One hundred years ago, Prohibition-era bootleggers moved silently through the underbelly of Des Moines, Iowa, operating in clandestine jazz speakeasies and crafting whiskey in the dark in makeshift barns. That mixture of music and spirits introduced Des Moines residents to the cultural influences of jazz while building the foundation of the city’s complicated economic history. For present-day entrepreneur Marquas Ashworth, this historical mixture of music, alcohol, and development also proved inspirational.
“I remember hearing the stories about how Al Capone and the mob basically ran the Midwest, how they built the plaza in Kansas City, how a lot of them retired there,” says Ashworth, a Kansas City native and the founder of the three-year-old Ziyad Rye brand. “I heard these stories growing up, about the moonshine, the gambling, the speakeasies, knocking three times and all that. My grandma probably drank some white rye at a speakeasy back in the day.”
Following college at Iowa State, where he majored in marketing and sociology, Ashworth launched his record label, Media Fresh Records. But as he was promoting a mixtape, a trip through Iowa introduced him to another business opportunity. “I met this lady at the bar and got to talking with her,” he remembers. “She took me to her family’s bootlegging operation, which was basically in a freighter in the middle of a field. She explained the history of the counties of Iowa, about Al Capone, about the trains from Chicago through Iowa to Des Moines. And the whiskey was unlike anything I had ever tasted before. But because of their family’s history, they couldn’t get a license to make the whiskey. I had made some money off of my mixtape, so I outright bought the recipe from her and filed for the rights to it.”
To the casual observer, Ziyad might look like just another craft spirit influenced by the glamour of Prohibition. But it’s more than that: Ziyad is named after a formerly enslaved North African man turned military general — it’s a fitting name that’s both a nod to Des Moines’ strong history of African-American entrepreneurship as well as a brand that embodies the spirit of cultural rebellion and revolution. Ashworth’s recipe is almost identical to the one used by Iowa bootleggers in the 1920s and is manufactured in the original copper stills that were custom-built for the recipe’s clandestine production. And, in a tie to Ashworth’s love of music, each bottle’s label comes with a download tag for either a new song, an exclusive video, tickets to an upcoming concert or event, or even a private tasting.
“Ziyad Rye is fueled by the culture, especially hip hop culture,” Ashworth says. “Not only does this signal a new chapter for independent artists, but for the local economy itself. My goal is to put Des Moines on the map.”
At the start of Iowa’s statewide Prohibition in 1916 — four years before alcohol became illegal nationwide — many Iowans realized that they were in a particularly advantageous position, in that they had a surplus of the ingredients needed to make whiskey: corn and rye. And Iowa’s vast, dense topography allowed for manufacturing to be easily hidden from authorities.
“They never had permanent facilities. Operations would go from barn to barn, from cave to cave,” notes Ashworth, showing off a map of Polk County, where Des Moines sits, and pointing to some of the places where alcohol was allegedly manufactured during the height of Prohibition. Since smoke often gave away the locations of illegal sills, bootleggers regularly moved locations.
Des Moines also had the geographic advantage of a central location with easy shipping routes to Chicago, Kansas City, Detroit, Indianapolis, and St. Louis. “Shipping was done in caskets, gas tanks, with farm equipment,” says Ashworth as he inspects a bottle of his brand’s white rye. “It’s actually why the white rye sold so well. It was easy to pass off as water when sneaking it around.”
For Ashworth, reviving the 100-year-old recipe was not as easy as acquiring it had been. The rye used in Ziyad’s white rye comes from the same fields that it was grown in almost 100 years ago. But Ashworth found himself faced with the daunting task of not just replicating the original recipe, but doing so with modern-day equipment, processes, and ingredients. “Getting your batch right and getting your techniques right — that’s the hardest part,” he explains. “You have to have a good product going into the barrel before anything: Trying to replicate the yeast from the 1920s in 2015 was hard. We finally got to the point where we were ready to release the white rye in 2017.”
While whiskey distilling and hip-hop don’t normally go hand in hand, Ashworth has found a way to capitalize on the combination of the two. “One drives the other,” he says. “They both allow me to circumnavigate the traditional market that someone would have to go through to be successful in either market. Whiskey allows me to put my music in places that it typically isn’t — like grocery stores. My music is in every grocery store in the state. The visibility is different. And it allows me to market the whiskey in a way that none of these other distilleries can. I don’t have to worry as much about making as much money from music because the whiskey is the financial backbone. They support each other. When we distribute our liquor, we’re using technology to distribute our local culture by promoting local artists.”
The artists Ashworth features are mostly local, but his efforts have been drawing in national artists as well: He’s brought major entertainers such as DJ Green Lantern, Darner, Aeon Grey, Mike Hurst (King Louie, Boosie), Sonic Militia, and more to the area.
As for the immediate future, Ashworth has created a limited batch of Ziyad brown rye whiskey. The brown rye, which will be available in about a month, is aged for two years in charred oak barrels and compliments his new album release Burn the Boats. Much like his music, Ashworth describes the whiskey as “deep, smooth, and epic.” Later in 2020, Ashworth will open Ziyad’s new distillery in downtown Des Moines, renovating a historical building that served as Des Moines’ first city hall.
“It’s multilevel, 600-person capacity with a courtyard. The basement will be where our record label is and where we’ll have our recording studio and be able to do audio and video work,” say Ashworth, who notes that his first passion will always be music: “Music and lyrics keep in mind the struggles of everyday people, and call for action and change.”
Zoe Zorka is originally from Detroit, Michigan/Windsor, Ontario and currently resides in Salt Lake City. She has written for CNN, Newsweek, NBC News, The Source Magazine, Elite Daily, and more.