It’s a mostly nondescript, warehouse-type strip of businesses that are in the expansive building on the southwest corner of 37th Street North and Hydraulic.
As you walk through the garage door of Suite 6, though, a yeast smell hits you and lets you know you may not be entering the average building full of boxes.
Then, around the corner, you’re greeted by the gleaming copper and stainless steel still of the new Wheat State Distilling.
Owner David Bahre can’t help but brag a little.
“This is where the magic happens.”
Or is about to.
Wheat State has one final hurdle – a certificate of occupancy from the city – and then is set to open.
“We’ve distilled water twice just to clean it out and make sure it was ready to go,” Bahre said.
That smell? It’s bourbon mash fermenting.
Bahre and his wife, Kim, are Wichita natives who now live in Wamego. They’ve bought and sold a number of restaurants and other businesses.
David Bahre has a degree in milling science, which is the process of turning grains into products, from Kansas State University.
“I’m not just a spirits nerd,” he said. “I’m also an agriculture nerd.”
He thinks Kansas agricultural products are going to be what sets him apart.
“My edge is premium grains,” he said.
For instance, he’s using corn from Sedgwick County for his first batch of bourbon.
“In fact, I went and inspected this corn in the field,” he said.
His goal was “just to make sure that it was absolutely the best that I could find.”
“My goal is to trace every ingredient back to the farm,” Bahre said. “I call it field to bottle.”
He wants customers to have the information, too, in case they “want to know what all those subtle differences are” among blends.
Bahre acknowledges he’ll need something to distinguish his business because in the two and a half years he’s been working on a business plan, he said about 200 distilleries have opened nationwide. He said that makes a total of about 450 nationally.
“That’s a huge trend,” said Michael Murray of LDF Sales & Distributing.
“There’s nobody that’s doing small batch, artisan whiskeys, vodkas (or) spirits locally,” he said. “We have some of the best wheat in the country, so why not take advantage of that?”
LDF is one of the companies Bahre is considering using for distribution.
“There’s a lot of emphasis being put on shopping local,” Murray said. “I kind of equate it to the whole slow food movement.”
He said he hopes Bahre selects LDF.
He said his company has an “artisan, esoteric portfolio.”
“That was what was intriguing to us. It really kind of aligned with what we do.”
The fact that Wheat State is doing the entire distilling process from beginning to end also makes his distillery special, Bahre said.
“Eighty percent of distilleries in this country don’t own a still,” he said.
He said the majority of them are blenders and bottlers.
“I call them fakers and makers,” Bahre said.
Bahre said he’s still looking for a farmer to supply his wheat.
His mash tun cooks 825 gallons of mash at a time that comes from, on average, 600 to 800 pounds of Kansas grain. Depending on the product, the fermentation is a four- to five-day process.
He plans to produce vodka, flavor-infused vodka, gin, wheat whiskey, bourbon and two kinds of rum. The rum products, which will be made from a mixture of molasses from Florida and evaporated sugar cane juice from Maui, won’t be under the Wheat State name since they won’t be made from wheat.
“What I’m trying to do is ramp production,” Bahre said.
“If you want to be a distiller, and you do everything exactly correctly, it will take you … a minimum of one year just for all the licensing requirements.”
He’s been renting his space since January.
“You have to be really dedicated to do this,” Bahre said. “Whiskey takes patience.”
It’s takes money as well. Bahre said it took nine months to order his still from a coppersmith in Germany.
“It’s custom, let’s put it that way,” he said. “It’s one of a kind.”
Murray said the investment could pay off.
“It is a very real thing,” he said. “He certainly has the knowledge, and he has the passion for it, that’s for sure.”
Murray said Wheat State will be able to compete nationally.
“There’s no reason that Kansas spirits wouldn’t do well,” he said. “We’re excited for him.”