Joe Henry’s roots run deep into the soil of the family farm his father bought in 1946. He tried to move on, but the pull was too strong. Today he continues his father’s work and has added a whole new dimension.
Common practice of early farming was to save the best seeds from the field for the next year’s planting. In the 1930s, a true breakthrough in agriculture occurred with hybrid corn seed development. Hybrid seeds perform better and today 95 percent of corn acreage is planted to hybrid corn. From the very beginning, the Henry farm raised hybrid seed corn, soybeans and small grain seeds.
Henry graduated from DeForest High School and with his three sisters worked summers for his father, which Henry continued through college. Growing up on the farm, Henry learned early the intricacies of farming. But when Henry left for the University of Notre Dame graduating with a finance degree, he had no intentions of coming back.
“I wanted to be a banker in a big city,” Henry said.
He also traveled through Europe during his sophomore year while studying abroad at the Innsbruck Business College. Here he was offered the opportunity to study European history and art history, which enriched both his school and travel experiences.
Unfortunately, the job market in the field of finance was not encouraging upon graduation, and he returned to the farm. During his years at college, Henry’s father had retired and was renting out the land to other seed companies, and when Henry returned he worked for them. Eventually he stopped working for other companies and picked up where his father left off.
For 10 years, Henry sold his own brand of seed corn, Henry Seeds, selling directly to farmers. From retail to production, today, Henry contracts to produce seed corn for other seed companies who in turn market under their own brand.
The Henry Farm consists of 900 acres.
“Our seed corn production yields are around 60 bushels per acre. Seed corn yields are much lower than commercial corn production because we use inbreds,” Henry said.
Inbreds equal less yield, more risk and are more expensive. The Henrys sell their seed to various companies in the Midwest. Six full-time employees work year round, and there are many seasonal workers during planting and detassling, including both his sons, Joe and Jack.
Farming is a risky business.
“It’s been a great four to five years,” Henry said.
But the uncertainties in weather, yields, prices, government policies, global markets and other factors that impact farming can cause wide fluctuations in production, prices and income.
Henry met his wife of 30 years, Liz, through mutual friends of their parents. Liz Henry’s background is animal science, and she has worked for ABS and currently works in the Agriculture Department at UW-Madison.
Over the years, Henry not only keeps busy with the family farm but has served at various times as president of C.S.I. Farm Cooperative, the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association, Henry Vilas Park Zoological Society and the Arlington Lions Club.
Presently he serves on the board of the Wisconsin River Bank in Sauk City.
Approximately eight years ago, Henry acquired a taste for bourbon. The couple ventured the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky discovering “America’s official native spirit,” and they were also considering the craft distillery business. On the return trip, Henry said to Liz, “I think we could make bourbon.”
After much research and trial and error, the first batch of bourbon was created and its aging process began in December of 2009.
Henry said the learning curve was great and acquiring the knowledge for making good bourbon continues. The Henrys decided to save money and give themselves more options by not investing in a distillery. Instead, they deliver the mash bill to a distillery in New Richmond, Wiscosnin.
After the production process, the liquid returns to the Henry’s rick house where the barrels hold the bourbon for time to work its magic.
It all starts with a special heirloom hybrid red corn, first developed by UW-Madison in the 1930s.
“We brought it back for sentimental reasons, and the red lends different flavor qualities,” Henry said.
Raising approximately 20 acres of red corn and 10 acres each of wheat and rye is what it takes to produce a years worth of bourbon sales. The oak barrels are made by a Missouri cooperage, or barrel maker. For the next batch, homegrown Wisconsin white oak will be the origin of the barrels. The law states that a new barrel must be used with each aging process. Four to five batches a year of 30 barrels each on an ongoing basis keeps the bourbon flowing.
According to Henry, to do it right, bourbon needs to be aged a minimum of five to seven years, called the sweet spot. Longer is not always better and the flavor can become too oaky.
“It’s time consuming this way,” Henry said, but the wait is worth it.
Besides choosing the perfect time for aging, the barrel has a significant influence.
“The barrel picks up all the color and 70 percent of the flavor and aroma,” Henry said.
The Henrys have hired a professional taster whom they consult with for the final product for J. Henry and Sons Bourbon.
Since the first batch of bourbon began its aging in 2009, the very first bottles were available in the spring of 2015. Friends and strangers alike have been indulging their palates, and its popularity is expanding.
J. Henry and Sons Bourbon’s reputation has reached Chicago, and it will soon be available there.
Their unique flavors have not gone unnoticed in the domain of spirits, winning gold and silver medals from the American Distilling Institute, New York International Spirits Competition, the Fifty Best-Best Bourbon and the New York Wine and Spirits Competition. The Henrys try to attend two to three competitions, which are held all over the U.S. and internationally.
The Henrys make a good team. Joe is in charge of production, and Liz handles the marketing and assists with the website. The farm house in which Henry was raised has been recently renovated. Since August, the home serves as the tasting room, which Liz operates. Accommodating up to 30 people by appointment, a trip to the tasting room include samples and a tour of the farm. Bottles of bourbon can also be purchased directly.
The seed business remains the priority by far, but since bottling began, the little side business has become a major endeavor.
This slow time of year, the Henrys would usually enjoy downhill skiing and scuba diving in tropical places.
“Spring comes up sooner now,” Henry said.
A prize-winning Wisconsin bourbon is the reward for the Henry family tradition, labor, patience and high expectations.