Sip craft cocktails at farm-based distilleries

My hardest task on this nothing-short-of-perfect August afternoon is to choose. Key Lime Pie or Pineapple Upside Down Cake? Cranberry Gimlet or Vo-Mosa? All are creative cocktails made with the same spirit, vodka.

What I settle on is The Spicy Lynnea: jalapeno-infused vodka with guava nectar and grapefruit juice with lemon. Not as fierce or acidic as it might sound, and I gladly nurse the smooth blend for an hour while lounging on a patio with a pastoral view.

Friends chatter around picnic tables, kids play cornhole and sandhill cranes glide near the edge of woods. The backdrop is golden fields of grain during the midst of harvest, below benign puffs of clouds. A lone and massive evergreen – maybe a ponderosa pine? – helps mark the boundary between clipped lawn and working farm.

Wine lovers are accustomed to imbibing near vineyards whose grapes are the genesis of the product. Now grain farmers are coming up with ways to add more value and ambiance to what they already grow.

Commodity prices are ever-changing and out of a farmer’s control. But learn to distil and bottle liquor, made with farm-grown ingredients, and the profit picture starts to stabilize.

Perlick Distillery, on a five-generation family farm in the Northwoods near Sarona, makes American Yeoman Vodka. Period, for now. A note of vanilla tempers the harshness of hard liquor, made with wheat grown on the farm.

“Yeoman” is a reference to someone who cultivates land. The compact, two-level Perlick tasting room is a revamped 1948 barn. Under construction is a 50-seat tasting room addition.

Tours are arranged by request. Don’t mistake the tasting room for a full-service, rural tavern: The only libations with alcohol contain vodka. Those of legal drinking age start with a complimentary, slim shot of the product.

Distiller Scott Perlick helps deliver drinks and takes photos for visitors during this visit. He is a law school graduate and military vet (Air Force) who says the distillery was his father’s idea. Dad Tom Perlick farms 2,000 acres; other crops include corn, rye, flax, soybeans and sunflowers.

On this day, the patriarch is under an awning, propped across the road from the distillery, chatting with visitors and collecting admission to eight acres of mazes in a 50-acre field of sunflowers.

The endeavor represents more than a brilliant yellow landscape: Seeds from these flowers will be harvested and bagged as birdseed after the dazzle of color subsides.

Perlick Distillery, W5014 Hwy. B, Sarona, is 75 miles north of Eau Claire and east of Highway 53. When using a GPS, type in the business name instead of the address. Open Thursday through Sunday; check online for business hours.

Sunflower fields are at their peak of color, but that will change before this month ends; walk the maze for $5 (free for ages 14 or younger), 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

The Perlicks’ work was an inspiration for Jay and Heidi Retzer, who farm near Fond du Lac and opened Ledgerock Distillery in 2018. They are near the Niagara Escarpment, and limestone-filtered water from the geologically significant ridge (known by locals as the “ledge”) goes into liquor made with the farm’s corn and wheat.

Acreage includes Jay’s homestead; he returned to the area after studying agronomy. Eldest son Bryce is the head distiller. Heidi develops signature cocktails, made with the distillery’s vodka, moonshine, gin or bourbon.

She also adds homey touches to the business (flowers, family photos) and recommends other stops in the vicinity (hiking areas, a Parnell Tower climb, Kelly County Creamery’s ice cream, LaClare Family Creamery’s goat cheeses).

The Retzers make environmental sustainability a priority. The farm is “100 percent no-till – the best thing we ever did,” Jay says. Why? Less erosion and weeds than traditional farming.

Water from distilling is recycled. Parts of used liquor bottles turn into soy candles. Mash waste goes to a local dairy farm’s methane digester.

Within view from the farm is a 41-turbine wind farm. Breezy weather is not unusual because of the location, and the distillery stands on what used to be cornfield.

“We took a real risk, putting this up where we did,” Jay acknowledges. “You could say I was having a midlife crisis and decided to put a distillery in the middle of nowhere.”

He has learned tha,t for some of us, simply being able to sit and watch the corn grow is a much-welcomed luxury. What you see goes into next year’s spirits.

Ledgerock Distillery, N5287 Grandview Rd., Fond du Lac, is open Wednesday through Sunday; check online for business hours. No charge for tours and tastings.

For bourbon lovers: About 20 miles north of Madison is J. Henry and Sons, a longtime crop farm whose award-winning liquor is made with a unique, red-kernel corn developed 80 years ago by the University of Wisconsin.

Barrels of the bourbon are stored at the farm for aging. The distilling and bottling (with a J. Henry recipe) happen at 45th Parallel Distillery, New Richmond.

The J. Henry tasting room is a transformed farmhouse, and a 90-minute tasting and tour costs $15.

J. Henry and Sons, 7794 Patton Rd., Dane, is open Thursday through Monday; check online for business hours.

In Wisconsin are dozens of small-batch distilleries. Find out more at