Have you ever tried Down East vodka from Silver Tree Beer & Spirits? If you frequent Watson's Shack and Rail, or like to scope out locally and regionally produced vodkas at Binny's Beverage Depot, you may have stumbled upon it. Down East vodka is a wheat-based vodka with a naturally sweet and smooth finish. I’ve never tasted a vodka like this in my life. The design of the bottle is smart too, which, admittedly, drives my few purchases of bottled spirits these days.
Photo courtesy of Silver Tree Beer & Spirits
Other than the beautifully designed label and great taste, what’s particularly compelling to me is the five generations of Irish family farming history behind this bottle, which is still thriving with the Glazik brothers at Cow Creek Organic Farm in Paxton, just 30 minutes north of Champaign. I decided to make a trip to Paxton to meet the brothers and learn more about their unique “seed-to-spirit” venture.
After careening up the muddy drive of Cow Creek Organic Farm on a cold Sunday afternoon in November, I was met by Dallas Glazik, who suited up appropriately in warm coveralls and mudboots, particularly muddied as the ground had been soaked from the hard rain the day before. He'd been out on the farm earlier that day feeding the red wattle hogs and cows.
After a quick visit with the cows and hogs, he invited me into their farmstead kitchen to warm up with a sip of Down East vodka and some great conversation. Then it was out to the fields with his brother William for a tour of their 400-acre farm of wheat, rye, oats, and hay. Driving around the farm in their red pickup truck, I noted the large wind farm just south, the Middlefork River just north, their cute white and black spotted dog just behind us to the west, and the fields of Cow Creek Organic Farm to the east. It was a very serene picture for this country mouse.
“We came up with that name Down East because our farmstead is west of the farm, so if we said ‘we’re going to the farm,’ we said ‘we’re going down east,’” Dallas explained from the backseat of the pickup truck.
William slowed down the truck on the muddy dirt road in front of a patch of land budding wheat with red clover cover crop, which naturally provides nitrogen fertilizer for the wheat. These 80 acres of wheat are the farmland that brothers' great-grandfather William and great-grand uncle Dan purchased in the late 1800s, and has since expanded to 400 acres of farmland as the land has passed through the family for five generations. This patch of land, or “Dan’s 80” as the family calls it, is also where they grow the unique strain of wheat that is used to craft Down East vodka.
“No one else has the wheat that goes into Down East vodka,” Dallas said, followed immediately by a retraction of that statement. “Well us, and Old Bakery Brewery based in Alton, Illinois. We are their wheat provider, which they’ve used to craft their Citrus Wheat beer.”
Dallas also explained that the reason no one else has their wheat is that you cannot find another wheat seed outside of the farm just like it. Attribute this fact to the traditional practice of seed-saving typically found today on small-scale, certified organic farms like Cow Creek. Fourteen years ago, that practice was reinvigorated at Cow Creek when they certified their farm organic and purchased their public strain of wheat seed.
“The majority of seeds available to farmers today are privatized seeds, patented by a few big agribusiness companies so that no one else can own those varieties,” Dallas explained. “Since public strain seeds are open pollinated, it’s really hard to regulate those seeds. So if you buy it and save that seed year-after-year for seven years, that seed takes on the language of the land and the local pollinators where it is grown.”
When the brothers’ father and mother took the farm 26 years ago, they began to dabble in organic farming techniques as the nascent organic farming movement began to take hold in small-scale farming communities. In addition to the practice of seed-saving, organic farming incorporates chemical-free fertilization techniques that includes cover crop rotation-growing crops that are rich in nitrogen, providing organic fertilization throughout the growing cycles of a farm’s primary crops. William Glazik, who is a cover crop consultant, has perfected this technique yielding successful crops of wheat, rye, soybeans, corn, oats and hay that his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents have long grown, too. The hay they grow these days is exclusively used to feed the cattle and red wattle hogs that the brothers continue to raise after their mom and dad handed over the family business.
While farming and making vodka and beer take up quite a bit of their time, all three brothers behind the venture also work full-time jobs: Dallas is an administrative coordinator and resource conservationist for the Ford County Soil & Water Conservation District; Clayton is a graphic designer in Chicago, and Will is a crop consultant for Brucker Crop Services in Arrowsmith, Illinois. Growing up on Cow Creek, their childhood distilled in the organic farm life greatly impacted their futures as environmentally-conscious individuals and leaders in their communities, if not also lovers of homebrew and spirits.
While attending Paxton-Buckley-Loda high school, the brothers would tinker around with making biofuel from leftover crops to power the farm machinery. This tinkering, Dallas says half jokingly, later peaked their curiosities in what else they could make with the leftover crops. As they launched their career paths, the Glazik brothers still found time to make homebrewed batches of beer from the grains off of the farm.
Today they brew beer from chinook hops, known for their piney, spicy, and fruity aromas, which they buy from Land Locked Hops located in Loda, Illinois. Where can you buy their homebrews? You can’t buy it anywhere yet; but, if you were at sixth annual Paxton Swine ‘N Dine BBQ Contest & Festival held in September of this year, you may have had the chance to taste some of their batches. Just before they launched their company in June of this year, they started with the idea of calling the company Silver Tree Brewery but then quickly changed the name to Silver Tree Beer & Spirits after a stroll or two down the Binny’s Beverage Depot craft beer aisle.
“Wow, the craft beer market is really saturated, we thought. It’s highly unlikely that we would stand out on the shelf of an entire aisle dedicated to craft beer,” said Dallas chuckling. “At least if the vodka doesn’t sell it won’t spoil.”
“And being a seed-to-spirit company means we are only going to get as big as our farm,” added William. “So, it’s special for us that we can keep Down East vodka local.”
There are big distilleries; there are craft distilleries. An even smaller pool are the seed-to-spirit distilleries. Behind these distilleries are the farmers that are raising the grain and turning grain into alcohol. As far as we know there are two groups in Illinois taking on this agrarian magic: Silver Tree Beer & Spirits, who are partnering with Stumpy’s in Columbia, Illinois to distill their grain, and Whiskey Acres in Dekalb, Illinois.
“Most distilleries buy their grain to distill it. Those are your craft distillers,” explained William. “Being seed-to-spirit we are able to save the seed year to year, which means that the seed is well adapted to our climate. We plant it, combine it, we are with that grain every step of the way until it’s sitting on the shelf. A lot of pride goes into that bottle.”
For the last batch, the brothers hauled 2.5 tons of wheat to Columbia, Illinois just east of St. Louis where their partners Stumpy’s Spirits Distillery process their grain into alcohol. It takes about three weeks for vodka to distill; so, after three weeks, the brothers come back down to bottle it and haul it back up to Paxton, where they then handwrite the batch number on each bottle. The number six bottle that’s been sitting on the kitchen table during the duration of our interview is for the brothers’ mom and dad.
Photo courtesy of Silver Tree Beer & Spirits
The smart design of the bottle was created by their brother Clay Glazik, who works at a design firm in Chicago and takes on the marketing side of things for Silver Tree Beer & Spirits. Stamped on the bottle you’ll see the Silver Tree logo, a shining reminder for the brothers of their Irish heritage. The logo itself is the Celtic tree of life, indicated by the strong roots tying into the broad branches. The roots and the branches converge in the middle as three knots, which represent the three brothers: Dallas, William, and Clay. In Celtic visual symbolism when you put three knots together it means “mother,” which Dallas explains indicates the side where the brothers’ Irish heritage originates.
“Although we’ve got a Polish last name, we are mostly of Irish heritage. Dad snuck in there with that last name,” Dallas said chuckling.
Beyond a deep pride of their Irish heritage, the brothers are unequivocally proud of their budding business and hope the name Down East becomes as well known in Champaign-Urbana as it has in Paxton. The Glazik brothers also hope in the next five years to start putting different types of gin and whiskey on the shelves and, in the next ten years, a distillery facility of their own in Paxton.
“Whiskey takes at least five years to distill, so we want folks to not get too excited yet,” Dallas said chuckling.
You can get excited about where you can try Down East vodka, though. If you are dining out, you can find Down East at Watson’s Shack & Rail in Champaign, and as the house vodka at Harvest Ale House in Paxton. You can also find it by the bottle at Binny’s Beverage Depot in Champaign, priced at about $25. And although the Glazik brothers are seasoned homebrewers, you can’t find their beers anywhere else other than at local events such as the Paxton Swine ‘N Dine BBQ Contest & Festival that takes place annually in September in downtown Paxton. However, keep your eyes peeled for Old Bakery Brewery’s Citrus Wheat, which is exclusively made from the organic wheat of the brothers’ family farm.
You can learn more about Silver Tree Beer & Spirits on their website.
Photos by Megan Flowers, except where noted.