by Dorothy Bliskey
When Fond du Lac area crop farmer Jay Retzer channeled his corn and wheat crops into a distillery operation two years ago, it was with the idea he had discovered a secondary market for his harvested grains. Ledgerock Distillery opened on the Retzer farm on Father’s Day weekend of 2018. Within a year, Jay transitioned his son Bryce, now 22, into the role as head of the distillery operation.
The father-son team work together planting and harvesting 520 acres of corn, wheat, soybeans and alfalfa on their farm as well as operating the distillery that produces vodka, gin and bourbon.
What Jay and son Bryce hadn’t expected was that they’d be making hand sanitizer as well.
Within the past three months, as the coronavirus pandemic hit, they’ve put bourbon, vodka and gin-making on hold while they scramble to keep up with the demand for hand sanitizer.
It all began when Jay received an email from a federal agency, asking if they’d be interested in producing hand sanitizer. The message noted they would be guided by the rules of the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and World Health Organization (WHO).
“Less than two hours after getting that email, we made the decision to quit making bourbon for a while and put all of our resources into sanitizer,” Jay said. “We had our first batch out five days later. It’s exciting that we can take a small amount of corn and turn it into such a needed product.”
The demand for Ledgerock’s sanitizer during the coronavirus pandemic has been immense. Companies, first-line responders and the general public are stocking up by calling and picking it up at the door. “Demand has been overwhelming,” Jay said. “It pretty much goes out the door as fast as we can make it.”
As the waiting game continues, Jay isn’t sure when production of their vodka, gin and bourbon will be up and running full-speed ahead. Only time will tell. Although tours and tastings have been sidelined during the pandemic, customers have continued to drive in for “curbside” pick-up of bottled spirits they have on hand.
Meanwhile, the story of how Jay ventured into the distilling business seems rather natural. He has enjoyed growing crops since he was a kid on his parents’ farm. Over the years, Jay, who has a full-time job in the agricultural loan business, and his wife Heidi, who is a teacher, built up a 520-acre cash grain operation. “By today’s standards, that isn’t very big, but for someone working full-time and doing crop farming on the side, it’s enough,” Jay said. “Because commodity markets have not been profitable, I was questioning the need to keep farming.”
But curiosity and thinking outside the box got the best of him. “I accidentally discovered this craft distilling world that was blowing up all over the country and started researching those who were already doing it,” Jay said. “Many were promoting the fact they were sourcing their grains from local farmers.
“The idea of adding value to the grains we were growing by becoming our own end-user was very appealing. Long story short, we found a new outlet for our corn and wheat production, and we decided to open a family craft distillery.
“Heidi has always supported me no matter what I have attempted to accomplish and this was no different,” Jay said. “She supported the decision to move ahead and has kept me from losing my mind many times. She’s my rock.”
It took a year of preparation to open Ledgerock Distillery. Jay researched other distilleries, read up on the laws and regulations, studied the distilling process and developed a business plan. He secured financing, applied for permits, ordered equipment and constructed the 5400-square-foot building that would house the distillery.
Getting his oldest son Bryce on board with the plan wasn’t immediate. “He was still in high school at the time and didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He was nervous when he heard what we were going to do. The idea seemed too far out to him, and I didn’t want to push him into it.”
“I was skeptical at first because of the big learning curve ahead of us,” Bryce said. “We didn’t have any prior experience with distilling so it was a whole new world for us. But, now I see that sometimes the best things happen when you step outside your comfort zone and try something new.”
As a young boy, Bryce’s dream job was to be a professional hunting guide. Another dream job he actually jumped into was joining the local Volunteer Fire Department and First Responders in his community of Eden. Currently he’s hoping to go full-time as a fireman-medic while continuing to run the distillery.
Bryce, at 19, was possibly the youngest distiller in Wisconsin when he took over the role from his dad. “When dad gave me the opportunity to run the equipment at the distillery and said I could be my own boss, that pretty much got me on board,” Bryce said.
The list of daily tasks on any given day for Bryce includes running the distillery, answering the phone, handling sales in the tasting room, and giving tours—all at the same time.
“During the week when we are working, he is the only one there. He never complains and always gets great reviews from his tours and tasting knowledge,” Jay said, noting the family runs the business and the crop farming without any hired help except for one part-time employee at the distillery.
“Bryce has always been great at operating equipment,” Jay explains. “Whether it’s farm equipment or distilling equipment—he has the natural talent to make it work correctly.”
At Ledgerock Distillery, spirits in the form of gin, vodka and two kinds of bourbon whiskey are bottled and sold to customers stopping in and supplied to retailers locally and statewide. The Retzer’s corn crop and soft red winter wheat are used for their distilled spirits. Wait time from start to finish, when the product can be consumed, ranges from two weeks for gin and vodka to 1-6 years for bourbon/whiskey.
Names for some of Ledgerock’s spirits — “Farm Boy Bourbon” and “Back-40 Moonshine” — are indicative of the farm-based distillery. Top-quality water used in their spirits comes from the natural springs surrounding their farm on the “ledge”—the nickname given to the Niagara Escarpment which provides limestone-filtered water throughout the area.
Heidi is in charge of marketing at Ledgerock Distillery. The website is informative and user-friendly, with professional photos and a video presentation that shows the operation, along with recipes for her signature Ledgerock cocktails served in the tasting room.
As Father’s Day approaches, Bryce says he is grateful to his dad for trusting him to take on the distillery work. “The main lesson he’s taught me is to never give up, no matter what happens. You can always work through it and find a way to make it work,” Bryce said.
Jay is proud not only of Bryce but also Bryce’s younger brothers, Hoyt, 19, and Brock, 15. “They help out too when needed. And I think it’s remarkable how the whole family has come together during the pandemic. Everyone stepped up to help make a product that is in such dire need during this difficult time,” Jay said.
“We’ve been running 24/7 for quite a while in our attempt to get sanitizer out. On top of that, Bryce was also in charge of driving ambulance with the first responders. It’s so rewarding to be able to use this investment we made to create something that may save a life.”
NOTE: Ledgerock Distillery, located at N5287 Grandview Rd, Fond du Lac, has been featured on Green Bay and Milwaukee TV stations, as well as in newspapers statewide. It was also featured in the magazine On Milwaukee and on the PBS TV show Outdoor Wisconsin. For more information, go to www.ledgerockdistillery.com or call 920-238-9588 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.