(Photo: Joclyn Bushman/Iowa Soybean Association)

Iowa distillery honors veterans, grandfather

October 31, 2022 | Jeff Hutton

From the rich black soil of north central Iowa to the smooth, eclectic blends of bourbon, whiskey and moonshine, S&B Farms Distillery in Bancroft has been transformational not only for its owners, but also for Iowa’s veterans.

S&B has established itself as a unique way for the Winkleman family to highlight the importance of Iowa agriculture and recognize those whose sacrifice must always be honored.

Sara Winkleman’s accidental foray into becoming a distiller began with a phone call.

“A singer/songwriter friend of mine from Nashville wanted to know if we had some sweet corn on our farm,” says Sara.

The friend was playing at a moonshine festival in Georgia.

The Winklemans raise livestock and grow corn and soybeans but not sweet corn. Sara recruited Jake’s Sweet Corn from nearby Thompson, and they traveled south with 220 dozen ears of corn to a Georgia distillery.

As it turned out, “Sweet corn was not the ticket. Sweet corn would be a ton of sugar, but in this case, it did not convert well into a mash for moonshine.”

That experience led Sara back home to try their field corn to see if that might work. After several trips to Georgia and carefully watching expert moonshiners and still masters turn corn mash into bourbon, Sara was hooked.

“I never knew any of the processes,” she says. “After a couple of months, I told my husband I found it very intriguing and fascinating, and I wanted to dabble in bourbon making.”

While Brian was less than excited about the prospect, busy growing crops and raising cattle and hogs with his farming partner, Ryan Steenhard, Sara was committed.

“We already had a busy plate with two kids and farming. But when I want to do something, I put both feet in deep,” Sara says.

Birthing S&B

After several more trips to Georgia with their corn in tow, Sara and Brian began networking, touring dozens of small craft distilleries, finding what worked and what didn’t. They learned about barrel aging, storage, the right way and the wrong way. The learning curve may have been great, but S&B was born.

They’ve learned how soil plays a part in developing the flavor profile of their spirits.

“As it turns out, our corn is highly fermentable,” Sara says. “The black soil plays an important role in the flavoring; different soils go from bitter to sweet. We were hitting it sweet.”

Entrepreneurial spirits

Sara had more than two feet into this new enterprise. She was all in. That led to the discovery of a 2,000-square-foot vacant doctor’s office in Bancroft.

The Winklemans gutted the building and began distilling and manufacturing the award-winning spirits. The couple’s cattle benefit from the process, too. Corn is milled at the farm and brought to the distillery, where Brian distills the grain into alcohol using Sara’s creatively crafted recipes. The leftover mash from the process feeds their cattle.

Pivoting and adjusting

A couple of years into the couple’s journey, COVID-19 hit. However, while other national alcohol manufacturers were struggling with the impact of the pandemic, local alcohol sales were going through the roof, Sara says.

And word of mouth began to spread, and Iowa retailers began to inquire about S&B.

“Casey’s (stores) sort of landed in our lap,” she says. “They were excited that there was a native manufacturer who could produce peach and apple flavored spirits.”

It wasn’t easy. Like many, S&B had its fair share of supply chain issues and inflation costs, but the business pivoted when necessary, including manufacturing hand sanitizer for a time.

Private First Class Baade

Throughout the company’s four-year history, S&B has produced seven different spirits – Sir Winston Peach, Sir Winston Apple, Sir Winston Bourbon, Sir Winston Wheat Whiskey, Hog Wild (a cinnamon-forward spirit), Field Fire (a spicy pineapple jalapeno moonshine) and most recently, Private First Class.

The latter is the most special for Sara. The spiced spirit honors her grandfather Ray Baade, a World War II veteran. His image is prominent on the bottle.

“My grandfather was always my biggest cheerleader,” she says. “He’d always say ‘shoot for the stars, don’t be afraid of failure.’”

Under the guise of a school project, Sara’s daughter asked her great-grandfather for information about his service.

That information, unbeknownst to Ray, was listed on the Private First Class label.

And when a Fourth of July parade honoring local and area veterans was planned, Sara unveiled the new spirit and surprised her grandfather.

“There were many happy tears with the release of Private First Class,” she says.

The bottle unveiling made her grandfather a minor celebrity. Many wanted to know about the man on the bottle.

Sara kept her grandfather active in the last few years and initiated a bottle signing at the distillery. Ray would come two or three times a week and sign Private First Class labels.

Local veterans and veteran organizations took hold of Ray. His signature bottles were a hit at different veteran-oriented events, including banquets and fundraising efforts, like Hunting with Heroes out of Lakota, Moving Veterans Forward and others that help veterans of all stripes.

“He met so many veterans and others along the way,” Sara says. “The more his story got out, the more veterans would want to meet him. It allowed my grandpa to open up. It really turned into therapy for him.”

With signed bottles and the chance to step into the spotlight, Ray’s light shined a bit brighter.

“My grandfather had a story. Everyone has a story. The VFW of Iowa used our Private First Class as a fundraiser for homeless veterans,” Sara says, adding that it only made sense to capitalize on her grandfather’s service, which has served others.

“He said ‘Gosh, you made a nobody like me feel like a somebody,’ ” his granddaughter says.

Ray Baade passed away in January 2022 at the age of 96. His service, enthusiasm and dedication to his granddaughter’s efforts supported the idea that the distillery was a testament to Sara’s entrepreneurial spirit and a way to pay it forward.

Teaming up with the local American Legion, S&B purchased the property across the street from the distillery. The property will soon become a community park while also honoring veterans.

Coming Home

Now S&B is creating a small-batch specialty bourbon, slated to come out this month.

The bourbon, a limited run spirit, is called Coming Home. It honors veterans who have shared their stories and trusted Sara to create something reflecting their patriotism.

Some of the veterans have been a part of the process, tasting the progression of the bourbon and helping to fill specialty barrels.

Each bottle from this limited batch will tell the stories of these veterans, many returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Each bottle features a different veteran’s image and story. And when the bottles are ready, proceeds from selling these bottles will go to Hunting with Heroes.

“I’m very partial to our veterans,” Sara says. “They put their lives on the line.”

Veterans have been appreciative of S&B’s efforts. They gifted Sara with an American flag that flew over Afghanistan to “watch over” these specialty barrels of Coming Home.

Despite some early setbacks, S&B has found success because Sara persevered.

“I hope to follow my grandfather’s last words: ‘Always make a nobody feel like a somebody. Just be kind.’ ”