Distilled Wisconsin: Badger State dabbles in spirits world
It took a lot for Guy Rehorst to turn his dream into a reality. Permitting, licensing, tax rules, regulations.
But after wading through it all, Rehorst's dream of starting his own distillery became a reality in 2004 when he opened Great Lakes Distillery, Wisconsin's first distillery since Prohibition.
That year, Rehorst bought a brass and copper artisan still and began making Rehorst Vodka in Riverwest. It wasn't until 2006 that he actually was able to host tastings and sell his vodka.
Great Lakes has since expanded to the current location of 616 W. Virginia St. in Milwaukee. It now distills two different vodkas, whiskey, absinthe, rum, seasonal pumpkin spirits, gin and more. Three distillery tours are offered seven days a week, and tastings are available in the large tasting room.
Since Rehorst cleared the way for craft distilling in the state, distilleries have popped up all over Wisconsin; there are now about 20, including some wineries that produce brandy.
Visiting some of these new distilleries sounded like a good reason for a road trip. I was able to sample their offerings, see our beautiful state and break up the long winter.
I began my trip heading up the west coast of Lake Michigan, stopping first at Door County Distillery in Carlsville, a few miles northeast of Sturgeon Bay. It is also home to the Door Peninsula Winery, Door County's first winery.
The distillery uses a copper pot still and clean groundwater infused with natural limestone and minerals from the scenic Door Peninsula.
Door County Distillery produces three vodkas—one flavored with Door County cherries—a gold-award-winning gin made from Door County juniper berries, three brandies, a single-malt whiskey and its own Cherry Bluff Infusion bitters.
The distillery and winery are in two connected circular buildings that are designed to make you feel like you are inside a large whiskey or wine barrel. Tastings are offered daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (6 p.m. May through October), and tours begin on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 920-746-8463 or see doorcountydistillery.com for more.
My rest spot for the night was the Holiday Music Motel in Sturgeon Bay, an interesting destination in its own right. The hotel hosts an open mic night Thursdays and broadcasts a live Internet radio station. The motel, which is Door County's oldest, also has workshops for singer-songwriters.
The next day I made my way up Green Bay's western shore to North Woods Distillery in Coleman. Owner Curt Naegeli has been distilling rum for three years in stills he designed and built out of milk tanks.
He produces a variety of flavored rums including Heath, which has a toffee flavor like the candy bar of the same name, and a chocolate mint rum flavored with chocolate mint grown by the distillery. Sampling is by appointment; call 920-819-6083 or see northwoodsdistillery.com.
From the North Woods, I headed due west across the state to the 45th Parallel Distillery in New Richmond, a small town about 45 miles east of the Twin Cities.
The distillery is on the 45th parallel north, a circle of latitude halfway between the equator and the north pole—hence its name.
Owner Paul Werni takes a hands-on approach to creating small batches of liquor to ensure quality, tasting each batch until he determines the product is ready. He also uses grain from a local farmer in the distillery's products and returns the remnants from their mashing process to the farm to feed the cattle.
45th Parallel produces two varieties of vodka, gin, bourbon, rye whiskey, and limoncello and orangecello liquors under the Madison Avenue brand name.
Guided tours with a flight tasting cost $5 and are available by appointment. See 45thparalleldistillery.com or call 715-246-0565.
Infinity Beverages Winery & Distillery in Eau Claire takes a slightly different approach in its tasting room, where you can sample the company's products as well as specialty cocktails made from its Audacity Vodka.
Infinity Beverages, owned and operated by Matthew Rick, started making wine in February 2011 and added the distillery in early 2012.
Infinity makes seven wines including two port-style dessert wines using Rick's own crafted brandy.
Besides wine, Infinity distills vodka, watermelon brandy, mulberry brandy and an Experimental Series, small-batch concoctions sold only in the distillery's tasting lounge.
The lounge is open from 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and from noon to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.
Live music is a draw from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Fridays. Call 402-374-6542 or visit infinitybeverages.com.
Infinity was the end of my tasting road trip, but its name aptly implies the possibilities for Wisconsin's craft distilleries, which join the state's craft breweries and wineries in supplying quality sophisticated products at a regional level for those in Wisconsin and beyond to enjoy.
Missed distillery: One distillery Gary Porter didn't visit was the Minhas Distillery, 1404 13th St., Monroe. To learn about products and tours, visit minhasdistillery.com.