Rich Eggers, founder of Iowa Legendary Rye in Carroll, is sober after nearly dying in February.
Rich Eggers, founder of Iowa Legendary Rye in Carroll, is sober after nearly dying in February.

April 2, 2018

It was a mid-February morning and Rich Eggers was in the shower when something twisted in his chest.

Probably just some gas, he thought as he got ready for another day of making whiskey. He tried to burp away the feeling, but it persisted.

Eggers had launched Iowa Legendary Rye in Carroll in 2014 as a part-time venture. His whiskey is made from the recipe of a true Templeton bootlegger, and he had hoped to eventually quit his day job as a service adviser for a local vehicle dealership.

He did quit last year but had to go back when his health insurance costs were too burdensome. Then, one of the bootleggers’ grandchildren bought into the business, and Eggers went back to distilling full time with the hope of vastly expanding his whiskey’s popularity and reach.

The deal was official on Feb. 1.

It was 17 days later when Eggers, 57, felt that twist in his chest.

An hour passed. The feeling reminded him of the time he had pneumonia, when fluid gathered in his lungs.

Two hours passed.

“Let’s go to the emergency room,” he told his wife, Lisa Chase.

A doctor at St. Anthony Regional Hospital looked at an X-ray of Eggers’ chest and called for a helicopter to fly him to a Des Moines hospital.

It was an aortic dissection. The inner lining of the main artery from his heart had torn, and blood was flowing into the walls of his aorta.

The wind gusts were strong that day. Maybe 45 or 50 mph.

The medical helicopter was forced to land in the hospital’s parking lot.

Eggers heard the pilot say: “If you’ve ever prayed before, pray now.”

He thought the comment was about his medical condition, but in truth the pilot worried about the gusty conditions. Eggers felt weightless at times as the helicopter jostled and plunged in the wind on the way to Des Moines.

Doctors patched him up, and Eggers lay in a hospital bed for three weeks. He survived.

It’ll be at least six months until his aorta is healed, Eggers said. Even after that, life will be different.

Eggers takes 13 pills of blood-pressure medication each day and wears a patch once each week. He checks his blood pressure four times each day — if it strays too high he might die.

No more booze. No more cigarettes. No more salty food. He quit cold turkey.

“I actually have more fun because I’m coherent all the time,” Eggers laughed.

He is forbidden from lifting more than 10 pounds for now, which complicates everything for Eggers — from using the bathroom to moving barrels of whiskey.

So he has help.

Micaela Bretey, of Carroll, is at the distillery at 707 N. Main St. most days assisting with every step of the process. And a young man from Nebraska was expected this week to start training as Eggers’ apprentice.

“He’s going to learn everything,” Eggers said.

The dream is bigger now that a grandson of bootlegger Lorine Sextro — whose whiskey recipe Eggers uses — is part of the business. They’ve tripled production.

“We’re one of the best whiskeys that no one knows about,” said Heath Schneider, Sextro’s grandson.

It’s also a whiskey that nearly went extinct.

Sure, there are many bootleg recipes still in production in Carroll County — all of them variations on a theme, all of them unique in some way.

Schneider says his grandmother’s alterations were the result of her experience as a baker, gardener and canner: “It’s definitely a baker’s recipe,” he said.

Sextro was proud of her illicit work cooking up to 300 gallons of whiskey in a night to keep her family’s farm afloat through the worst of the Great Depression. But she largely kept it hidden from her progeny.

One son wanted to produce her whiskey, but she omitted key details of the recipe. She didn’t want him to get in trouble.

“The recipe got lost,” Schneider said.

But Sextro did at one point teach one of Eggers’ relatives how to make it, and that person passed the recipe to Eggers.

Now that Eggers and Schneider have teamed up, the recipe has come full circle.

Schneider, a Denison High School graduate like Eggers who now lives in Las Vegas and said he has had success in real estate and financing, wasn’t planning to start a new business venture at this point in his life. He’s 50.

He couldn’t pass the opportunity to re-establish his grandmother’s legacy.

It’s up to the public to decide whose whiskey is best,” Schneider said.