Templeton Rye, bottled in a small namesake town in west-central Iowa today, has built a brand around the legacy of Al Capone — not his violent criminal acts, but his love of the rye whiskey grown and produced in the region during Prohibition.
In an era when mobsters and bootlegging were the norm, a drink known as Templeton rye was considered the tops. It helped rejuvenate a small-town economy during the Depression, and helped that community (current population: 362) survive through lean economic years.
The story of Templeton Rye is partly the story of Templeton, Iowa.
In 2001, Scott Bush and Keith Kerkhoff, the grandson of a bootlegger, revived the renowned Templeton Rye as their own brand, inspired by history and with a nod toward Capone’s legacy.
The formula is a recreation, with today’s Templeton Rye is made legally and commercially. It is distilled in Indiana and then bottled out of the plant in Templeton, but it’s been a boost to the small town once again, drawing curious history fans and whiskey lovers alike to visit the scene of what could be called a former crime site.
“The townspeople defied Prohibition as a necessity since no one was buying corn,” Kerkhoff said.
It’s not that it was a city of outlaws, but a desperate city in a desperate time. The small town utilized its resources: fertile land and agricultural know-how, to get economic advantage in a time of need.
Rye wasn’t a lucrative crop — it was used mostly as a cover crop — but it grew well in the region and it also makes for a unique whiskey experience, seeds which sprouted today’s Templeton Rye.
“Think of rye bread versus corn bread,” Kerkhoff said. “Rye bread is spicy and dry with lots of characte. Corn bread is softer, rounder, sweeter.”
Those same elements transfer to bread’s cousin, whiskey. Templeton Rye became a favorite of Capone’s, allegedly finding its way to his holding cell later in life. The passing of time has lightened Capone’s criminal history, now an icon of a foregone era.
Templeton, Iowa, celebrates National Bootlegger Day every Jan. 17, not to celebrate criminal activity, but the restoration of their town.
“(It was) the beginning of Templeton Rye,” Kerkhoff said.
From the cemetery where folks used to hide their bootlegged hooch behind tombstones to the new Community Center, the spirit hasn’t changed all that much over the past century in the small community. Today, Templeton Rye uses a variety of grains grown outside of town and is distilled out of state, but the barrels always return to Templeton, where they are filled and people will come to see where the mythology began.
Beyond Capone’s lore, there’s also the story of a small town’s continued prosperity. As Kerkhoff said, “By visiting the facility, you experience the small town of Templeton where it all started,” and where it continues today.
If you go
209 E. Third St.
Directions: From Interstate 80, take exit 60 to U.S. Highway 71 North for about 30 minutes. Continue north where U.S. 71 intersects Iowa Highway 141. The road will become Rye Avenue, and you will find the distillery on the right-hand side just before the road curves toward downtown Templeton.
Guided tours are offered one Saturday each month at 10 a.m. For information on tours, visit www.templetonrye.com/tours. To inquire about the availability of a weekday tour, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recipes to try:
2 ounces Templeton Rye
3/4 ounce Grand Marnier
1 ounce Champagne
Place Templeton Rye, Grand Marnier and bitters into a cocktail shaker. Vigorously shake to combine the mixture. Strain into a martini glass and then add champagne. Garnish with a lemon twist.
1.5 ounces Templeton Rye
4 to 7 ounces lemon lime soda
Touch of grenadine
Take a short tumbler or collins glass and fill with ice. Add Templeton Rye, lemon lime soda and a touch of grenadine until drink is pink in color. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.
2 ounces Templeton Rye
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura aromatic bitters
Fill cocktail shaker half full with ice cubes, add Templeton Rye, sweet vermouth and dashes of bitters. Garnish and immediately serve in a martini glass or short tumbler. Serve gently stirred, never shaken. Kiss with a cherry.