TEMPLETON, Iowa — There is Templeton Rye whiskey, the golden-brown stuff that's a tad bitter as a rye should be, available in the clear, weighty bottle for about $40 at the liquor store.
Then there is Templeton Rye whiskey, what locals in this town of 332 consider the real thing. It's what their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles made in basements and closets for decades, just past the eye of the authorities. It's a recipe that saved this town from the Depression, then was passed from generation to generation. It supposedly was Al Capone's favorite. Rumor says it is still made quietly today.
The first version is easy to find in Iowa and Illinois liquor stores and on the Internet. The second one, well, that's harder. Distilling liquor without a license is illegal, so ask around town, and you'll get tight lips and shakes of the head, albeit with an Iowan civility.
"Couldn't tell you," you'll hear.
Or, "I'm not really sure."
Most common of all: "You have to know somebody who knows somebody. Who knows somebody."
Though the county road running alongside Templeton is Rye Avenue — and the town logo includes a whiskey bottle — it is as if a ghost hangs over this town two hours northwest of Des Moines. A whiskey-soaked ghost.
But flat, sweet-smelling Templeton is still small-town America in the truest sense. Locals navigate the streets, which have never had a stoplight, by tractor or golf cart. Church is Saturday nights because the priest does mass up in Halbur on Sundays. T-ball schedules are available at the post office, and silos tower above Main Street as three 10-year-old girls giggle their way along while nursing small-town dreams.
"I want to move to Hollywood so that I can be on Broadway," said a rail-thin girl who carried a white purse in which she had two $10 bills that she insisted on showing off, perfume in a purple plastic tub she sprayed on mid-conversation, and a Hershey bar that she broke into equal parts to share with me and her two friends.
Later in the afternoon, when the shadows turned long across the town, I parked to hit Templeton's lone restaurant, The Still, which is nothing special but gets busy enough to warrant a reservation. A truck pulled alongside, and the driver approached.
"I've got a question," said the man, mid-50s, gray hair.
"I have an answer," I said.
He had received a complaint. Why was I talking to some little girls? I talked him down, explained and handed him my business card. We shook hands.
So it's that kind of town — a town that takes care of its own. Which also explains how it became wedded to whiskey.
Local lore says the Depression started it all. Falling crop prices knocked Templeton, like so many places, back on its heels and, industrious Germans that the townsfolk were, they turned to bootlegging. It turned out that Templeton was particularly good at both making whiskey and staying ahead of the law. Locals would erect a still, make a batch, move the still — and repeat. By the time the economic cloud lifted, whiskey was too deeply in the local fabric to give up.
"The heritage of the whole deal has made it pretty important," said Cole Kerkhoff, 22, a town native who works in construction and farming. "But you're not going to get too much info on it. It's just one of those things, and it's just part of Templeton."
At the very least you can get the legit stuff. The Templeton Rye facility opened in 2006, launched by Scott Bush, a native of nearby Wall Lake and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology business grad. He tracked down a recipe from Meryl Kerkhoff (a distant relation to Cole), who got it from his father, Alphons, who was twice convicted of bootlegging.
Meryl's son, Keith, soon came on as Bush's partner. He said their Templeton Rye is almost the same stuff his grandfather made.
"It's pretty close," said Keith Kerkhoff, 55, a bear of a country boy who spent training camps as an offensive lineman with the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears in the 1970s but was cut both times. "The Tax and Trade Bureau requires us to make it at least 51 percent rye. Prohibition whiskey was probably less than that."
All they actually make in Templeton are specialty whiskies that aren't mass produced.
The stuff in bottles labeled Templeton Rye is contracted out to Lawrenceburg Distillers in southeast Indiana, which at 28 million gallons of spirits produced per year is anything but the quaint Iowa image the Templeton brand is meant to evoke. The whiskey is trucked to Templeton, offloaded at the plant and bottled there. A staff of gray-haired locals does the rest: hand writing the labels, affixing them to bottles and sealing the bottles shut. At least in that way the operation is very quaint, very small town and very Iowa.
Those old-timers, who are older than 70 and were recruited from the church bulletin, barely drink the stuff.
"Only when I have to," said Gin Knobbe, 79, a retired telephone operator who affixes labels to every bottle. "At a kickoff event I might have an old-fashioned. Two at the most."
Almost all the staff can trace a history with the local legend.
"My dad told me a neighbor of his was making it, so the feds came out to look," said Pat Zubrod, 73, who hand numbers every bottle. "They looked all over his chicken coop and the hog barn. Sure it was there, but they couldn't find it. He had three barrels in a high-wheeled wagon in the middle of the yard, right out in the open. They didn't even look because it was so obvious."
When Gin and Pat — along with Mox, Myra, Anna Mae and Merlyn — are in action, Templeton Rye offers free 45-minute tours through its distillery, bottling line and tasting room, where the pours aren't stingy. Kerkhoff, a husky-voiced auctioneer, leads many of the tours himself and keeps such a loose grip on the bottles that Monte Mandler, 59, of Yankton, S.D., started pouring his own shots one Saturday afternoon.
"I've had Jack Daniel's and Crown Royal, but this is better," Mandler said, into his fourth or fifth sample. "I'm not very much of a whiskey drinker, but I like this."
"Yeah, we can tell," said Barb Van Wyngarden, 60, touring with him from Newton, Iowa.
Locals are slightly less convinced of the official Templeton Rye's merits.
"You get mixed feelings," said Gary Irlbeck, 50, a Templeton native who owns The Still. "People are trying to make money off an old name from when people were just trying to survive. But it brings visitors in."
"You can't sell history!" said a customer, barely upright on his bar stool.
"See?" Irlbeck said.
After sampling my share of the legal Templeton Rye, I went in search of the covert stuff. I asked and I asked and I asked, and my persistence finally won out. What I sampled was far lighter in color and body than Kerkhoff's blend. It smelled a tad like corn, but it went down easily. It was a little too rough to imagine being mass marketed, but that was its charm.
So, where'd I find it? Well, let's just say you have to know somebody who knows somebody. Who knows somebody.
IF YOU GO:
EATING THERE: The Still restaurant excels in fried chicken and serves competent bar food. Outside of pizza, the most expensive menu item is $7.50. The local color is priceless, though. Serves dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.
STAYING THERE: Gin's Inn (712-669-9200, ginsinn.com), a bed and breakfast, is the only place to stay in town. Gin has four rooms that range from $55 to $80 and include a hot breakfast. If that is booked, check out Taylor Hill Lodge (712-563-2248, thlodge.com) in Audubon, south of town; Adam Street Bed and Breakfast (866-792-0726, www.adamsstreetbandb.com) in Carroll north of town; and Deb's B and B (712-663-4285; bbonline.com/ia/debs) in Westside, northwest of town.
WHAT TO DO: Touring the Templeton plant (209 E. 3rd St.; 712-669-8793) is the main attraction in Templeton. Tours, which are free, usually happen one Saturday per month and take large groups (about 20 to 40 people) as requested. Also, Templeton Rye will host the second annual Rock and Rye party ($10) at the distillery July 31. Two bands will perform, and food, beer and whiskey will be available. More information is available at templetonrye.com.
Templeton is just a couple of hours northwest of Des Moines, so plan a trip when the Iowa Cubs are home, and make a weekend of it.