Milwaukee has become a foodie haven and is known for its food and beverages. Added to the list of breweries, sausage-makers, ethnic markets, bakeries, and custard stands are micro-distilleries. With the recent changes in liquor licensing, a new industry grown in Cream City. I would have never imagined Milwaukee would be home to not only beer but spirits. And really good spirits at that.
Over the last two weeks, I have had the opportunity to go on tours of two Milwaukee distilleries in scenic Walker’s Point. Home brewing has been a cultural and economic force for decades. You can brew beer or wine at home. The landscape is dotted with micro-breweries and small-scale wineries. Unlike beer and wine, home distilling remains a felony.
Milwaukee had several distilleries before Prohibition (1920 – 1933). After Prohibition ended, Milwaukee brewing returned, but the distilleries did not. At least not until Guy Rehorst – Master Distiller of Great Lakes Distillery – took up the challenge. Rehorst faced the paradoxical position of wanting to found a business with no regulatory structure. And if he distilled at home, it would constitute a felony.
But micro-distilling has returned to Milwaukee and Wisconsin. As of 2015, Wisconsin has 41 distilleries. Each micro-distillery has its specialties and business goals. You’ll be able to understand this with my Tasting Notes.
Disclaimers and Disclosures: All images from Great Lakes Distillery and Central Standard Distillery websites.
Drink responsibly. Don’t be stupid when it comes to alcohol.
GREAT LAKES DISTILLERY
616 W Virginia St
Milwaukee, WI 53204
Founded by Guy Rehorst, Great Lakes Distillery offers a wide spectrum of spirits. Production totaled 66,000 gallons last year. This might sound like a lot, but Great Lakes has over a dozen spirits in production. By comparison, a major producer like Jack Daniel’s or the like could pump out 66,000 gallons in a day. The basement distilling area contained two large stills, a bottling area, and a chain-link fence. Behind the fence were bottles and barrels of pre-taxed alcohol. Like their counterpart, Central Standard Distillery, Great Lakes bottles and labels all its spirits by hand. This is the very opposite of the giant industrialized bottling facilities.
After a brief tour of the distillery, I headed upstairs to the bar/tasting room with about a dozen other guests. In the tasting room, we tasted six spirits. Overall the tour and the tasting were educational, entertaining, and lots of fun.
During both tours, I found out about “base spirits.” Less a pejorative name than a perspective on distilling spirits. Rehorst Vodka was the base spirit of several other spirits we tasted. It’s taste and smoothness carried over into other spirits. In their production schedule, vodka is by far the easiest and the fastest. Our tour guide explained how Great Lakes could make a batch of vodka in seven days. He went into the science and chemistry of the production which I won’t summarize here. (If you’re interested in this aspect of distilling, I highly recommend taking a tour.)
Rehorst Vodka is wheat-based, akin to Grey Goose. As with barbecue, what constitutes a certain spirit can be divisive. Typically, vodka is made with potatoes. Rehorst uses “Wisconsin grown red wheat and red wheat malt.”
On the tour, the tour guide talked about “heads” and “tails” in distilling. “Heads” are made up of lethal alcohols and other fatal liquids like acetone. On the other hand, you can power a race car with this stuff. “Tails” are non-lethal, but will give you a nasty hangover. Other distilleries see “tails” as additional revenue and include them in their spirits. The challenge was finding “the best cut” and getting rid of those loathsome “heads” and “tails.”
This was a wonderful overture to the upcoming spirits. A wheaty odor came through when I smelled it. It tasted smooth and flavorful with no burn.*
*The belief that vodka is odorless and tasteless is inaccurate. Good vodka has a definite taste and smell.
REHORST CITRUS & HONEY VODKA
Great Lakes uses Rehorst Vodka as its base spirit and infuses it with citrus and honey.
TASTING NOTES: The use of real ingredients shines through. A little harsher than Rehorst Vodka, the citrus and honey ingredients mellow the edge. The lemon tasted like actual lemons, not lemon flavoring or lemon extract.
Another infused vodka, this time with the traditional botanicals used to make gin. As the website states, “Not quite your traditional London Dry, not quite a Dutch Genevere, often referred to as one of the “New American” style gins.” In addition to the standard fare for gin-making, Great Lakes adds basil and ginseng. Great Lakes, like Central Standard, works hard to make sure all their ingredients come from Wisconsin. A wonderful added bonus to the Farm-to-Table movement.
Not piney like other varieties of gin. Vegetabley and refreshing.
Kinnickinnic: [KIN-I-KUH-NIK] An Ojibwe word meaning “what is mixed”.(Great Lakes Distillery website)
The previous spirits were either a base spirit or a base spirit infused with botanicals. Great Lakes Distillery’s Kinnickinnic Whiskey is a blend. It’s a blend of Straight Bourbon (sourced from another distillery), Malt whiskey, and Rye whiskey. It is unfiltered and not like other Blended Whiskeys which have Neutral Grain Spirit (aka vodka).
As with other spirits sampled here, it was smooth and flavorful. The whiskey had fruity notes and very little burn. Notes of honey lingered.
ROARING DAN’S RUM
Distilled from molasses and, “before a second distillation, pure Wisconsin maple syrup.”* Then it is aged in “charred American whit oak barrels and used bourbon barrels.” Named after Dan Seavey, the only person tried for piracy on the Great Lakes, the spirit wraps Wisconsin history and Wisconsin ingredients in an innovative package.
*Anderson’s Maple Syrup from Cumberland, WI..
This was a revelation. Having had my share of rum and Cokes in college at Madison, I all but swore off rum for years. A wonderful “Wisconsin rum,” the maple shone through in the nose and during the tasting. A lovely mixture of maple and molasses created a warm effect, like curling up in a blanket on a winter night.
AMERIQUE 1912 ABSINTHE VERTE
Great Lakes’s Amerique 1912 Absinthe Verte is “hand crafted in small batches in our copper potstill. Based on a pre-ban recipe they are made with anise, grande wormwood (Artemesia absinthium) and fennel as well as a proprietary blend of specially selected botanicals. After distillation, more botanicals are infused in the absinthe giving it additional flavor and, in the case of our Verte, its rich green color.”
The tour guide used the formulation of 3:1 with 3 parts water to one part absinthe. Unfortunately, given the size of the sample, it was challenging to arrive at a conclusion with this one. It did have strong fennel and anise notes in the nose. While it did taste good, the dilution watered down any vegetal and herbal taste. That’s the bad news. The good news is I want to subject this to another Taste Test, since North Shore Distillery (out of Lake Bluff, Illinois) has Siréne Absinthe Verte. It would be fun to put a Wisconsin and Illinois brand absinthe side-by-side. Along with the standbys like Lucid, Pernod, and St. George.
ADDITIONAL: Absinthe is a challenging spirit, not only because of its lurid (and patently false) reputation. It is strong stuff and water dilution is necessary (and mandatory). Once you find the best ratio, it can be offer a wonderful drinking experience. I favor a ratio that results in a more oily mix. The different absinthe brands I’ve tasted – Absente, Lucid, North Shore, and Great Lakes – each offer a unique physiological after-effect. Again, this is super-strong stuff. Not to be handled in a cavalier fashion. I would highly recommend The Wormwood Society (http://www.wormwoodsociety.org/) for information on absinthe brands and informative reviews.
CENTRAL STANDARD DISTILLERY
613 South 2nd Street (next to Milwaukee Brewing Co.)
Milwaukee, WI 53204
I did not have a traditional tour as with Great Lakes Distillery. Since I was the only one, it became a lengthy conversation with Central Standard employee Bex Jaeger. He showed me the still and discussed the importance of brass as a temperature-control agent in the distillation process. The explanations were interspersed with tastings from their three official (and one unofficial) spirits.
Central Standard Distillery, also in Walker’s Point, creates a fun retro-industrial ambiance. The interior space is divided between the bar area, an open space with tables and chairs, and the still in one corner. Above a flight of stairs lay sacks of grain.
Note: Italicized text is from the Central Standard Distillery website.
Our vodka is distilled from 100% Rye grain. Rye is known for its spiciness and fruitiness, synonymous with superior quality and flavor in Poland and Russia. Our meticulous low reflux distillation process brings out truly artisan craft flavor and quality, highlighting the uniqueness of this grain. The result is a smooth and drinkable vodka based on hard work and attention to detail of the highest standard, The Central Standard.
Central Standard’s “base spirit,” it led with strong fruity notes. Rye is an eccentric choice for vodka, resulting in a charming hybrid spirit. A kind of “almost white whiskey,” with assertive fruit and spice notes. Unlike rye whiskeys, Central Standard’s rye vodka lacks the whiskey’s punch and burn.
Our Gin is distilled from a white wheat malt base which builds a body of sweetness to the spirit. Furthermore, we add 6 botanicals to the base through the distillation process. These ingredients lend a bright and floral taste with a light touch of juniper. The ingredients are handpicked and the dimensions are delicately determined to create the perfect artisan crafted gin of the highest standard, The Central Standard.
A different breed than Great Lakes’s Rehorst Gin. Right away I noticed the forward nose of pine. The gin offered a pleasant mouth-feel and the botanicals played well off the piney elements.
We have a rare take on this infamous Whiskey style. Our mash is a grain bill consisting primarily of Oat, which provides a unique light and pleasant flavor. While not aged like its bourbon style brethren, this White Whiskey experiences short aging in an unused and uncharred oak barrel. The result is a clear oat whiskey featuring rich flavor with hearty notes of grain, creating a truly individual and artisan spirit of the highest standard, The Central Standard.
Another wonderful surprise. I had previously tasted Georgia Moon’s “moonshine” and Jack Daniel’s Unaged Tennessee Rye. Georgia Moon could be described as weaponized corn syrup. Jack Daniel’s unaged rye tasted great, but it kept a hard harsh edge, endemic of big name rye whiskeys. Central Standard’s White Whiskey had none of those things. Unlike other distillers, the white whiskey was made from oats. Like Roaring Dan Rum, this eccentric choice in grains created a fantastic beverage.
Rich and smooth, it did not have any burn. It tasted fruity with caramel notes. White whiskey, like absinthe, has a bad reputation that distillers can use to sell product. “Drinkin’ moonshine will make you into a badass.” This takes the opposite approach, creating a unique base spirit that will eventually be aged into bourbons and aged whiskeys (more on Central Standard’s Bourbon below).
BOURBON: A PREVIEW
“Our Bourbon will be released next year, and our first run of aged whiskey should be available in September.” – Bex Jaeger
In my conversation with Central Standard, not only did I learn about the distilling process, I learned about the cut-throat world of barrel-making. Central Standard is in the process of releasing aged whiskeys and Bourbons. But they only started as a business a year ago? I saw the barrels where they aged the whiskey. The exterior is a normal barrel, but the interior has a special honeycomb surface. This increases surface area, along with Central Standard using a smaller barrel. As counterintuitive as this sounds, they crafted a great Bourbon whiskey in one year instead of six or seven. I found out how the grain bill was similar to that of Old Grand-Dad Bourbon, the distiller who first created what we know today as Bourbon whiskey.
When it first hit my tongue, the Bourbon tasted of honey and grains. Tastes continued to be sweet and silky with a smooth finish. As a fan of Bourbon, I was very impressed. Especially since it was aged for only a year. (Central Standard provided me a sample via a honeycombed barrel fragment in a bottle of Central Standard White Whiskey. In this case, it had been aged for three months. Still, incredibly good.)
Walker’s Point hosts a score of micro-companies. These include micro-distilleries and micro-breweries, nestled between Mexican restaurants, charming boutiques, and a scenic skyline. Once over the Second Street Bridge, it is easy to get lost and discover fascinating upstart companies and innovative individuals creating novel beverages. While Milwaukee, like the rest of the state, has fallen on hard financial times, micro-distilleries could point a way out as the industry itself grows. At present, Wisconsin has over forty micro-distilleries. Offering great tasting beverages at competitive prices, the consumer also gets the benefit of supporting local businesses and the farmers who supply them with their ingredients. One can add “Drink Local” to the mantra of “Buy Local and Eat Local.”