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Keith Kerkoff: How Templeton Rye Went Legit

Posted by on in April 2014 Editions
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In the 1987 movie "The Untouchables," Sean Connery's Irish beat cop famously instructed Kevin Costner's Eliot Ness on the "Chicago way" to get Al Capone and his notorious gang: "They pull a knife, you pull a gun.  He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue!"

Well, if it had been Keith Kerkoff in that scene, he would have told the Prohibition-era enforcement agent, "Just offer 'em a bottle of Templeton Rye!"

Prohibition indeed outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in 1920.  That's when the residents of tiny Templeton, Iowa, decided to become outlaws and produce a high-caliber whiskey they dubbed Templeton Rye.  So smooth was the finish, that it became Capone's whiskey of choice and one of the centerpieces of his bootlegging empire.

Although many American whiskeys ceased production after Prohibition ended, Templeton Rye continued to be illegally produced in small quantities for loyal customers.  More than eight decades later, the infamous small batch rye whiskey was finally made available legally for the first time in 2006.

Kerkoff, Assistant Master Distiller at Templeton Rye, was in Maryland in early February.  He had come to chat up representatives at Republic National Distributing Co., conduct a round of staff training at the Capital Grille in Baltimore, and sit down for an interview with this journalist, among other things.

"I really appreciate that the different venues Tom Brinkley [of Infinium Spirits] has taken me to," he stated.  "The people have been very interested in hearing about Templeton Rye. They're especially interested that we were a nationally known product during Prohibition. I'll always give credit to my grandfather, Alphonse Strickland; [famed bootlegger] Joe Irlbeck; and their constituents.  They're the ones who built our name.  They're the ones who worked in the trenches at night, kept the coils on their stills cool, and they had to look over their shoulders much of the time for the revenue agents." 

Legend has it that Alphonse was the only man in Templeton with the strength to carry two 100-lb. sacks a half mile -- the distance assumed safe from revenue agents.  Kerkoff himself is a big man, having played football at Buena Vista College.  He had a short-lived career in the NFL, then got married and became a farmer.  Eventually, entrepreneur Scott Bush contacted his father, Meryl, and expressed interest in making Templeton Rye a legal brand.

"Our first bottle came out of the distillery Oct. 25, 2006," Kerkoff stated.  "We decided to make 1,000 barrels that year and thought, 'There's going to be no shortage of Templeton Rye.' We couldn't have been more wrong! The last couple of years, we've made 7,500 barrels."

He continued, "Currently, we're in 42 states, and we should have all 50 states by the end of the year. But we're still a small craft distillery.  What sets us apart?  The Tax & Trade Bureau says, 'If you're going to be a rye whiskey, you have to be at least 51 percent rye and aged no less than two years in new oak barrels.' Well, we're over 90 percent rye, and we're aged four years in new oak barrels. We feel our flavor profile is going to be premium at no less than four years."

In just a few short years, Templeton Rye has managed to both shed its outlaw image and embrace its notorious past.  The company has formed the cheekily named Templeton Rye Bootleggers Society that loyal customers can join and get all sorts of privileges and promotions.  In addition, its distillery regularly host volunteer bottling nights in which common folks get to join the Templeton team and help the professionals, in Kerkoff's words, "bottle the Good Stuff for a night."

Kerkoff said one of the favorite parts of his job is visiting other markets such as Baltimore and instructing restaurant and bar staffs on the history of Templeton Rye.  "During our staff trainings," he noted, "we inform them that a lot of the whiskey during Prohibition was right out of the still and into the consumer.  With un-aged spirits, you have acetaldehyde and methanol in there that you want to get rid of.  When you age a product in a barrel, you take some of that out.  That's what makes it a premium product.  Being a premium product, that's how Capone's operation in Chicago learned about it."

Among the questions he gets asked the most are: "Do you have any old photos of your grandfather distilling whiskey?" and "Do you have any photos of him doing business with Capone?"  Kerkoff chuckles, " I just answer them, 'Hey, do you see any pictures of drug dealers today doing their transactions?!'  You just didn't do that.  That would have been incriminating!"

HIS ALMA MATER: Buena Vista College (now Buena Vista University), a Division III school in Storm Lake, Iowa.

HIS SPORT: Football (Position--Defensive Tackle)

SIGNED AS A FREE AGENT WITH:  The Dallas Cowboys in 1977

ALSO PLAYED FOR: The Chicago Bears