Distillers unite, to market themselves as one

We have long been in good spirits in Wisconsin, and now a lesser-known part of our alcohol-loving heritage will make itself more visible.

Producers of hard alcohol are banding together to form the Wisconsin Distillers Association.

Wisconsin’s reputation for beer production is longstanding and steady. In 2010, there were 112 federal brewing permits on file, 20 more than in 2005 and the fifth highest in the U.S. Totals include brewpubs to the state’s largest commercial producers.

In the Wisconsin Winery Association are 36 locations, organized in five regions, with events that involve tours, harvests and seasonal releases of wines. More products are being made with Wisconsin-grown grapes, thanks to the University of Minnesota’s development of cold-hardy varietals.

Now operators of the state’s small but growing number of distilleries have decided to market themselves as one organization and provide mutual support in other ways. At the core are five members whose work is devoted to handcrafted, small-batch spirits:

Great Lakes Distillery, 616 W. Virginia St., Milwaukee (www.greatlakesdistillery.com, 414-431-8683). It produces rum, gin, absinthe, whiskey, brandies, citrus/honey vodka and seasonal spirits.

45th Parallel Spirits, 1570 Madison Ave., New Richmond (www.45thparallelspirits.com, 715-246-0565). Vodka is the specialty here – two types, plus gin. The distillery’s Deb Hale is the state’s first Wisconsin Distillers Association president.

Yahara Bay Distillers, 3118 Kingsley Way, Madison (www.yaharabay.com, 608-275-1050). Products include rums, whiskey, vodka, gin, apple brandy and an apple liqueur.

Old Sugar Distillery, 931 E. Main St., Madison (www.madisondistillery.com, 608-260-0812). Look for a honey liqueur, rum, ouzo and limited release sorghum whiskey.

The North Woods Distillery, 135 W. Main St., Coleman (www.northwoodsdistillery.com, 920-819-6083). The new distillery produces a light rum and one that is toffee-flavored.

All these distilleries are open to the public at least one day per week for tours and tastings. Some have small bars that serve and sell full-sized cocktails.

Also expected to join the group is Lo Artisan Distillery, 1607 S. Stevenson Pier Rd., Sturgeon Bay (www.lo-artisandistillery.com, 337-660-1600). It is using centuries-old Hmong family recipes to create yerlo spirits from rice.

A dozen permits for distilling were issued in Wisconsin as of last month: Some of these businesses produce spirits but are primarily wine makers (such as the newly opened Door Peninsula Distillery, part of Door Peninsula Winery, 5806 Hwy. 42, Sturgeon Bay; www.dcwine.com, 800-551-5049).

Not included are companies such as Death’s Door Spirits, which brands and markets products that others distill.

Modern-day commercial distilling in Wisconsin was revived in 2006 with the opening of Great Lakes Distillery. Martin Hintz of Milwaukee writes this in his new book, “A Spirited History of Milwaukee Booze and Brews” (The History Press, $20):

“At one time … distilleries were as much a part of Milwaukee’s burgeoning business scene as the breweries. With the rush of new immigrants into Milwaukee prior to the Civil War, distilling boomed. The newcomers’ ‘turrible tirst’ was readily slaked in those days when potent beverages sold for a mere fifteen cents a gallon.”

Martin notes that when Milwaukee breweries netted $8 million in revenue in 1882, distillery profits totaled $4.5 million. So hooch production was not a casual pastime.

Among the city’s first distillers: Thomas O’Neill of Ireland, who migrated to America in 1832, then moved to Milwaukee to farm in 1844. By 1860, he had begun a side business: Pleasant Springs Distillery.

Also in the business, from 1856-1918, was the John P. Kissinger Company, whose products included Arbutus, Harvester Bourbon, Monadnock Rye, Old Veteran, Unexcelled, Velvet Finish and Washita Rye.

Today’s Wisconsin distillery tends to involve fewer products and showcase locally grown ingredients. Consider 45th Parallel Vodka, made with corn grown, harvested and milled 10 miles from New Richmond.

The distillery’s name is its location, a circle of latitude roughly halfway between the equator and North Pole. Worldwide, the 45th parallel climate is known for favoring food production, especially fruits of the vine. Foodies know that Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, Wisconsin’s Door County, Oregon’s Portland area, the Bordeaux area of France and Piedmont area of Italy are on or near the 45th parallel.

Spirit Journal’s 2010 rankings of the 130 best spirits included 45th Parallel Vodka as the top vodka in the world.

Deb’s brother, Paul Werni, and his former college roommate, Scott Davis, made the leap to this line of work (from restaurant and landscaping enterprises) because of the itch to pursue something challenging and new. Their business opened shortly after Great Lakes Distillery.

“We thought we’d make a brandy for Wisconsin, but it’s more complicated than we realized, so we did a vodka,” Scott says. When the guys first approached farmer Arlen Strate about growing their corn, he declined, but with time he warmed up to the idea.

“His farm is right on the 45th parallel – nice, but a coincidence,” Scott says. They eyed him as an ingredient provider because of his milling equipment.

The New Richmond distillers host an open house with tours, samples, music and food from 1-6 p.m. Oct. 8.

Look for Wisconsin distilleries at the Kohler Food and Wine Experience, various locations, Oct. 20-23 (www.kohlerfoodandwine.net); Madison Food and Wine Show, Alliant Energy Center, Oct. 21-23 (www.madisonmagazine.com); and Milwaukee’s Wine and Dine Wisconsin, Frontier Airlines Center, Nov. 12-13 (www.wineanddinewisconsin.com).

For more about “A Spirited History of Milwaukee Booze and Brews,” see www.historypress.net. For more about the author’s other works, see www.martinhintz.com.

“Roads Traveled” columns began in 2002 and are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.