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Meet the Sisters Who Convinced Their Teetotaling Farm Family to Turn Their Grain Into Craft Whiskey

Now the Whiskey Sisters are helping connect other farmers and distillers across Colorado.

whiskey sisters grain supply colorado Whiskey Sisters Supply

Near the Colorado-Kansas border, sisters Felicia and Stephanie Ohnmacht cultivate corn, wheat and rye on their 3,000-acre Gergen Farm owned by their family for more than a century. As with many small farms across the country, theirs nearly shuttered due to dominating industrial farms and the chaos of global markets. However, after a chance meeting with Al Laws of Denver-based Laws Whiskey House, the Ohnmacht sisters paved a new path for themselves to become Whiskey Sisters Supply

At a young age, both sisters were told to avoid farming and its many challenges. Climate change, for one, is agitating many factors, from drought and floods to the timing of annual harvests. And, unexpected events like Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine can easily disrupt supply chains and bump the prices of basic farming needs. For instance, tractors are more expensive and fertilizer prices have soared. A USDA report published in June shows fertilizer accounts for 36 percent of operating costs for corn and 35 percent for wheat, so this alone can shock a farm’s ecosystem.

So, rather than taking over the farm, Stephanie pursued a clothing line and a job in telecommunications. Felicia worked a corporate gig and later became a stay-at-home mom. But, in 2015, when Stephanie met Laws at a fashion show, he mentioned his desire to work with a local corn supplier. While Stephanie never aspired to become a farmer, this presented a potentially profitable opportunity.

The Ohnmacht sisters with the founder of Laws Whiskey House
The Ohnmacht sisters with the founder of Laws Whiskey House Whiskey Sisters Supply

But, the idea would shift the entire business—from generations of growing market grains to alcohol—and the family’s values. The farm, seeded in 1913 by their great grandfather Charlie Gergen, was fostered by three generations of teetotalers. When the sisters presented the concept to their mom, Paulette Gergen Ohnmacht, they knew it wouldn’t be easy. “My mom said grandpa would be very upset if grains from his fields were going into alcohol,” Stephanie recalled. But, diversifying their crops would provide much-needed financial support.

It took months of convincing, but she agreed on a tentative basis, allowing them to work with Laws one batch of corn at a time. “When mom finally [approved], she did it in a whisper so grandpa couldn’t hear it,” Stephanie chuckled. Now, the sisters work with distillers across Colorado and are also brokers for other family-owned farms doing the same. By selling to distillers, they’ve modified the types of grain they grow. For example, they added rye and continuously evolve their crops based on market conditions and the client’s needs. “[A client] was never a consideration before; it was only about what we can sell for the highest price,” Felicia said.

Working with Laws rejuvenated their fields and within his ethos, Laws believes the craft spirits movement stimulates a wide range of cottage industries (from locally made stills, ingredients and other things like merchandise). He is adamant about working with Colorado growers, specifically. “I think the farms are the most important thing to us because it’s keeping the family farm archetype alive,” he said. In addition to using corn from Whiskey Sisters Supply, Laws sources wheat and rye from Colorado Malting Company, run by brothers Jason and Josh Cody. As fourth-generation farmers, the Cody’s saved their farm when integrating malting as part of their business. “That’s another value add, more distribution, and a revenue diversifier,” Laws emphasized.

Paul and Rose Mary Gergen on the farm in 1963
Paul and Rose Mary Gergen on the farm in 1963 Whiskey Sisters Supply

Craft distilling in Colorado is growing, with more than 100 distillers throughout the state. Yet, as local farmers look toward the future, continuous pressures challenge them to stay afloat. Drought, dried-up rivers, and aquifers are fiercely impacting agriculture, and those with water rights, like the Ohnmacht sisters, face reduced allotments. “Water restrictions are driving us to invest in technology and be better stewards,” Felicia mentioned, adding that their well pulled from 1,800 acres in the 1980s. Now they’re only allowed to tap into 500 acres. They’re also creating pathways for better soil health, ultimately leading to more robust grains and better-tasting whiskey. “The biggest challenge, though, is supporting the climate and environment and staying sustainable, especially with our ground and how we plant.”

The sisters hope to continue supporting other families to reinvent and diversify so they too can preserve their farming lineages. They also encourage craft distillers and consumers to forge pathways for local grains, which bring regional identity to craft products. For Laws, these grains are the difference between consistency and quality from a family or a hodge-podge from an industrial supplier. 

To him, whiskey is about the people who grow it, make it, and drink it. “We produce whiskey, which is a soulful thing,” he pondered. “It doesn’t just come from what we do to it, but it comes from all the people who grew it.” As for the Ohnmacht sisters, they’ve witnessed their mom open up and explore the alcohol industry through its people and products. “She has gone from refusing a taste of whiskey to enjoying a small dram when there is a new release, when the family gathers, or hosts clients,” Stephanie said reflecting on the sacrifices and the evolution of moving Gergen Farm into the future, one dram at a time.

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