Heath Schneider’s grandfather, Frank Sextro, had one dying wish. He wanted his family to dig up the barrels of whiskey he’d buried near a creek on the family farm during Prohibition.
Sextro buried them under cover of darkness after authorities caught wind of his farm’s illegal whiskey-making operation.
“I absolutely think there’s whiskey out in those fields,” said Schneider.
Whiskey for a cause
This might sound like the scandalous tale of an organized crime ring, but the real story is that of an Iowa couple just trying to save their family farm. (It is true that Al Capone allegedly adored the rye whiskey coming out of this particular corner of Iowa..)
In the early 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, Frank and Lorine Sextro were approached by bootleggers hoping to set up covert whiskey-making operations on their farm a mile outside of Templeton, Iowa.
Facing serious financial struggles, Frank and Lorine agreed to let a bootlegger move into their attic in January of 1932. Their new whiskey-distilling roommate slept all day, and secretly made whiskey in the fields at night.
Rich Eggers, whose family knew the Sextros, defends their decision.
“These people were not criminals,” Eggers says. “These were damn good people, and they did it to pay for their farms and pay for their kids. They’d give you the shirt off their back.”
Grandma’s got talent
As it turns out, Lorine Sextro took an interest in the whiskey making process, and proved to have quite a knack for it. By May of 1932, she was distilling her own small-batch rye whiskey, now known as Templeton Rye.
The operation continued to grow, and by later that year, the Sextros were producing 300 gallons a day and distributing to Omaha, Denver, and Chicago. Legend has it that authorities were tipped off by fox hunters who stumbled upon a camouflaged whiskey still in the fields.
Fortunately for the Sextros, the federal government’s raid was misdirected at a neighboring farm. The family believes it was around this time that Frank Sextro buried the still along with at least 15 barrels of whiskey. The Sextro family was never caught, and the buried whiskey production equipment remained undisturbed below ground for decades.
In the interim, Rich Eggers came into possession of Lorine Sextro’s original Templeton Rye recipe, and in 2015 he co-founded Iowa Legendary Rye using her handwritten instructions and original distilling process.
After Lorine’s grandson Heath Schneider got involved with Iowa Legendary Rye in 2018, the hunt for buried treasure began.
Bringing new meaning to “nosing whiskey”
Jim Peters of Iowa-based Samaritan Detection Services was brought in with a team of dogs to search for the buried contraband. The dogs had spent weeks learning the scent of an unusual training target…chopped up whiskey barrels. Using the instructions passed on by Frank Sextro on his deathbed, the dogs found several likely locations for the family’s long-buried whiskey barrels. With the help of below-ground mapping technology, the team confirmed a promising spot, and the dig began.
To the joy and astonishment of the Iowa Legendary Rye family, the whiskey still thought to be used by Lorine Sextro in 1932 was finally found. Bottles and fragments of charred oak were discovered as well.
“Unearthing the still my grandmother used to bootleg rye during Prohibition is a hugely significant discovery for Iowa Legendary Rye and for Iowa’s bootlegging history,” said Schneider.
While finding the still is a major triumph, Schneider and the team have their sights set on those old barrels of whiskey, hopefully still intact.
“We are still on our treasure hunt for the barrels,” said Max Poland, master distiller and director of distillery operations at Iowa Legendary Rye. “It is still an active farm, so it is hard to get in to hunt in between freezing and thawing seasons. It is still a work in progress on finding them.”
Heath Schneider is optimistic.
“Being able to find just one of the 15 barrels buried nearly 90 years ago intact would be a game-changer,” Schneider said. “Just three molecules from the barrel can produce the exact same yeast that Grandma Sextro used.”
“We’re 95 percent of the way to making our rye exactly like she used to. Having that yeast is the missing link. With it, we’d be able to make Iowa Legendary Rye exactly like she made it in the 1930s.”
This month, RackHouse is featuring two Sextro Rye whiskeys.
What’s in the box
Sextro Rye Black Label
This Prohibition-era rye is high-proof rye, aged in freshly charred white oak barrels. The char from the newly fired white oak leads to an intricately flavored, smooth-tasting Black label high-proof new-made American rye whose taste is defined with every sip.
Prohibition-era recipe, single barrel
ABV = 80 proof
Sextro Rye Red Label
Iowa Legendary Rye’s Red Label – Private Reserve twice barreled rye is amazingly smooth and slightly sweet due to our blending of 100 percent rye in a traditional copper pot still. Served over ice or in your favorite mixed drink or cocktail, this surprisingly simple cocktail offers something new.
ABV = 80 proof