Iowa Legendary’s story begins over 100 years ago and is truly a testament to the American spirit. Faced with major challenges like The Great Depression and Prohibition, the Sextro family created a rye recipe that would be passed down through generations. In 2015, the first bottle was legally produced and sold using the original family recipe and they haven’t looked back since.
“A great rye should smell like nature and the field it comes from, sparkle like a newly minted penny, and warm the mouth without burning the throat. Properly worked rye should feel round and thicken on the tongue when you roll it around in your mouth. It should finish with a lingering caramel mint flavor that warms the soul.” – Heath Schneider, Lorine Sextro’s Grandson and CEO of Iowa Legendary Rye
Starting with Lorine Sextro in 1932, when she started distilling and bootlegging rye in Carroll County, Iowa, her secret recipe was kept tightly under wraps until 1989. Lorine Sextro refused to share the entirety of her secret recipe to ensure none of her children could get in trouble with the law. Even today, this family’s passion for producing a high-quality and delicious product for their customers is clear.
Back in the day, this was a highly secret operation. At one point there was even an attempt by the feds to raid the farm. Now, open to the public and easily purchased, Iowa Legendary still uses the same “legendary” process that Lorine Sextro used during Prohibition.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Heath Schneider, Lorine Sextro’s grandson and CEO of Iowa Legendary Rye, and learn more about the distillery.
Q: Tell me more about the variety of products distilled at Iowa Legendary.
Heath: With our five expressions (vodka, white, black, red, and purple) we hit everybody with something that they can thoroughly enjoy. We’ve found the vodka to be exceptional with craft vodka enthusiasts. The white rye is a superior substitute as a base replacement of tequila, gin, and vodka for mixed drinks. The black label is a traditional time machine rye, the red label is preferred by bourbon drinkers over bourbon, and Patriot usually hits a scotch drinker right where they like their flavor palette. All these variations are achieved through barrel play and still play.
Personally, I tried the White Rye and Vodka for myself. I can confidently say the flavors of both are delicious, versatile, and thoroughly enjoyable to drink. These options work great on ice or as a substitution for another spirit in a mixed drink. I also had the opportunity to try the Red Label Private Reserve and Black Label Age Rye batches – each of which is rich with bold flavors and beautiful in color. Afterward, I wanted to learn more about the process. So I went all the way back to learn about the first step and main ingredient – rye.
Rye is a cereal grain grown in Iowa, known for its versatility and hardiness. It has the ability to flourish in low temperatures and in poor soil conditions. Like Iowa Legendary, rye is a testament to the strong American spirit.
“Rye made in Carroll County Iowa is the gold standard. Growing our rye in this area with the richest black topsoil dragged in by the glacier is how we get our plump sweet rye. It can’t be done like this elsewhere.” – Heath Schneider, Lorine Sextro’s Grandson and CEO of Iowa Legendary Rye
Iowa Legendary gets their rye supplied from the same family as when the Sextro Family first began distilling. Passed down through generations, this secret family recipe has remained the same for almost 100 years. Even staying consistent with the tiniest details like using the exact same rye they did when they first started. It speaks to the tradition and authenticity that is still upheld in Iowa Legendary Rye today.
Q: Tell me a little bit about what tradition means to you and how that is reflected within Iowa Legendary’s operations today.
Heath: Tradition is our North Star at Iowa Legendary Rye. We represent a time and place in American history. Details such as 100% locally grown organic rye, zero chemicals in our process, four-gallon batch size, quarter keg barrels, single barrel bottling, and using our five senses to monitor where we are in our crafting, matters. We are in our sixth generation of teaching and learning. We’ve learned a lot in the 95 years of illegal and 5 years of legal cooking. Sampling is a big part of our offerings. To see Max and Alec learning from Whiskey Rich is an affirmation of the future. Their enthusiasm to make it “primo” is our assurance that the newest generation has a passion for carrying our torch forward to future generations.
Q: What does authenticity mean to you?
Heath: For now, authenticity has been lost to marketing. To our advantage, the truth is always true and history doesn’t change, so we keep making our piece of Americana. Recently, we’ve found the internet and eCommerce to be weapons for this truth. It is to our advantage to let our customer’s desire for true small-batch crafted rye to continue to develop. We are ready with perfectly aged barrels when the time is right.
Q: Tell me more about the barrels that you use for Iowa Legendary Rye and why they are an important detail in the distillation process.
Heath: A quarter cask is 80 bottles. Our American White Oak barrels from Minnesota are perfect for our aging process. The Iowa weather works the fifteen-gallon oak barrels well with it’s four extreme seasons. Recently, we’ve found a quarter cask within the reach of groups of enthusiasts seeking personalized offerings. We work with influencers to fulfill the desire for hand-selected barrels for their groups’ personal collections. Liquor outlets are also hand-selecting for their consumers. This is a fun-filled way to interact with our consumers.
It is clear that family tradition, quality, authenticity, and passion are important values to the Iowa Legendary Rye Family. The community holds a special place in their heart and was a crucial component for making Iowa Legendary Rye what it is today. Templeton, Iowa, during the Great Depression, was full of hard-working Americans trying to survive and care for their families. Bootlegging was how Lorine Sextro made ends meet during this time. All of the ingredients used in Iowa Legendary Rye are locally produced and the rye is produced in the same spot it was over 100 years ago. To this day, Iowa Legendary Distillery and the Sextro family can see how important the community is to them.
Q: How does Iowa Legendary Rye’s community play a role in the history and tradition of the distillery?
Heath: Templeton was a small town in 1932 and it is a small town now. When we visit the Templeton cemetery we feel a commitment to honoring Grandma Lorine, Grandpa Shorty, and the entire Templeton community by giving everything we have to set the record straight as it pertains to Iowa rye spirits history. The hard-working farmers and townspeople did what they had to do to feed their families and maintain their farms. All the while, deciding for themselves what is right. We still marvel at how the 101-year-old recipe is so right considering how little they had at the time. It is quite serendipitous.