“Adventure is where you find it,” reads the slogan of Rush Creek Distilling, a Harvard, Illinois- based business. The phrase references the outdoorsy nature of the brand’s four founders, and it’s also a nod to the origin story of their company. Why? Because for these four friends, all Harvard born and raised, deciding to build a craft spirits distillery was a whole new adventure!
It all started in 2015. Mark Stricker and Jay Nolan had been brainstorming new challenges and were inspired by the idea of craft spirits. They recruited their friend Jeff McCarthy, who had been experimenting with distilling techniques, and also brought in Mark’s brother Todd to round out the crew. “It sounded like fun, building a brand and building a business,” Mark says. “It’s something new and different with lots of problems that are out there to be solved.”
After two years of plotting, planning and experimenting, the group officially launched Rush Creek Distilling in 2017. They named it after the watershed in Harvard that serves as the distillery’s water source and is a major contributor to the brand’s flavor profile. In fact, Rush Creek sources approximately 90 percent of their ingredients from within 10 miles of the distillery. “You could make a whiskey with the exact same recipe [we use] here, and you could make it in Kentucky,” Jeff says. “But the yeast we use, the water source we use, it has a big impact on the flavors we get. Plus, the way we’re aging and finishing our product is unique to the area.”
Using a single-distillation process, Rush Creek currently makes four spirits: vodka, gin, an American Gold whiskey, aged five years with a sweet-meets-smoky flavor, and a Trophy whiskey, aged 10 years with a blend of vanilla, caramel and toffee flavors. Launching a whiskey is challenging given the aging process, so while they wait for nearly 350 barrels to come to fruition, including a 100 percent rye whiskey and a 25 percent wheat bourbon, Rush Creek sources whiskey from another distillery, then uses their own techniques and flavors to finish the product. “One of the mistakes craft distillers have made, and we can learn from them, is to release their whiskies too soon,” Mark says. “We won’t release them until they are ready. If a real whiskey guy comes in and tries it and it’s not very good, he tells three of his friends, and [recouping that cost] is nearly impossible. We have to be patient until our own whiskies are ready.” In the meantime, they’re working on two additional spirits: a barrel-aged gin, which boasts a bourbon front end with a botanical finish that will be released in late 2019, and a rum, which is still in progress. “It’s been just over two years and I still haven’t worked out the rum yet,” says Todd (whom the other guys describe as “a perfectionist”). “One of the things about craft is that we have to compete on quality, not quantity. If we don’t make a premium product, our consumers will tell us. I think we’re doing very well right now, and we’ve been very well received.”[metaslider id=”3600″]
While obviously the most fun, creating craft spirits is just one part of the business, which is a part-time endeavor for most of the group. Jeff works at Northern Illinois University, Todd works in real estate, Jay describes himself as retired four times over, and Mark, who works full-time at the distillery, is a former engineer. While each boasts areas of expertise, when it comes to pitching in, everyone rolls up their sleeves. “If something needs to get mopped and I’m available, I mop. If I’m not available, Jay mops. If Jay’s not available, Mark mops,” Todd says.
Along with the spirits line, they’ve also created a community space. Situated in downtown Harvard, Rush Creek’s 11,500 square-foot hub is home to the still house, where they craft the spirits; the tasting room, where guests can gather with friends and family and sample the spirits or sip a cocktail; and a merch store, filled with bottles of spirits alongside branded apparel and accessories. Tours through the still house are available to learn about the distilling process. But it’s the tasting room that has truly made Rush Creek a popular destination. With two separate bar areas plus a patio, the space features sky-high ceilings, lots of light, and a modern industrial vibe accented with warm wood. There are also quirky décor features, such as a hot air balloon basket and an antique snowmobile that incorporate a sense of adventure. “There’s a wow factor when people walk through the door, and it’s pretty cool to see,” Todd says. “People are friendly here. We’re not pretentious, we care about our customers, we have nice cocktails. It’s just a different atmosphere.”
Guests of the distillery can sample the spirits on their own or mixed into a craft cocktail. They can also order up cheese and charcuterie boards from the distillery or tap local restaurants for delivery. The distillery is family friendly, with tourists and locals alike gathering with parents, friends, kids and even dogs. The tasting room plays host to a roster of community events as well, including live music and yoga classes, and that sense of community extends beyond the walls of the distillery, too: Rush Creek American Gold is featured in locally made J-Dawg Jerky, and the spirits are also used in Rockford-based Cacaocuvée artisan chocolates.
While a major city might seem a more likely fit for a distillery, the founders believe their rural residence is an asset, not only because of the quality of the local ingredients, but because of Harvard’s unique geographic location. “Harvard is kind of at the intersection of Rockford, Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison,” says Mark. “So there are 14 million people within 100 miles of us. We get people coming from all the major metropolitan areas, and even further.” He notes that they’ve welcomed guests from Sweden, Germany and Australia, as well as across the United States.[metaslider id=”3608″]
Rush Creek spirits are currently distributed in more than 400 retailers, as well as restaurants and bars across Illinois and Wisconsin. While the founders are keen to grow the brand, they want to make sure they do it the right way.
“We have 500 really, really great ideas, but we only have enough people to execute five,” Mark says. “So, we have to choose wisely and live with our mistakes. But between the four of us, we steer each other in the right direction.” Whatever that direction might be as they grow their brand, the founders of Rush Creek know it will be an adventure!
Rush Creek Distilling
1501 West Diggins St
Harvard, IL 60033
By Molly Each
Photography by Matt Haas