After attending a marvelous birthday party for my niece, who is turning 2, my wife and I went the following day with her family over to the Second Annual Cedar Ridge Bourbon and Blues Festival. Cedar Ridge is an Iowa winery but is also a distillery. They are best known for their bourbon. And apparently, it doesn’t have to be from Kentucky to be called bourbon.
This particular winery is set atop of hill. The approach up the drive is scenic. And the road is gravel, which, as far as this indoor-enthusiast is concerned, is off-roading.
Once inside, the tasting room was large and cavernously tall – a trend, it seems, amongst Iowa wineries. Walking past the tasting room, there was a tent set up outside for the Bourbon and Blues festival. It was spacious and had a lot of tables and seating.
Back inside, we were treated to a tour of the facilities. The only other alcohol tour I’ve ever been on was the Budweiser tour, so I envisioned that this would be a meandering stroll through miles and miles of conveyor belts and bottling machines. But instead, we walked into a room that had a lot of casks and then distillation equipment. And that was it. When they say they’re a microdistillery, they’re not kidding. It was kind of incredible to think that they could do so much in such a small space. And it transforms my perception of their liquors from something corporate to something much more personal and handmade.
The tour was guided by one of the front of house guys. He seemed to know a lot about everything. He was also great with the crowd and was clearly passionate about what they are doing at this place.
After the tour, my wife and I returned to the tent for some food and some samples. In the tent, they were sampling three of their microbatch whiskeys – Iowa bourbon, Griff’s Cowboy Whiskey, and an unaged whiskey. The bourbon is made with Iowan corn and casked in barrels from Missouri. I’d had it before. And today, I continued to not care for it, much in an analogous way that I don’t care for most bourbons. My brothers-in-law all adore this small batch bourbon, though.
The Griff’s Cowboy Whiskey was mediocre. It’s a blend that they are preparing for national production.
But the unaged whiskey, which I didn’t even know was a thing, was awesome. It is a clear liquor because it goes straight from the distillation tanks to the bottle. It never hits a barrel. It has a little bit higher of a proof, so it packs a punch. But it has a sweet corniness to it – it’s like 75% corn or so. And it was like a mix of whiskey and vodka but in a good way. It had a hint-of-sweet start and a clean finish. I bought a bottle of it on my way out. They even sell mini-casks so you can age it yourself. But I declined. That seems gimmicky and overly fussy.
Over the course of the day, I also sampled their dark rum, gin, lemoncella, lamponcella, apple brandy, grape brandy, and grappa. The gin was spectacular and bursting with ginny flavors – easily one of the best gins I’ve ever tasted.
The dark rum was also bursting with flavors, but in a way that I thought was off-putting. I kept tasting licorice, which I thought was unusual and reminded me of jagermeister. But again, my brothers-in-law all loved it. Maybe this is an Iowan thing.
After sampling the whiskey, we ate some food. They were serving up what they called bbq. It was $10 a plate, which is a lot for area. And you got a beef sandwich, a little bit of potato salad, and a tiny bit of cole slaw – which is very little for the area. This eating experience was terrible. It didn’t have to be. But it was.
The girl running the register for food told me that it was barbecue pulled pork. But clearly, it was beef. And it was not pulled. Plus, despite what the signage advertised, it didn’t taste like it was barbecued or bourbon flavored. Now, I really don’t like being misled (even if unintentionally) about what I’m eating. But I particularly didn’t like how the people serving the food didn’t seem to want to be there and had no preference as to whether the line moved quickly or not. I mean, this has got to be one of the bigger public events that this place throws. It’s weird to see staff unenthusiastic about it.
The meat was tender, smothered in sauce, and aggressively seasoned with cumin and cayenne. It was different than any other bbq beef I’d ever had – like mixing Texas style barbecue seasonings with Kansas City style sauciness, or eating a grown-up version of a sloppy joe.
The potato salad tasted institutional. And the cole slaw was underdressed. These quality problems all could have been easily solved with quantity. Improving the quality is also another option, I suppose.
I kept commenting to my wife that this event could really be a great food and wine event. There were a lot of families and friends who bought bottles of wine to enjoy outside in the beautiful weather. The scenery was maddeningly picturesque. And the great Iowan crowd was very eager to experience new wines and spirits. But, the food and food service left very much to be desired.
After the meal, our family bought several bottles of wine and enjoyed the day. We took in the scenery, the music, some thankfully mild temperatures, and just visited for a couple hours. A great way to spend an afternoon. A great way to celebrate the Fourth of July.