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A Trip to Wisconsin



Obviously, writing a free blog with no sponsors is not a way to earn a living. So last week, the job that does pay the bills brought me to Wisconsin for four days. So what do you do when preparing for a trip to Wisconsin and you also are a whiskey enthusiast? You start researching the state's whiskey heritage and current landscape! In this post, we will look at a bit of Wisconsin whiskey history, and then discuss some whiskey opportunities I found on my trip.


Whiskey has a long and storied history in the United States, and Wisconsin is no exception. The state's relationship with this beloved spirit dates back to the early 19th century, and it has been a significant part of Wisconsin's cultural and economic fabric ever since.


The Golden Age


The first settlers in Wisconsin were primarily from Kentucky, a state known for its bourbon. They brought with them their knowledge and love for whiskey, and soon, distilleries began to pop up across the state.

The mid-1800s were a golden age for whiskey production in Wisconsin. The state was home to over 70 distilleries, each with its unique take on the spirit. While many of these distilleries have been lost to history, a few notable ones stand out.


One of the most prominent distilleries of this era was the Potosi Brewery. Founded in 1852 in the town of Potosi, this distillery was known for its high-quality whiskey. The Potosi Brewery was one of the largest breweries in the state, and it played a significant role in the local economy. Although it closed its doors in 1972, the brewery was revived in 2008 and now operates as a craft brewery and distillery, keeping its rich history alive.


Another notable distillery was the Cedar Creek Distillery in Cedarburg. Established in 1845, Cedar Creek was known for its rye whiskey, a style that was popular in Wisconsin at the time. The distillery was a significant part of the Cedarburg community, providing jobs and contributing to the local economy. Unfortunately, like many distilleries of this era, Cedar Creek was forced to close during Prohibition.


The Reedsburg Distillery, located in Reedsburg, was another significant player in the Wisconsin whiskey scene. Founded in 1850, this distillery was known for its bourbon, a style that was relatively rare in Wisconsin at the time. The Reedsburg Distillery was a major employer in the area, and its whiskey was highly regarded throughout the state.


These distilleries, and many others like them, laid the groundwork for Wisconsin's whiskey industry. They introduced whiskey to the state, developed unique styles and techniques, and helped to establish Wisconsin as a significant player in the American whiskey scene. Although many of these distilleries are no longer in operation, their legacy lives on in the craft distilleries that are thriving in Wisconsin today.


Rebirth


The golden age of Wisconsin whiskey was short-lived. The onset of Prohibition in the 1920s forced many distilleries to close their doors. Some tried to survive by producing industrial alcohol, while others turned to illegal operations. But by the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the damage had been done. The once-thriving whiskey industry in Wisconsin was nearly wiped out.


It took several decades for the state's whiskey industry to recover. The resurgence began in the late 20th century, with the rise of craft distilleries. These small-scale operations focused on quality over quantity, producing unique, artisanal whiskeys that were a far cry from the mass-produced spirits of the past.


One of the pioneers of this movement was Death's Door Spirits, founded in 2005. Named after the treacherous strait between Green Bay and Lake Michigan, Death's Door was one of the first craft distilleries in Wisconsin. Founded in 2005, they set the stage for a new era of Wisconsin whiskey, focusing on local ingredients and traditional distilling methods.

Death's Door Spirits began distilling their first product, Death's Door Vodka, using wheat from Washington Island. The vodka was a success, and it wasn't long before the distillery expanded its offerings to include gin and, of course, whiskey.


Death's Door Spirits was committed to sustainability and local sourcing. All their products were made using locally sourced ingredients, and the distillery operated with a focus on minimizing its environmental impact.


In 2018, Death's Door Spirits filed for bankruptcy due to financial difficulties. However, the brand was acquired by Dancing Goat Distillery in 2019, which has continued distilling Death’s Door Gin, ensuring that the legacy of Death's Door Spirits will continue.


Opening its doors in 2017, Dancing Goat Distillery has quickly made a name for itself in the world of craft spirits. One of the crowning achievements of Dancing Goat Distillery is their Limousin Rye. This distinctive rye whiskey is crafted using a traditional French technique that involves aging the spirit in Limousin oak barrels. The result is a whiskey with a rich and complex flavor profile, boasting notes of spice, caramel, and oak. The Limousin Rye has garnered critical acclaim and has become a favorite among whiskey connoisseurs, solidifying Dancing Goat's reputation for producing exceptional spirits. I had the opportunity to buy a bottle of 7-year Single Barrel, Barrel Strength, bottled at 111.4 proof. It is a delicious rye!




Another great Wisconsin Distillery is J. Henry & Sons distillery, a family-owned craft distillery located in Dane, Wisconsin. Inspired by the bourbon trail in Kentucky, the Henrys decided to grow heirloom red corn, which was originally developed by the University of Wisconsin in the 1930s. This corn, along with the rye and wheat grown on their farm, became the basis for their bourbon.


J. Henry & Sons is a true farm-to-bottle operation. Every step of the bourbon-making process, from growing the grain to distilling the spirit to aging it in locally made oak barrels, is done on their 200-acre farm. This commitment to local sourcing and sustainability sets J. Henry & Sons apart in the world of craft distilling. I was able to purchase a bottle of their Small Batch Wisconsin Straight Bourbon Whiskey. At 92 proof, this bourbon gets great flavors from its heirloom grains!




During my trip, I was lucky enough to be taken to the Driftless Glen Distillery for an extended lunch. The focus of Driftless Glen, located in Baraboo, Wisconsin, is on producing small-batch, handcrafted spirits using traditional methods. Driftless Glen is a grain-to-glass distillery and sources its grains from local farmers, ensuring a connection to the surrounding community and supporting local agriculture. The distillery also has its own natural spring water source, which is used in the production process.



I was not able to take a distillery tour, but their on-property restaurant serves great food (I had the Jambalaya), cocktails (I had the Rye Whiskey Sour), and, of course, whiskey flights! I had the privilege of tasting their Small Batch Bourbon, Single Barrel Cask Strength Bourbon, and their 51 Rye, which is described as a Maryland-style rye bottled at 102 proof. All three were delicious! Unfortunately, I had no more room for a third bottle in my suitcase, so I did not purchase any Driftless Glens spirits. There’s always next time!


 

In conclusion, the history of Wisconsin whiskey is a tale of resilience and innovation. From the early settlers who brought their love for whiskey to the state, to the craft distillers who are redefining what Wisconsin whiskey can be, this spirit has been a significant part of Wisconsin's history and culture. And with the current boom in craft distilling, it's clear that Wisconsin whiskey has a bright future ahead. I truly appreciated every opportunity that I had during my business trip to experience this boom first-hand!

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