Milwaukee's Craft Distilling Renaissance
Throughout history, there have been those who think of alcohol as a magical elixir and those who view it as a scourge that destroys social order. It may be both, but its influence is undeniable.
Here in Wisconsin, stereotypes about alcohol and its conspicuous consumption do a disservice to the state’s rich legacy of brewing, winemaking and distilling. Though Milwaukee is known as Brew City for good reason, its tradition of distilling spirits is less understood and appreciated in part because Prohibition wiped out nearly a century of what could have been.
But this is changing. Over the past 15 years, an uncommon cooperation among distillers not unlike the collaborative and supportive relationships enjoyed by chefs and restauranteurs in the city is raising awareness. This distilling renaissance has thrust the state, and Milwaukee in particular, back into the limelight.
Barely 20 years after Wisconsin became a state, the Milwaukee area was home to nearly a dozen distilleries and breweries. Despite a $2 per gallon whiskey tax and stiff competition from Chicago, Milwaukee distillers managed to stay the course until 1876, when Congress threatened prison for manufacturers of ‘contraband’ spirits. Within a few years only Meadow Spring Distilling, Wm. Bergenthal, and John Meiner remained. Further mergers left only National Distilling and S.C. Herbst to be shuttered by Prohibition in 1920.
Though the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition in 1933, federal law still bans the production of spirits without meeting stringent requirements.
None of this deterred Guy Rehorst, who in 2003 sold a high-tech manufacturing company he founded and took some time to plan his next move. In 2004 he founded Great Lakes Distillery, the first craft spirits producer in Wisconsin since Prohibition and one of the first 30 in the United States, and its first spirits, mainly vodka, were sold in 2006.
Though there are now an estimated 1,300 distilleries across the country, there were few models to look toward when Rehorst started Great Lakes. He embraced the learning process despite the endless permits, regulatory restrictions, excise taxes, franchise laws and expensive equipment.
“I was just stupid enough to do it,” he laughed. “Sometimes not knowing what you’re getting yourself into can be a positive way of accomplishing something. I knew it would be a pain in the ass, but it was such an opportunity, and I was in a position where I had the time to wear everybody down and make it happen.”
Great Lakes quickly became more than just an anomaly in a sea of microbreweries. The company expanded its line in short order to include gin, rum, whiskey, absinthe, flavored vodka, fruit brandies. It has earned a slew of awards from national and international spirits competitions, and has turned existing products into specialties like barrel-aged gin and unique liqueurs.
But Rehorst learned first what other distilleries in the city and state have also come to learn – that competing with huge, multinational distillers isn’t easy.
“It’s challenging,” he said. “We’re trying to convince people to enjoy a small-batch local thing, but they like to drink what they like to drink. We still have a long way to go in the sprits business, and sometimes it can be very frustrating.”
He’s not alone. Since opening Great Lakes’ doors, more than 20 distilleries have sprung up in Wisconsin. Two of these, Central Standard Craft Distillery and Twisted Path Distillery, are located in Milwaukee. While relatively new compared to Great Lakes, both have experienced similar challenges and successes.
Newer kids on the block
One night in 2012, Evan Hughes and Pat McQuillan were enjoying craft bourbon at a local establishment— “we significantly overserved ourselves,” Hughes recalled—and discussed the lack of creativity in their day jobs. Inspired by their mutual affection for spirits, they wrote down reasons to open their own distillery.
The pair turned to Rehorst for advice about the process of creating what would become Central Standard Craft Distillery and tasting room in Walker's Point.
“He was incredibly welcoming—he’s a fantastic person,” Hughes said. “He told us it took him two years from the time he got started to the time he opened. I remember thinking ‘Two years? We’re gonna get this done so much quicker.’ Well, we opened two years to the week after we started the ball rolling!”
Central Standard opened in 2014, offering a new American gin, a Wisconsin rye vodka and an oat-based white whiskey. A bourbon was released later the next year, a high-rye whiskey is available now, and a still-aging straight bourbon is on deck.
As its whiskies mature, the distillery is expanding operations to a new 12,000-square-foot production facility on the city's Near West Side that will provide more space for fermentation, stills, barrel aging, and an eventual public component. Hughes estimates capacity will be about 10 times that of the current facility. The Walker’s Point tasting room will remain open with expanded hours and be used for development of new products.
The fun of the business outweighs the stress, Hughes said. “Even when you have a bad day, you don’t have normal people problems, you have alcohol problems.”
Aptly named Twisted Path Distillery in Bay View also opened in 2014 and boasts a unique origin story: founder and Wisconsin native Brian Sammons was a counterterrorism officer with the CIA and later an assistant district attorney, criminal prosecutor and banking lawyer before deciding to start a small business. Having always nurtured a love of spirits, he saw an opportunity in Milwaukee.
“Looking at the industry, Wisconsin was distillery-poor,” he said. “It’s not because we don’t drink here. I was looking around at how a lot of people do it and feeling like I could do things differently. I don’t mean that in a judgy way; I mean there was room for differentiation.”
Twisted Path is different. Sammons thought spirits made with organic grain tasted better, so he built a relationship with a farm near Dodgeville to supply the grain used in the only distillery in the state to be certified organic.
The self-taught Sammons founded Twisted Path with a true small-batch approach and mash bills rooted in variety and flexibility. He has crafted whiskies with the common rye, corn and wheat, but has also experimented with brown rice and a unique Hopi blue Indian corn.
Exemplifying the kind of boozy synergy fledgling distillers often only dream of, Sammons hit it off with Bittercube Bitters, his neighbors in the Lincoln Warehouse in Bay View that have a cult following among cocktail aficionados. The two companies recognized the obvious and joined together to reinvent Sammons’ dormant tasting room as Dock 18 Cocktail Lab, where the Bittercube team pairs Twisted Path spirits with house-made liqueurs and specialty syrups to create signature drinks.
“It’s the cocktail equivalent of going to a great restaurant with a really creative chef,” said Sammons. “The first sip is stunning and the second sip, you’re trying to figure out what the hell just happened. It’s bizarre in a good way.”
A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats
“Because it’s such a small industry, we all know each other and help each other,” says Rehorst. “I feel very lucky that the other distillers in the state are on the same page. I haven’t seen this kind of brotherhood and cooperation in any other industry.”
The creation of the Wisconsin Distillers Guild is one such example. Founded in 2014 by Rehorst and fellow distilleries Yahara Bay in Madison and 45th Parallel in New Richmond upon discovering they shared business challenges and legislative hurdles, the nonprofit network of 20 distilleries promotes Wisconsin-made spirits and small-batch distillation, state agriculture and tourism, and more.
Sammons is the organization’s current president, succeeding Rehorst. Hughes also serves on its Board. The Guild’s members market their businesses and industry via the association website, which features a map of all Wisconsin distilleries. As a unified front, the Guild worked to overturn a tasting law that prevented distillers from offering samples of their spirits in liquor and grocery stores.
“For us, that’s huge,” Rehorst says. “Our products aren’t cheap and we understand that, so the best way to sell them is to get people to try them. We were thrilled to get that changed.”
Sammons points out that beyond sharing expertise and assisting with common challenges, it’s important to recognize that the camaraderie among distillers is not only highly unusual, but their increasing numbers, how many people they employ and their economic footprint are highly relevant to the health of the business climate in the state. In short, power in numbers.
“This industry is 99% asshole-free,” Hughes says. “We all like each other. We compete during the day, but if someone needs help, everyone offers it. You don’t want an adversarial relationship. If a consumer buys a craft gin, for example, but it’s not my craft gin, that’s still great. It still helps further craft distilling in Wisconsin, and every year it gets better and better.”