CARROLL, Iowa -- In the small town of Carroll, if you make whiskey, you better be good at it. The community has a rich history of distilling spirits, legally or otherwise. Now, the newest face on the block is a 28-year-old, whose story is just as unlikely as the 100-year-old recipe he stumbled upon.
Marquas "MarKaus" Ashworth moved to Des Moines from Kansas City in 2012 at the age of 21 after his father passed away. The aspiring musician had more ambition than just about anything, living in a homeless shelter for the first year in Iowa. He sold mix-tapes that he recorded in the shelter to put himself through college.
His music career began to take off, and was able to help support his family, found a music festival, a record label, and a line of hats called "Fresh Fit". Trying to get his hats in more stores across the state, MarKaus found himself in Carroll. Making friends with a local, he was asked if he wanted to try something "really good". He agreed and his new friend brought him to their car, producing an unmarked bottle of clear liquid.
"Your first thought when you see a white beverage in the whiskey aisle is that it’s going to be harsh, it’s going to taste like rubbing alcohol. My first reaction was just, I couldn’t taste the alcohol. That first time tasting it is almost like your first time seeing fireworks, or your first time hitting a three-point shot or your first kiss," said MarKaus.
It wasn't your run-of-the-mill moonshine. It was a family recipe perfected over generations. MarKaus decided then and there he had an opportunity on his hands. He used his entire life savings to buy the rights to the recipe and start the process of bringing it to market.
"It was the scariest thing I probably ever did," he said.
He named the drink "Ziyad" after a North-African slave-turned military general. He produces it in the same town he discovered it in, with the same methods used in the early 1900s. It starts with organic rye grown at a farm a few miles away. Working with a local distiller who specializes in old-school recipes, the rye is turned into a mash, the mash is fermented, and turned into a spirit using just five stills. The distiller can produce an average of 300 bottles a day. The glass bottles are made in Iowa, and even labeled in Carroll. A seemingly odd business model for a young rapper, but one he says couldn't be better.
"If you’re a rapper, especially coming from where I’m from, the people who most understand you are people out here. They’re hard-working, they’re honest, it’s the perfect match-up," said MarKaus.
The venture started three years ago, but MarKaus found that convincing a place to sell his new product was difficult. Hy-Vee and other liquor stores didn't jump on board right away. Eventually, the supermarket giant said yes, and last year the rye appeared on shelves in the metro. After years of bleeding money, MarKaus finally saw people taking his shot in the dark and turning it into a shot for themselves.
So I was walking through the liquor aisle to see like, did they get it? You’re walking through and I saw it on the shelves, and I’m like social media-ing, trying to sit back, trying to look cool a little bit, then the fliest thing happened. Somebody walked in, didn’t recognize me, didn’t know me, grabbed it walked right past me. Like I’ve sold thousands of CDs across the state. Seeing someone take that bottle, and then scan it, and then walk out? I was such a creep like I’m watching this lady all the way to her car like I want to run up to her and sign it. That was the best moment though" said MarKaus.
Since then, Hy-Vee says Ziyad has been doing well.
The rye retails for about $53, MarKaus says it's a drink to celebrate with, but one that is accessible.
"Like I wouldn’t have been cool enough to drink this when it was out. So, I wanted to make sure that this was something that, if we resurrected it and brought it back, that the average person could get it, enjoy it, and not only that but really see the connection between themselves and the state" he said.
A state that MarKaus says he wants to invest in and grow.
"We work really hard to make sure that Iowa is looked at as a place where it's not just a flyover state. It’s a place where culture happens, it’s a place where innovation happens, it’s a place where as an artist, as a small business, however, this is a dope place to thrive," he said.
In the fall, MarKaus will debut an aged expression of the white rye. That will be technically his first whiskey because the white rye hasn't touched barrels.