“I’m not really set up for agrotourism,” Jim Pierce says on the phone. “You’ll see why when you get here.”
For most of the 45-minute drive north and east from downtown to Rayville, Mo., it seems he couldn’t be more wrong. The rolling Missouri countryside beckons. White hills are striped in black as the sun burns through a half foot of snow from the day before, exposing bands of deep, rich soil.
The last couple of hundred yards from a small rock lane to Pierce’s home and distillery are another story. Deep holes dot a mud-slick two-rut lane not really navigable for city cars. But we make it up a small hill covered in apple trees to the still.
The snow-fresh air smells like bread. Pierce explains the source of the yeasty aroma: rye fermenting in large plastic vats. Pierce, with his wife and his father, is in the process of transforming his Of the Earth Farm hog and vegetable operation to fruit and distilling.
He got the idea when he and his father attended a fruit growers conference in Nebraska City, Neb., a few years ago. On a whim he sat in on a session on distilling where the presenter had brought in samples of eau de vie, clear spirits distilled from fruit.
When it came time to sample a Montmorency cherry eau de vie, Pierce braced himself.
“I’m a big guy so I had to be manly about it, but all the clear alcohol I ever drank was bad. But, no, the aromatics swirled around and hit the back of my palate and filled up my nose — it was incredible. I swallowed and it didn’t burn and didn’t make me cough. That was the turning point,” he says.
As he tinkered with recipes and planted more fruit trees, Pierce cobbled financing together to buy a large copper still from Portugal that cost “as much as a new pickup.”
He was able to swing it with the help of a Missouri Small Business Development Authority grant, plus an alternative enterprise loan and a revolving loan from the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
Currently four Of the Earth products are sold in selected metro area liquor stores and at Paradise Locker Meats: rye whiskey, grappa, apple brandy and blackberry liqueur. On the horizon are pear eau de vie, hard cider and gin.
Pierce has not done any advertising because he wants to grow his business slowly as he continues to figure out how much rye and fruit he can grow on his farm and buy from neighboring farms.
“I want my products to contain all Missouri ingredients. That is more important to me than rapid growth,” he says.
Of the Earth Farm Distillery: Near Rayville, Mo.; farm not open to public; products sold by the bottle in 10 area stores, including Cellar Rat and Underdog, and by the glass in restaurants/bars; oftheearthfarm.com/distillery; Facebook