Barnstormer Distillery: Creative Risk-Taking Inspires Bold Flavors

Addie and Tim Ford conjure the spirits of the historic pilots from their distillery’s name, creating bold combinations that stand the test of time.

Addie and Tim Ford serve their Barnstormer Distillery products inside a tasting room that resembles an airplane hangar – right down to the retractable door.

It may be impolite to judge a book by its cover, but one look at Barnstormer Distillery’s RFD Vodka can sure tell you a lot about this Rockford distillery and the inventive couple behind it, Tim and Addie Ford.

For one thing, the plane emblazoned on this label harkens to a famous plane that now sits at a local museum. The distillery’s location on 6969 S. Main St., in Rockford, puts it right across the river from Chicago Rockford International Airport, in a community where the aerospace industry has been prominent for decades – and it’s a big part of the Fords’ story.

But perhaps the most meaningful tribute is the name itself, a nod to the daredevil pilots who became famous in the Prohibition Era for their wild stunts on government-surplus planes. Those pilots were also known to do the occasional rum-running.

“Back then, barnstormers flew by sight, sound and smell. There was no automation,” says Tim. “And that’s how we distill. It’s all by sight, sound and smell.”

The couple’s unique approach leads to one-of-a-kind combinations. The menu is anchored by such flavors as cucumber vodka, horseradish vodka, licorice rum and cinnamon whiskey made from fresh-ground sticks. The rums, vodkas and whiskeys you’ll find at Barnstormer are farm-to-cocktail, meaning many of the ingredients in these spirits, and the distillates in the cocktails, come straight from the Fords’ gardens just outside. Grain and other ingredients that aren’t grown or foraged for on the 22-acre farm come from local and small businesses whenever possible.

The Fords experiment with flavors in many ways, from trying an oat-based mash (a tasty but messy experience, Addie says) to aging whiskeys in a shipping container, where fluctuations in the Midwestern weather make for a richer flavor.

“We get creative about the products we give our customers. It’s something really cool, fun, super unique,” says Addie. “I know there are several big companies that do things like a cucumber vodka. But I don’t know any distiller who’s actually growing their own cucumbers on their property.”
While Tim makes magic at the stills, it’s Addie who works magic at the bar, located inside a climate-controlled building that resembles an airplane hangar – right down to the retractable door that goes up on nice days. Every weekend, Addie runs the bar while serving up unique cocktails and fresh flavors, including her own spin on classics like the Bloody Mary. She’s quick to help patrons understand what they’re drinking and why it’s unique.

“Tim produces a really great spirit for me to create really great cocktails behind the bar,” says Addie.

“But you really do take it to the next level,” Tim demurs. “I just make the stuff.”

Barnstormer was born as a retirement project when Tim wanted a break from aviation, an industry where he’d spent decades climbing the ranks from mechanic and pilot to entrepreneur, regulator and executive. Addie spent years in human resources, eventually making her way to the airline industry, where she and Tim met.

After their wedding in 2010, the pair moved to Finland and helped a Finnish-based cargo airline that serviced Europe, Asia, Africa and India. Then, they moved to Florida to establish a stateside base serving the Americas. Once they were established and operational, Addie was ready to return to her hometown of Rockford and Tim was ready for something new. A trip to Kentucky’s bourbon country sparked their interest in bringing Rockford a distillery for the first time in over a century.

“Tim is our president and this company’s foundation,” says Addie. “I was 100% behind starting a distillery, but I never could have done it had it not been for Tim’s entrepreneurial spirit, his risk-taking and his ability to grab the bull by the horns. I come from a family of people who were comfortable stepping out into the unknown, and I think having a partner who thinks that same way has made the dream come true.”

Barnstormer products are sold at the company’s Rockford tasting room, local restaurants and several local retailers. The tasting room is open Fridays 3-8 p.m., Saturdays 11 a.m.-8 p.m. and Sundays 11 a.m.-6 p.m.