Monday, August 30, 2010

Wisconsin Distillers

An admission: for quite some time I've had a taste for the hard drink. While it is certainly true that the wide wonderful world of Wisconsin beers has been my playground for the last 10 years, I've been gradually incorporating more spirits into the repertoire. This started in back in the college years when my tastes for bourbon were developed beyond the standard whiskey-coke mixer consumed for the sole purposes of getting faced. Jim Beam Black 8-year bourbon was my first infatuation, followed by a year or two of Crown Royal devotion. After college I started drinking martinis at Smokey's once CWS introduced us to Martini Bob's Martini Club. It was on a Caribbean cruise in 2005 that I first developed a taste for Scotch whisky, Johnnie Walker Red to be exact. Upon returning to the States I first tried Chivas Regal, which is to this day my favorite blended Scotch. After my European vacation in late 2008 I returned with a serious appreciation of Irish whiskey, especially Bushmill's Black Bush.

As with beer, I've recently started looking within the borders of the state for locally distilled spirits. The micro-distillery movement is still quite small but seems to be growing quickly. To my knowledge Wisconsin has never had a distilling tradition, so when i first heard of local distilleries I was a bit surprised. I was even more surprised after trying my first bottle of Death's Door vodka, an excellent vodka made from Washington Island wheat that is completely smooth and just a touch sweet. I don't even really care for vodka or at least what I'd had prior to DD, but my experience with this vodka made me re-evaluate my prior opinions of the drink. My appreciation of the vodka was soon compounded once I learned that the distillery would be creating a "white whiskey" - basically an unaged young whiskey also made with Washington Island wheat. I had originally planned on hanging on to the bottle due to its rarity. In fact, I loved the taste of the white whiskey, which was brash yet mellow with a delicious sweet overtone, and that first bottle did not last me too long. I've been fortunate, however, as Death's Door has maintained their production of the whiskey and I've never found myself unable to procure another bottle. I've even introduced my father to the white whiskey and he now counts himself as a fan. We brought a good-sized flask with us on our winter vacation to the Gulf Coast. It was the perfect accompaniment to the marathon cribbage games in our sleeper on the City of New Orleans.

After Death's Door opened my eyes to the burgeoning Wisconsin distilling scene I quickly came upon Yahara Bay Distillers, a Madison-based company that produces a range of products. I first received a bottle of their Extra Dry Gin as a present this past winter. I've never been much of a gin devotee, but I enjoy the occasional martini from time to time. This is mainly because the taste of gin can be too much for my palate. However, the martini I made with the Yahara Bay gin was exceptionally smooth. Whereas I used to consider Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray as my preferred brands, I now believe that Yahara Bay is the best gin for my tastes. I love the first two-thirds of a martini but the last sips as the drink warmed and the harshness of the gin became exposed were always slightly gag-inducing. I didn't have this concern with Yahara Bay and as such it's now my gin of choice. Following this experience I started to read up on this home-grown distiller and I was heartened to hear that they would be introducing an aged whiskey. I tracked down a bottle shortly thereafter and enjoyed it immensely. It has many of the same characteristics as the Death's Door White, with sweet overtones and a smooth finish but with the added oak smokiness from two years of aging. Yahara Bay is a small distillery and doesn't produce large quantities so I'm sure extensive aging would not be feasible. However, I'd love to try this whiskey after six, eight or even ten years in the cask.

Rounding out my experience with Wisconsin-based distilleries is the Old Sugar Distillery, right here in Madison. I read about this small operation and made it a point to seek out a bottle of Old Sugar Factory Honey Liqueur just to complete the trifecta. To tell the truth I wasn't expecting much as I've never been a big fan of liqueurs or overly sweet drinks. My sweet tooth disappeared around the age of 18 and with it my appreciation for rum, schnapps and the like. However the urge to be a completist overcame this hesitance and I'm quite happy it did. The Old Sugar Factory Honey Liqueur is excellent. The sweetness is restrained and it is miles away from being cloyingly sugary. The liqueur is aged in oak, giving it a beautiful color and a smoothness that balances the flavor. This is not made from distilled honey as the name would suggest. It is in fact distilled from Midwestern beet sugar, with Wisconsin honey added later. I'm definitely a fan, and as with the Death's Door I gave a bottle to my father, who appreciates this as much as I do.

I don't believe I'll ever love anything as much as I do the many excellent breweries in Wisconsin, but the presence of these three local distilleries has certainly made the decision a bit harder. It's a nice problem to have.

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