It’s exceedingly rare for a craft bourbon to outsell the national brands but that’s exactly what Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery has managed to do with its signature Iowa Straight Bourbon Whiskey, made with 100% Iowa corn. The 75-acre campus in Swisher, where whiskey is produced, stored and sold on-site, will produce more than 140,000 […]
It’s exceedingly rare for a craft bourbon to outsell the national brands but that’s exactly what Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery has managed to do with its signature Iowa Straight Bourbon Whiskey, made with 100% Iowa corn.
The 75-acre campus in Swisher, where whiskey is produced, stored and sold on-site, will produce more than 140,000 proof gallons of whiskey this year. And according to data collected from the state of Iowa and then transferred to dashboards and spreadsheets made by Cedar Ridge, their bourbon whiskey outsells its closest competitor by 38.8%.
Unsurprisingly, Head Distiller and Director of Operations Murphy Quint credits much of that success to the bourbon’s flavor profile and high corn content, a strategy they “will never pivot from.”
“We’re going for something as approachable and inviting,” he said. “We’re trying to make our whiskey appealing to the Midwestern palate and similar to the Midwestern people. It’s the perfect middle ground that appeals to any type of whiskey consumer.”
Their customers seem to agree. More than 100,000 people visit Cedar Ridge in-person annually to eat at the restaurant or go to events such as weddings, while demand for their products increased during the pandemic. Cedar Ridge whiskey case sales have gone up by 30% each of the last three years, he explained.
20 years in the making
Jeff and Laurie Quint, Murphy’s parents, bought land in Swisher for a vineyard, their long-time passion project, in 2002. Sensing an opportunity to have a wider range of wines from the grapes they grew, they opened Cedar Ridge Winery in downtown Cedar Rapids three years later, in a garage connected to Benz Beverage Depot.
The duo decided it was time to differentiate themselves from other Iowa wineries by venturing into brandy, vodka and whiskey and the shift proved successful. By 2009, Cedar Ridge outgrew the small garage in downtown Cedar Rapids so they merged all operations with the Swisher vineyards.
Murphy helped his parents on nights and during weekends as a high school student but left Cedar Ridge around 2010 for Colorado to work at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, where he learned the ins and outs of distillery management.
“It opened my eyes to a bunch of things,” he explained. “I saw Coloradoans supporting special releases and people would camp out in alleyways just to get their hands on it. I’m from Iowa and I know how passionate and proud Iowans are about their home state. I had this thought we could easily go all-in on Iowa bourbon whiskey since whiskey is made from corn.”
At that time, Stranahan’s was one of the first 20 or 30 distilleries in the country outside of Kentucky. Now there are more than 200.
“I realized that we were on the forefront of a boom,” he said.
Murphy returned to Cedar Ridge in 2014.
IEDA was ‘crucial to development’
If Cedar Ridge started out as a winery differentiated by being a distillery, that business model flipped once the other drinks soared in popularity.
“We were positioned well to compete and respond to what consumers wanted,” said Murphy of the company’s switch toward bourbon. The popularly-acclaimed whiskey is now available in 30 different states and five different countries. They estimate they will sell 40,000 cases this year alone.
Even though its footprint is wide-reaching now, the success of Cedar Ridge was not always assumed. Jeff Quint highlighted the importance of an Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) grant, through the now-defunct Value Added Agricultural Products and Processes Program, as the only reason they could afford their first whiskey still since they didn’t have the bank or investor money required to overhaul their business.
Since then, Cedar Ridge has taken advantage of the High Quality Jobs program — which provides funding to businesses for costs to expand and modernize facilities — and more recently, the Iowa Manufacturing 4.0 grant. This will allow them to automate their bottling process so it becomes a 2-3 person operation instead of a 5-7 person responsibility, as it is now. In turn, they’ll be able to reallocate labor to other pressing concerns.
A group of officials from the IEDA and cities of North Liberty, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids toured the Cedar Ridge campus Aug.16 to see its progress since the last time the IEDA visited three years ago.
“They continue to grow in the national and international marketplace,” said Debi Durham, IEDA director. “It’s really exciting to see.”
Following the data
Iowa is a controlled state, meaning it is one of 18 states that control the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages to retail locations. Since the state controls all the data, Murphy (then the director of sales and distribution) realized requesting large swaths of data was the key to making better-informed decisions about the business.
He created a whiskey dashboard four years ago to track Cedar Ridge and its competitors on a monthly basis to compare each company’s accounts and placements.
“Analytics became a major part of our team of directors meetings every Monday,” he said. “Prior to that, it wasn’t part of those meetings at all.”
The Cedar Ridge team is also intentional about not storing barrels in a climate-controlled warehouse, unlike many of its main competitors. Other distilleries try to prevent evaporation in the barrels, also known as angel share, by pumping humidity into a controlled space. This stops the hot wood from expanding and becoming porous, before everything contracts during night. Cedar Ridge forgoes this option and willingly loses about 20-25% of the whiskey in each barrel, but in the process, rapid movement in the barrel contributes to the flavor profile the family is looking to create.
And while the pandemic proved devastating for many up-and-coming distilleries around the country that relied on in-person tasting rooms, Cedar Ridge benefited from already owning a well-established brand with a good distribution network, as well as shifting strategy to special display campaigns at select retail locations.
“Our brand has definitely grown over the last few years,” Murphy said.
Looking to the future
Cedar Ridge is not without its share of challenges and concerns.
They aren’t spared by barrel and glass bottle shortages, which have affected the whole industry, and have been delayed up to nine months due to late shipping containers. The cost of corn, barley and rye is also rising and “creating a lot of apprehension” as raising the price of a whiskey can be a “death sentence because what you’re doing is now targeting a different consumer,” Murphy said. It’s expected the price of every whiskey will go up over the next several years and the war in Ukraine will continue to affect critical wheat prices.
Customers are becoming accustomed to the idea that bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky, and Cedar Ridge is part of several associations helping other craft distilleries grow, but the threat of the nationally recognized brands always looms.
“The biggest players in the industry, who have a lot of money to throw around, you never know what they’re going to do,” he said. “They could start buying up a lot of the craft distilleries. They could use their weight and leverage to throw someone out of business.”
The Quints have looked into the possibility of expanding their business to a second location in the state but for now will remain put in Swisher. They continue to look at expanding their reach to women as part of their strategic demographic plan.
For now, their goal is to expose the brand to as many people as possible.
“We’re looking to create a legacy in the state of Iowa,” said Murphy.