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Still success
Distilleries are popping up all over Milwaukee, with people leaving careers behind to pursue their passion

Photos by Matt Haas

May 2015


Ten years ago, Guy Rehorst took a big chance when he opened up Great Lakes Distillery, the first distillery to open in the state of Wisconsin since Prohibition. His experiment was a great success, and now there are more than 50 distilleries across the state.

Just within the past year, there’s been a mini-explosion of distilleries right here in Milwaukee. In fact, two distilleries opened in Walker’s Point, just blocks away from Great Lakes, and two other contract distilleries just opened as well.

Central Standard Craft Distillery

Central Standard became the second distillery to open within the city limits when founders Evan Hughes, Brandt Foster and Pat McQuillan opened their doors last fall. "The community support has been out of this world," Hughes says.

Central Standard, in the parlance of the industry, is a "grain to glass" distillery, which means they source everything as locally as possible. Most ingredients are sourced from within 125 miles of the city, and they’re talking with a local farmer about supplying all the grain for their spirits.

The distillery also has a craft beer license — a license that allows it to not only make cocktails with its products, but also sell craft beer, which works well with the Milwaukee Brewing Co. as its next-door neighbor.

What’s also unusual is that the distillery’s tasting room takes precedence, and the distillery operations take up as little space as possible. In fact, when it’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, head distiller Brian "Blaze" Blazel and head bartender and distiller Edgar Perez move all the tables out and the forklifts and palettes move in.

Right now, the distillery makes a white whiskey with oats (instead of the standard wheat), a vodka made from rye, making it more like a Polish vodka, and a gin with more floral botanicals than most.

This summer, Central Standard will release its first young one-year whiskey, which has been aged in honeycombed barrels to give it an older taste. But the goal has been to age and produce good whiskey, so expect some aged releases in years to come. 613 S. 2nd St.,

Twisted Path Distillery

Brian Sammons worked for the CIA both before and after 9/11 as part of the team that was hunting Bin Laden. He then returned to his home state to get a law degree from UW-Madison and found a job working in the Milwaukee district attorney’s office. Sammons also worked as a private practice attorney and realized he was not happy, nor were many of the people he worked with. After he and his wife, Laura Singleton, had their daughter, Scarlet, he realized he wanted to be able to spend more time with them.

A passion for spirits and tinkering with things made him happy. The two combined led to his decision to open the aptly named Twisted Path. "It was something I was really interested in, and I saw there was a niche I could fill and that it was something I’d be good at," Sammons says.

Behind the scenes, during by-appointment tours, Sammons explains some of the differences between Twisted Path and other distilleries. One of the biggest differences is that Sammons builds most of his own equipment, and in fact, he’s working to patent his electric-jacketed heating system to distil the grain into spirits.

His tinkering extends to his cozy tasting room, where he built and welded the chairs and lights. When Twisted Path opened in December of last year, it became the first certified organic distillery in the area. He makes two vodkas — an 80 and 100 proof. The higher proof is for bartenders who want the vodka to get less diluted in cocktails. He also makes a white and dark rum. Instead of using cheap, bottom of the barrel molasses, he uses really good ingredients and distils them very slowly. His dark rum is aged in new oak and used rye whiskey barrels.

This summer, he will release his first gin, and he is working with Ira Koplowitz and Nick Kosevich of Bittercube, which just opened its headquarters upstairs from Twisted Path, to develop a spiced rum.

Right now, tours and tastings are by appointment only, but by this summer, he will likely have regular tasting room hours on the weekends. 2018 S. 1st St.,

Black Fawn Distilling Co.

For the past 10 years, Doug Mackenzie was the distiller at Great Lakes Distillery. He was the first employee hired by Guy Rehorst, and he loved coming up with their creative and distinctive line of spirits.

Throughout his tenure, several other distilleries tried to lure him away, but he never wanted to leave. Then, his friend, Jason Neu, who used to be the mixologist for Great Lakes, encouraged Mackenzie to join him in starting their own distillery.

"It was now or never," says Mackenzie, who with Neu joined forces with Roger Scommegna, founder of and Three Thieves Winery, to form Black Fawn. "A black fawn exists, but it’s almost a mythical creature," Mackenzie says. "It’s like an albino fawn, but more rare."

Instead of starting with a brick and mortar distillery, they saw a void in the premium bottled cocktail market, so they’re starting with Soul Boxer, a bottled brandy old-fashioned that should make its debut on the market this spring. Soul Boxer is barrel-aged for a month, and it’s made using a recipe they’ve perfected over the years. Mackenzie and Neu are making and bottling Soul Boxer at Yahara Bay Distillery in Madison.

Later this year, they’ll bottle a whiskey old-fashioned and maybe a Manhattan and a Pimm’s Cup. Eventually, they want to distil their own line of spirits and open a distillery in Milwaukee. Since both Neu and Mackenzie have esteemed reputations, Soul Boxer has already been mentioned in The New York Times. "Many other distillers start out in other industries, but all we know is spirits, and we’re starting the ground running," Mackenzie says.

Philly’s Premium Beverages

When Phil Orlenko was 14 years old, he started making old-fashioneds for his father and then worked as a bartender when he was in college. But he went into sales and marketing, and he eventually became the vice president for two different electronic firms. Eighteen months ago, he decided to follow his dream of owning his own business.

Instead of opening his own distillery, he decided that he’d first become a contract distillery and build a base for his product. His product? Bottled Wisconsin old-fashioneds. Orlenko has the four standard versions — brandy sweet, brandy sour, whiskey sweet and whiskey sour, which were released in November, and the recipes are his own, refined secret.

In January, his line of seven flavored egg crème liqueurs (butterscotch, vanilla, chocolate, mint, almond, butter and peanut butter) were released, and their recipe is based on a friend’s German grandmother’s homemade vodka, cream, egg and vanilla liqueur. Because most of the ingredients in the crème liqueurs are from Wisconsin, he gets to put a "something special from Wisconsin" sticker on the bottles.

Most bottled, ready-to-drink beverages like Mike’s Hard Lemonade and even margarita-flavored drinks are actually malt liquor, not real cocktails. "We use premium ingredients like real sugar and natural flavors, and we actually do muddle them — but we muddle them in a big, 1,000-gallon tank," Orlenko says. This summer, his two most popular old-fashioneds, brandy sweet and whiskey sour, will be available in cans, and they likely will be available at many golf courses in the state, as well as other venues that don’t allow glass.

Besides Wisconsin, his beverages are available in Nebraska and parts of Illinois, and Orlenko has plans to expand his distribution. But what he’d really like to do is bottle his old-fashioneds and crème liqueurs in Grafton, where he is based. His next step is to build a bottling plant and tasting room. In the meantime, he’s having a lot of fun selling his cocktails, which come in colorful bottles.

His crème liqueurs are particularly amusing, with tongue-in-cheek names like Buzzed Beaver Butterscotch and Naughty Dog Peanut Butter that are illustrated with funny cartoon-like characters. "I’m having the time of my life," Orlenko says, picking up Wilbur, his rescue chihuahua-terrier mix, who bears a striking resemblance to the Naughty Dog on the label.


This story ran in the May 2015 issue of: