BROOKINGS – Think about bourbon and your mind goes to the Bourbon Trail of Kentucky or the nightlife in New Orleans on Bourbon Street.
However, you should start thinking about Brandt and Brookings, South Dakota.
Owner and distiller Gordon Ommen of BlackFork Farms has been bottling his South Dakota bourbon since last January.
“We are a farm distillery. We are licensed federally, as a distillery. We’re licensed with the state, and the state license provides that we can obviously produce bourbon, we can sell it directly to individuals, we can sell it to restaurants, we can sell it to wholesalers. As long as we’re within the state of South Dakota, we can go directly to consumers or restaurants right from our bourbon shop,” Ommen said.
“BlackFork Farms is our family farming business. It’s a fourth-generation family farm in South Dakota, and we have some land in southwestern Minnesota where my third great-grandfather came over from Germany in 1884. So, we’ve been farming around southwestern Minnesota and eastern South Dakota for a long time, that would be seven generations,” Ommen said.
“My main company in town is of course Capitaline Advisors LLC in Brookings. So, the depot at the end of Main in Brookings is where we do BlackFork Farms business,” Ommen added.
They farm roughly 2,200 acres, growing a few variations of Native American corn, flint corn, barley, soybeans and alfalfa.
“The farm that I grew up on, which is 3 miles out of Brandt – kind of up by Clear Lake, that is where we have built the bourbon shop. As you may have seen on a farm, a shop is kind of where you gather – it’s where you build things on a farm, so it’s a farm shop, too. But instead of building and fixing equipment, we do bourbon. So it’s a farm shop for bourbon where we make bourbon, and it’s also an actual shop where people can come and purchase bourbon,” Ommen explained.
Ommen said he’s done a number of distillery tours and tastings on the Bourbon Trail, and he’d grown fond of bourbon, as well as the culture around bourbon.
“Around eight years ago, we were planting food plots on our farm that we use for pheasant hunting, and I decided to plant Indian corn just for fun to give it a little more color and interest to our food plots,” he said.
After a year or so, his interest in bourbon grew.
“One of the things we did out of our private equity firm in Brookings was scale up a whole bunch of ethanol plants. So we invested in, and I had been the CEO of a large ethanol company, so I’m familiar with the whole alcohol production side of things,” Ommen said. “I said to myself, ‘You know, I understand alcohol production, and I understand a little bit about bourbon and I’m really a fan of the culture and everything around it.’ And we have a bunch of private clients that we bring out in the fall, so I figured it would be kind of fun to have some bourbon available for our guests and friends.”
Ommen decided they were going to make it out of Indian corn and did his research to develop recipes and a plan.
“So really it’s just an overgrown hobby,” Ommen said. “It’s kind of a big-scale hobby for me. And so I looked around and wanted to contract a distiller that makes really good whiskey that I can start off producing through them with my specs.”
Ommen distilled through a company in Minneapolis, which would ship the distilled whiskey to Ommen to put into the wooden casks to age.
To create an authentic American bourbon, the liquor has to be at least 51% corn and be aged in a new charred oak cask. Bourbon is the only liquor to be federally protected by the United States government.
“We figured out how we wanted to make it and sell it and all that, and we began producing that about five years ago and putting it on oak and aging,” Ommen said. “In January (of 2020), we tasted our first whiskey, so very recently, because it needs to age properly.”
“We kept marching ahead with producing this smoked Indian corn bourbon year after year, and lo-and-behold, when we opened it up in January, it was wonderful,” Ommen said. “So we continue to produce it. We have a couple different styles.”
BlackFork Farms has eight different varieties of bourbon that vary in style involving their mashbill (the name of whiskey recipes) and the type of wood the whiskey is aged in.
“We have a really dark German rye that we grow – that kind you make that dark rye bread out of. We grow small fields of this specialty rye, and we use that in our whiskey to give that a little bit of spice, so we’ve started to make a rye whiskey for that and deeper charred barrel for it and use George Washington’s mashbill recipe,” Ommen explained.
BlackFork Farms also makes a wildflower honey with bourbon and a bourbon vanilla syrup.
“My concept was if there’s a little farm in northeast that makes a craft bourbon on their farm and it sells around the world for a good price … well, then I can, too,” Ommen said. “We have been on a quest to make extremely high-end and specialty bourbon and make it on our farm.”
Ommen said BlackFork Farms has experienced an immediate high demand for its bourbons – some have sold out in less than two weeks after bottling – and this requires a rapid expansion. Ommen and his crew started this past spring building an official distillery in Brandt. He said they are bringing in two copper Italian whiskey stills, and the building they will be housed in is styled after a Scottish malt house.
One of Blackfork Farms’ specialty bourbons is aged in Mongolian oak, an incredibly rare and expensive wood.
“Mongolian oak … trees need to be 400 years old before they’re big enough to make a barrel out of. One barrel costs $6,000, and the wood is very porous so the barrels begin to seep. So they’re hard to work with. But it’s a unique flavor and it’s more work and fussing around, but it gives us a whiskey flavor that would otherwise not be available,” Ommen said.
“We do it as artisans, for fun. We’re going to make sure what goes out the door is right,” Ommen added. “This is probably the most specialty high-end bourbon in the Midwest.”
For more information, visit blackforkfarms.com. To schedule a visit, call the office at 696-3104.
Contact Matthew Rhodes at [email protected]