ROCHELLE, Ill. — A northern Illinois farm family is giving part of their corn crop — and an old theater — an encore performance.
Kennay Farms Distilling is the work of Rick and Doris Kennay of Ashton. When the next generation of the family expressed a desire to return to the farm to make a living, the Kennays knew they needed to find a way to make the farming operation support multiple generations.
“My dad always wanted to make sure the farm operation was big enough so that anyone who wanted to come home to the farm could do so,” said Aubrey Kennay Quinn, daughter of Rick and Doris.
When Aubrey’s cousin Adam, then working for CHS Ethanol in Rochelle, decided to come back home, that gave Rick Kennay an idea.
“That was a major factor, my cousin’s experience in distilling,” Quinn said.
The corn was there, Adam Kennay had the distilling experience and Rick Kennay, a salesman for Pioneer, had the sales background. Aubrey had the marketing background.
“We pooled all our talents together,” Aubrey said.
After looking over various locations and talking to city of Rochelle officials, the Kennays purchased the empty Hub Theater. The old theater had closed in 2011 after operating since 1931.
The theater needed no small amount of repair, as well as the modifications to accommodate a distillery.
“It needed a lot of attention. I think my dad had the best vision for it. My mom and I just saw work. My dad could see this three years ago so he was really the visionary of the group,” Quinn said.
Their plans were thrown into disarray after new legislation increased the amount of gallons that breweries can produce. Rick Kennay changed his plan and aimed to be the biggest distillery in the state.
That goal has been achieved.
“When that law passed, Dad scrapped all the plans and we magnified the size,” Quinn said.
That included not just the distillery, but adding the brewery. Cranes lowered the two stills from Kentucky in through the roof.
The tallest still, at 28 feet tall, sitting on its base, clears the ceiling of the production room by just four inches.
Today, Kennay Farms Distilling is housed in the remodeled theater. The bar and tasting room overlook the production area, where seven 3,000-gallon fermentation tanks, two copper stills and a myriad of pipes and hoses produce the vodka and gin and the beers that will be the distillery’s first products.
“We will have vodka first and gin to follow. After that, we can make rum, brandy and liqueurs,” Quinn said.
A grand opening is planned for mid to late March. The distillery keeps fans and customers updated through its Facebook page and website, www.kennayfarmsdistilling.com.
Since whiskey and bourbon need to age, those will follow along in the next three and a half to five years. The brewery was not in the original plans and Rick Kennay added it to make the operation viable as the whiskey and bourbon are aging.
Don Klatt, who was Adam Kennay’s boss at CHS Ethanol, is the brewer, and Adam does the distilling.
“Don is trying to get a good mix of light to dark beers to suit everyone’s taste; he has some pretty creative recipes,” Quinn said.
Like everything in the distillery, the farm and agriculture theme is continued in the names of the brews.
“We named one ‘Farmer’s Daughter,’ that’s the blonde ale,” Quinn said.
A hefeweizen brew is called Patriarch and the 9350 is called after the red tractor that Quinn drives on the farm.
The newest offering is “County Fair,” a hop-driven beer with tropical fruit tones.
“We really tie everything we do here back to the farm,” Quinn said.
The corn used in the spirits and the beer is grown on the Kennay farm. The other ingredients are sourced locally and Quinn said the family hopes to start producing some of the small grains, like rye, barley and wheat, on the farm soon.
“It takes a surprisingly small amount of grain. By our calculations, only about 80 acres of corn has to be taken out of normal production to feed this facility for a year,” Kennay said.
The farm added a milling station and smaller bins for the other grains. The grains all arrive in pro boxes and those same pro boxes transport the distiller grain back home to the family’s small cattle herd for feed.
A corner of the theater pays homage to the theater’s past as does the distillery’s label. The stage curtains are part of the label, which depicts a woman dressed in shirt and jeans, hauling a barrel. The family name is visible in the folds of her pant leg.
That includes the furnishings. The long wood conference table in the conference room is made from walnut and ash from the family’s timber land, as are the tables in the tasting room, the fireplace mantel and the tasting flights. Those were cut and ground by Aubrey’s sister, Grace Kennay Link.