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Iowa rye whiskey’s popularity places demand on maker

Ask Brian Duax about Iowa’s best-known, least-available whiskey, and one of the first phrases to spout from his lips is “a pain in the ass.”

Duax, co-owner of Central City Liquors in Des Moines, said he gets an average of 30 to 35 phone calls a day inquiring about Templeton Rye, a three-year-old whiskey brand made from a Prohibition-era recipe developed by moonshining Iowa farmers. The calls come from regular retail customers and from the roughly 300 bars and restaurants that Central City supplies through its wholesale license.

Duax’s answer for most of this year has been the same: No, he doesn’t have any. Nor, usually, do Duax’s competitors.

For some, that’s starting to get annoying.

“When none of us have enough Templeton to supply to any of our customers, a lot of my bars are just saying, ‘Screw ’em, Templeton is going to die,’ ” Duax said. “It’s not dying. But it could, and I think, it probably will, if they don’t get some Templeton here.”
Made in Iowa

Short supplies and long demand landed the makers of Templeton Rye in their second round of shortages since the prize-wining brand launched. The whiskey is based on a recipe lauded by the 1920s Chicago gangsters who purchased it during Prohibition. The rye was produced legally for the first time after distillery president Scott Bush persuaded Templeton, Ia., old-timers to share a mostly quiet part of their past.

The initial batch of Templeton Rye, produced by third parties outside Iowa, sold out less than four months after its 2006 launch and was followed by eight months with no whiskey on retail shelves. The company expanded production and moved into Illinois bars and restaurants the following year, then ramped up again with an expansion at its Templeton, Ia., distillery in 2008.

Bush said Iowa consumers still receive 70 percent to 80 percent of every drop Templeton Rye produces. It’s simply not enough.

Faced with shortages again in 2009, Templeton makers decided to ration Iowa shipments, based on a schedule that for most of the year will supply 400 to 500 cases a month for the entire state. Additional rationing by Iowa’s Alcoholic Beverages Division means whiskey distributors for much of the year have been able to purchase no more than one six-bottle case of Templeton Rye per week. But the state’s supply usually runs out before most distributors place their third order of the month.
Short supply frustrates maker

Lynn Walding, head of the state liquor agency, said Bush could have raised prices to choke back demand but chose not to. A bottle retails for $36-$40. The state’s one-case-per-week move is simply to spread the whiskey among as many outlets as possible.

“The bottom line is there’s no way to make everyone happy,” Walding said. “The reality is that most retailers can turn that product very quickly, so you’re essentially giving them cash.”

Bush concedes the frustration and says his company underestimated demand – an easy thing to do considering that each batch of “the good stuff” must age for four years before it’s sent to market.

“Very simply put, we’re still a small company,” Bush said. “When we started this company, we were an extremely small company. … The biggest annoyance for us is that retailers and bartenders, who we consider our best customers and who are going to help us grow this brand in the future, are frustrated.”

A big batch now in the pipeline will quintuple supply and should alleviate most shortages, Bush said. But that’s not scheduled to be ready until fall 2010.

“What we’re telling people is, ‘Look, we’re not going anywhere. And we hope that very soon the inventory situation, for Iowa at least, will be relieved,’ ” Bush said. “Until then, we’re asking for some patience.”
Customers mostly patient

Patience seems to be thinning in some quarters but getting mixed with perseverance in others.

Nevres Sehic, manager of Ingersoll Wine and Spirits, said his Templeton Rye waiting list usually runs 30 names. Most customers happily wait six weeks or so before they get their chance at a bottle, Sehic said. Not one person has ever turned it down when he’s called.

At the Jordan Creek Parkway Hy-Vee in West Des Moines, liquor department manager John Weber said he doesn’t keep a list. Well-studied customers have learned to be on hand when the whiskey shipment arrives on Wednesday mornings. “I don’t even put it on the shelf anymore, because within a half-hour of it coming in, I’ll have five or six people ask about it, and they get it,” Weber said. “Occasionally, it’s made it to noon.”

Walding said demand has been further fueled by Templeton Rye’s marketing efforts – the company created a barbecue sauce largely so it could have something to sell at the downtown Des Moines farmers market – but Bush balks at suggestions he’s over-hyping a product the company can’t deliver.

Among other things, farmers market appearances give Templeton Rye makers a chance to talk to people and explain production issues, Bush said.

“If it’s frustrating for other people, take that times-10 is how I feel,” he said. “Every day, I wake up and we don’t have enough product is a day I’m not allowed to grow this company” the way I want to.
Will demand remain?

Duax, who calls Templeton Rye “the hottest product I’ve ever seen come through the state of Iowa,” estimates he could sell 50 cases a month if he had them.

He and others warn not to overestimate consumer interest.

“I would be a little nervous if I was with Templeton only because people eventually do move on,” said Weber of Hy-Vee. “By the time they catch up with demand, there may not be demand.”

“I think it’s borderline,” about whether demand can wait until October 2010. “If it was much longer than that, they might have a problem.”