So I have been on countless brewery tours. I love brewery tours and visit them as much as I can while I travel. Even though I am a home brewer and I know the ins and outs of brewing I still love traipsing through someone’s brewery. You always learn something new.
I have however never been on a distillery tour until my visit to Great Lakes Distillery in Milwaukee Wisconsin. Most likely because there are not a lot of people distilling, just over 600 at the end of 2013. Craft breweries are popping up left and right and wine has been around since 6000 BC, so distilleries are somewhat like unicorns in the alcohol world!.
I arrived at the Great Lakes Distillery about 40 minutes before the next tour. I had been traveling most of the day and had not had any food since 4 am. A distillery tour and no food spelled disaster. I asked the bartender if there was somewhere I could get a snack and she offered up the “dive” across the street. She warned me to not be afraid of it as they had good food. I’m not one to turn a dive down. One of my favorite bars in my hometown is a dive and I use it to gauge most of my life. The bathroom is disgusting and anytime I am faced with a gross bathroom I say to myself “well you have gone to the bathroom in A&P’s you can go anywhere” . When faced with questionable food I say to myself “you’ve eaten at A&P’s and lived” Unfortunately if you wanted to check out A&P’s it burned down this spring so I am sorry you can not visit what I use as a gauge for life. My fond memories will last forever however.
I walked into Conejito’s Place, the recommended dive restaurant by the distillery bartender. As I was warned before going in, I did not expect much, however, it was better than I had anticipated. I ordered a soda and two tacos. My food arrived on a single paper plate. The presentation may not have been taken seriously here but the food was flavorful and turned out to be quite delightful. They also had free wifi so that was an added bonus. My total bill was $3.18 USD which of course I was pleased with.
I returned to the distillery a few moments early and was informed that drinks were welcomed on the tour. I ordered a Moscow Mule, a ginger beer with vodka and a lime. Delightful! The drink arrived in its classic copper mug, which slightly froze my hand but was totally worth it as the flavor was refreshing. And who doesn’t love taking a drink on their tour?
It was now time for the tour. I am fairly familiar with beer brewing and wine making however distilling was new to me. My knowledge of distilling revolves mostly around films such as Legends of the Fall and the somewhat pointless Lawless. Unfortunately even the adorable Tom Hardy couldn’t save Lawless. NASCAR also played a part in distilling’s history. The bootleggers would soup up their cars to out run the law. Later these cars were used for auto racing when the bootleggers decided to become respectable!
As we toured the small operation I realized that distilling was similar to beer brewing. There are grains that are “cooked” which creates the mash, just as beer is made. The mash is cooled, yeast is added and that mixture is transferred to a fermentor, similar to beer making. The next step is where the distilling takes place. The mash is put into the distiller, where it is heated up and separates the water and alcohol. The water falls to the bottom and the steam that contains alcohol rises to the top of the distillery tank. As the alcohol condenses it may drop to the bottom again. The steam will rise again but it is now considered to be twice distilled. You will notice on some alcohol packaging that they may indicate how many times their product has been distilled. After the steam is carried to the condenser from the distiller the steam returns back to liquid form creating the alcohol.
Now that we understood the basics about distilling we moved back to the tasting room. Our first taste was Rehorst Vodka. It was crisp and clean tasting. Our next taste was the Rehorst Citrus and Honey Vodka. This was much more to my liking. It had a good flavor and a smooth, velvety texture to it. Next up was Kinnickinnic Whiskey. Whiskey is a big drink for me so this was my least enjoyable. It was sharp to the taste which I personally would cut it down with some soda but that’s just me. Rehorst Gin was surprisingly pleasant to me as I often turn gin down because I am not fond of it’s piney taste. This gin was not overboard on the pine flavor and I found it to be quite tasty. Rum is my favorite spirit and up next was Roaring Dan’s Rum. An interesting combination of maple and rum, although I could not really taste the maple flavoring. Our last taste was Absinthe. Absinthe has an interesting history and was once banned in the United States as it supposedly caused consumers to act inappropriate, even violent at times! It was later proven untrue and the fallacies were being spread by the wine industry as they were losing profit share to absinthe. Shameful! Our tour guide served us the absinthe with a water back as according to her, you did not want to drink this straight. It is a 126 proof alcohol, which is pretty high. Their vodka is an 80 proof for comparison.
Our tour had completed and my biggest take away was that distilling, in general, is still somewhat a lawless business. There are not many strict regulations on distilling, with even some intentional misrepresentations allowed, which is pretty shocking in this day an age that it is allowed. Great Lakes Distillery does hold themselves accountable for the products they produce, which is nice to see that they are not misleading their customers.