ARGYLE – Just north of Argyle, down on Valley Road, between several tall pine trees sits a nature oasis created and established by Bill O’Donnell so named Blue Ash Farm. But this is no normal farm. Instead of livestock and crops, it boasts bourbon, vodka and honey.
O’Donnell and his wife Amy, purchased the 55 acres of land 20 years ago after wanting to get out of their suburban Chicago lifestyle and back into nature.
“I always wanted to move out west, to Colorado, the Rockies, or Montana.” But after O’Donnell met his wife and started to build a family, the west was just a little to far away to up and move there.
“So I told my wife I want to find a little plot of land somewhere close by where we can really feel like we’re out in the wilderness.”
He drew a line from their home up to about Spring Green. He wanted something just far enough away that it wouldn’t take all day to make it there. So he left his wife at home with the kids one day and met up with a newly licensed real estate agent from Mount Horeb and off they went looking at several properties with O’Donnell’s ideas in mind.
“I didn’t know if it would take us a year or two to find something. But this was the last property we saw,” O’Donnell remembered.
He said seeing the property reminded him of the movie Funny Farm with Chevy Chase.
“As we were walking the prairies, we’re jumping pheasants. We walked down to the river and we jumped ducks. We dropped through the woods and jump deer and I ask the agent, ‘what are these your friends with their pets?’ But this is it. This is everything I would have on it.”
He went home and told his wife he found the property and he took the family up the next day and purchased the property in the days to follow. In talking with the landowner, they had a connection over the vision for the land.
“I’m continuing his vision. We are benefiting from his work 60 years ago. I tell my kids that someday when you’re out here picking apples off these apple trees with your kids, you will say, ‘I remember when I planted these with my dad’.”
They slowly began transforming the property back to its natural origin. O’Donnell received permits and grants from the US Fish and Wildlife, NRCS (National Resources Conservation Service) and Pheasants Forever to turn the neglected prairie into a wildlife full of bald eagles, turkeys, bluebirds, wood ducks and the occasional pelican migrating down south. A couple years ago, a bear was even seen on the property as it meandered back up north.
“It’s just kind of been our outdoor haven,” O’Donnell said.
They built a house and came up on the weekends with his wife and four children to canoe on the river, fish in the pond and go hunting.
Before all of this, O’Donnell was a financial trader for 30 years. He left the trading floor to pursue his love and taste for cooking. He was able to get on a number of television shows like Rachel Ray, The Chew and other cooking shows in Chicago, with his brother, actor Chris O’Donnell, as his taste tester.
“I’ve always had a good flavor profile or I think I have a good sense of taste. All of those recipes on the cooking shows were mine.”
With that good sense of taste, O’Donnell really wanted to make some craft spirits.
“I love a good tasty bourbon. I wanted to develop some bourbons and craft spirits that I actually really like, like gin. I never liked gin. My wife and I are not gin drinkers but we love our gin.”
The name Blue Ash Farm came about five years ago when O’Donnell began working on creating his bourbon, doing several taste tests to make it the right consistency and having the right flavor profile.
The original Blue Ash Farm, established in 1939, was owned by his grandparents near Cynthiana, Kentucky, named for the Blue Ash trees on the farm. O’Donnell has the hand-carved wooden sign that was on his grandfather’s old truck. That sign is now the logo of his spirit line.
“Our family pick-up truck has made its way through the generations and ‘is a symbol of the authenticity and dedication that exists within each of these bottles’,” O’Donnell said, reading the label on one of his bottles.
Blue Ash Farm Spirits include 90 proof bourbon, maple bourbon, and honey bourbon, along with 80 proof ultra premium vodka, cherry vodka and a 16 botanical gin.
The honey infused in the honey bourbon comes from the beehives on the farm. The maple syrup comes from many of the maple trees on the property but due to demand for the maple in the bourbon, it comes from area maple tree farmers but still stays in Wisconsin. The cherries in the cherry vodka are strictly Wisconsin cherries and have no artificial flavoring or coloring in it.
“The ingredients come from here. The inspiration comes from here. I’m really passionate about this. I have put my heart and soul into this.”
His honey and maple bourbon are infused into his base bourbon. Nothing is manipulated. It is filtered to grab any pollen or wax that may have gotten left in each liquid but those combinations do not change the proof or smoothness of the original bourbon.
He remembers the day they found the final blend for the gin. It was 10:30 a.m. on some random weekday during December when he brought it home to his wife and made her a gin and tonic, which neither of them ever drank. She was done with her glass in 15 minutes and wanted another one.
“We both knew we’ve got it.”
This past June, O’Donnell turned his house on the property into a tasting room. He obtained his Class A liquor license and now holds tasting parties via his website blueashfarm.com. For just $10 per person, for a party of at least eight, people can travel out to the property, sample each of his drinks, hear about the history of Blue Ash Farm and the original farm and then take a stroll down several paths while sipping some spirits.
Along with several items for sale, including the spirits, O’Donnell hands out tokens that can be used at Good Fellas Tavern in Argyle for one free drink with a meal.
“I was going to build a tasting room in town but everyone wants to come to the farm. They walk the trails and picnic at the tables down by the trout stream by the river. So now these people are coming up here. It’s a nice day trip and they come and spend their money in town and the county. It’s been awesome.”
One of his goals is to be able to bring the whole business up to the area, whether it’s the distillery or a rectifiers license.
“I’m a one man show. I designed all the bottles. I designed all the labels. I blended all the spirits. And I host all the tastings and I do all the bookings. I know the story. I know the brand. I’m doing everything. But someday we’ll see that happen. It will just take baby steps.”
O’Donnell wants this business venture to help bring more people to the beauty that is Lafayette County. As he began distributing his spirits, the pandemic shut down all the restaurants.
“All these restaurants that wanted all my stuff, they all had to close. It was tough. I was like ‘holy cow. I can’t believe I just started a business when the whole world is shutting down.’ But I just focused on retail and was out there just grinding away trying to get the word out, doing tastings and it’s catching on a lot now, slowly, but we’re getting there. People are asking for it now.”
He is working on finishing up building a pavilion that will be able to host events. O’Donnell wants to have an event and invite local makers for people to come taste all the local cideries, breweries or cheese makers all together.
“I just wanted a place to bring everyone together. It’s one thing to go to a little town and go into like a big warehouse or some store but to come out to a farm and then be able to walk paths. People would love it with local music playing under the shelter and stuff. That’s kind of our plan. Just trying to share it with everybody in the area.”
He loves telling people from Chicago about Lafayette County and it having more cows than people and having no stoplights.
“It’s kind of fun not to have a stoplight. People come here from Chicago and they cannot believe that we’re just over two hours away from downtown Chicago and its so different up here; the terrain, the people, the nature, the view, the country. It’s awesome. Lafayette County is a tough little county.”
To find where Blue Ash Farm spirits are sold, go to their website and click on the Find a Store and type in your zip code. Check out the tasting lodge reservations times and book a day to stop on out, meet Bill O’Donnell and learn more about the farm, the canoes he builds himself, the vintage truck he is restoring and about the conservation of the land.
The land may have enhanced the spirits but is important to both O’Donnell and his family.
“This was our Colorado. We love it here.”