com).

Betsy Rubiner, a Des Moines-based travel writer, writes the travel blog TakeBetsyWithYou (betsyrubiner.wordpress.com).