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Wisconsin Whiskey

Distilling spirits in the land of beer

Aug. 25, 2010
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Wisconsin’s three craft distilleries have not shied away from distilling American whiskey, despite encountering some reluctance and skepticism from those who question whether good whiskey can be crafted outside of certain states. Death’s Door Spirits, Great Lakes Distillery and Yahara Bay Distillers are all committed to using local, natural ingredients to handcraft small batches of spirits—and are willing to put in the time necessary to make things right.

Death’s Door Spirits

220 W. Lakeside St.

Madison, WI 53715


Brian Ellison of Death’s Door Spirits is weary of the comparisons made between the Madison micro-distillery’s White Whisky and moonshine. Whereas moonshine may overwhelm and sting, the artisan-crafted White Whisky is a “nice sipping spirit,” Ellison says.

Death’s Door White Whisky (80 proof) is made with organically grown hard red winter wheat from Washington Island and Wisconsin malted barley. It is distilled twice and aged for less than 72 hours in new oak barrels, which is not enough time for the whiskey to gain color, according to the Death’s Door Spirits website.

Each of the company’s spirits has acquired quite a bit of praise. The New York Times gave thumbs-up to the White Whisky, Wine & Spirits Magazine named Death’s Door Gin one of the best spirits of the year in 2009, and Maxim.com ranked Death’s Door Vodka among the nation’s best micro-spirits.

Established in 2006, Death’s Door Spirits has worked with Washington Island farmers to grow and create its ingredients as part of its quest to remain involved and invested in the land and the community. Death’s Door Spirits also hosts the Juniper Festival to celebrate the harvest of the wild juniper berries found on the island and used in Death’s Door Gin.

Great Lakes Distillery

616 W. Virginia St.

Milwaukee, WI 53204


Great Lakes Distillery is recognized as Wisconsin’s first distillery since Prohibition and celebrated as Milwaukee’s sole micro-distillery, proving that along with good beer, Milwaukee is capable of crafting good spirits and even great whiskey. In May, Great Lakes Distillery Test Batch bourbon was awarded a gold medal for best bourbon at the American Distilling Institute Conference in Louisville, Ky. Great Lakes Distillery owner Guy Rehorst says that he was “surprised and delighted” by the recognition.

The 92-proof bourbon was distilled with corn, wheat, barley and rye, and aged for almost three years. The entire batch sold out at a release party in March, and Rehorst estimates that the next batch, which has been aging for two years, will not be ready for another three years.

There is, however, good news for local whiskey connoisseurs. Great Lakes hopes to debut its rye whiskey sometime this fall. A malt whiskey is also a possibility in the next year, though aging good whiskey requires patience and time, and sometimes “it’s ready when it’s ready,” Rehorst says.

Great Lakes Distillery offers free tours Monday through Saturday. If you are in a sampling mood, a $3 fee will get you a flight of three different spirits to sample.

Yahara Bay Distillers

3118 Kingsley Way

Madison, WI 53713


Yahara Bay Distillers opened in 2007, but the Madison craft distillery has already developed an impressive array of spirits, in part by utilizing and embracing Wisconsin-grown ingredients. The Apple Brandy is made with Wisconsin Honeycrisp apples, the Premium White Rum incorporates Wisconsin-grown sorghum, and the Yahara Bay Whiskey is made with Washington Island wheat.

Yahara Bay Whiskey (80 proof) is the first aged whiskey to be legally produced in Dane County since Prohibition, says owner and distiller Nick Quint. The bourbon whiskey is made from wheat, corn, barley and rye, and has been in the barrel for more than two years. Quint is pleased with the flavor of Yahara Bay’s first whiskey—he describes the bourbon as smooth and possessing an excellent finish.

Additionally, the distillery plans to release a clear whiskey, which is basically whiskey that has not entered the barrel, Quint says. Bottles of the bourbon are still available, and Yahara Bay spirits can be purchased by the bottle and by the drink at a number of Madison-area establishments.

For more information, visit www.deathsdoorspirits.com; www.greatlakesdistillery.com; and www.yaharabay.com.


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