Flag Hill Distillery and Coppal House Farm Community Farming: Growing Grain for Whiskey in Lee New Hampshire
Three years ago farmer John Hutton of Coppal House Farm and Brian Ferguson, Distiller at Flag Hill Distillery, got together to figure out what needed to happen to bring whiskey grain farming to Lee NH. The ambition was born out of Flag Hill’s quickly growing distillery that needed a lot of agricultural input and a lack of interest from NH farms to produce it. Coppal House Farm had already been growing some grains and it didn’t take much convincing for the two to begin collaborating.
“We couldn’t get grain in New Hampshire that can be used to make whiskey,” says Brian Ferguson. “It was either a few hours north into Maine or upstate New York, and it is uneconomical to truck it that far. Not to mention we had little control over the type or quality of the supply.” In America we predominantly make two types of whiskey: Bourbon, made from corn, and Rye Whiskey, which is made from rye. “One key to making any good whiskey is to have the highest quality input. It’s no different from cooking; quality input equals quality output,” says Ferguson. “Having control over the process all the way to the source allows us to make sure the grain coming through the door is exactly what we are looking for to make world class spirits.”
Hutton and Ferguson planted whiskey corn for the first time on Flag Hill’s property in the spring of 2016. “There is a learning curve,” says Hutton, “but the system works. I stick to growing quality grains, and he sticks to making quality whiskey.” Even with a very dry summer in 2016 Hutton’s and Ferguson’s formula worked. They harvested enough corn for Flag Hill Distillery to produce some bourbon and all of its neutral grain spirit used for making Flag Hill’s popular cranberry, blueberry, and sugar maple liqueurs. “We are aiming this year to have all of our grain produced here on site,” says Ferguson. The farmer-distiller pair has most of Flag Hill’s open land into grain production this year with the first harvest of rye and wheat set to happen any day. “A lot is happening very quickly. We have a new (to us) combine showing up any day, 75 tons worth of grain silos being installed, grain dryers, blowers, augers, wagons, seed cleaners; an infrastructure that farms typically build over many years and we are trying to put it together in just a couple,” says Ferguson.
Farming and agriculture is changing. Dairy farms seem to be fewer and fewer every year and it’s no secret that the small family farm is being squeezed. Hutton and Ferguson believe the answer to this problem is value added farming. Coppal House accomplishes this by making a Good Food Award Blue Ribbon winning culinary sunflower seed oil. “The capital expense for all this equipment by one family farm is a big nut to crack. By sharing equipment, we can both grow our farms and the value added businesses surrounding the farms,” says Ferguson, “The entire community benefits from this with an increase in jobs and resources into our local economy, everybody wins.” The farming-distilling pair goes beyond just sharing equipment. “We rotate crops between our farms on roughly a 3 year cycle per plot. This allows us to reduce and/or eliminate the amount of disease pressure to the crop,” says Hutton.
“I am extremely excited about this,” says Ferguson. “We already have a problem keeping our Flag Hill Straight Bourbon Whiskey on the shelf; I anticipate it being 'estate grown' is going to make it even harder. I am just happy there are people in our community who are willing to share a similar idea of the future and help us all get there together.”
Coppal House Farm is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm for their farm stand, with extended hours posted on their websites www.nhcornmaze.com and www.nhsunflower.com for seasonal events, such as their Annual Sunflower Festival and Corn Maze. Flag Hill Distillery and Winery is open seven days a week from 11-5 for tastings. Follow their Facebook page or check their website for events like Brunch and Bubbles (a sparkling wine brunch with sparkling wine produced from the farm), chef pairing dinners, and release parties.