Welcome to Distill America, that luminous event in an otherwise arctic February in Madison, Wisconsin. It is, quite simply, the candy shop for every adult kid. Armed with a tulip glass, the Edgewater Hotel plays host to a 4-hour festival of the absolute best that America has to offer in distillation. The big players are there with their whiskeys; the micro players are there with their brash, upstart craft spirits; and even the mid-sized players—aging gracefully like Gen-X Grunge rockers look bemusedly upon Millennial hipsters—are there with their profligate, daring lines of spirits. It’s all there. There is, for all we know, no greater place to visit in the bitter cold of winter’s grip to warm your soul, meet interesting people, and soak in the spirit of one of the coolest cities east of the Rockies and west of the Appalachians.
And participate enthusiastically we did! We must admit this: there’s no way we can try everything. That would be fatal. We taste a fraction and make a deliberate effort to try new things. That said, of the fraction of spirits we tasted, these are the ones that rose to the top. It was not enough for us to have merely liked a liquor (we liked a lot of things we tried). Rather, these are the spirits that we now seek out and demand for our personal bar (or berate a bartender for not carrying).
If you can’t be at the event, then you have to use a list. This is our list. These are the spirits we vouch for.
- 44° North Sunnyslope Nectarine Vodka: this is an Idaho potato vodka that is infused with locally grown nectarines from the orchards in Sunnyslope. It is, so far as our database of 9,000+ spirits is concerned, the only nectarine flavored anything. And it’s delicious. It’s light; it’s authentic; it’s bright and gorgeous on its own and begs—absolutely begs—to be mixed. We get it. It's weird. It’s one of those vodkas that you’d be hesitant to buy right off the shelf. But we tried it and having tried it we swear to you we now go straight for the shelf looking for it. It is absolutely everything flavored vodkas are supposed to be.
- broVo Lucky Falernum Liqueur: this is another of Seattle-based broVo’s collaboration with bartenders. It’s a liqueur designed for mixing using ginger, lime, pineapple, and other fruit flavors. It is easily the most exciting spirit in the most boring bottle we’ve seen in a long time. It is also an absolute revelation to any mixologist out there. What? Old Fashioned, you say? Absolutely. Cosmopolitan? Obviously. Mai Tai? No brainer. Margarita? Yeah… no problem to any of that. This liqueur is to triple sec like dub step music is to elevator Musak. If you fancy yourself a cocktail enthusiast (and especially if you're a high class bar), broVo is a brand you should look out for and in their pantheon of classics, this is a spirit you can't afford to miss.
- Driftless Glen Double Cask Gin: aged gin is taking over as people realize that oak relaxes and complements that heavy herbal nature of traditional, juniper-driven gin. Driftless Glen, a brand new distillery in the north of Wisconsin, brashly aged their navy strength gin in two different styles of oak to make this beauty. In a forum that showcased more aged gin than we’ve seen in any one place, this is the one that struck as the one to buy. Its oak dances with the herbs; the bottling strength holds its own in cocktails. If you doubt aged gin (or gin in general), try this. We particularly recommend this for you whiskey snobs sneering from their Glencairn glasses of cask-strength heavily-peated whisky. Try this and wipe that sneer off your face.
- Great Northern Herbalist Gin: moving on to the classic, un-aged gin (and gins were surely flying their flag high at this event), Great Northern came in with this modern take. For all the people we ran into who claim to hate gin, they tried this and liked it. Credit the relaxed juniper (“This doesn’t taste like a Christmas tree!” shouted one surprised by delighted attendee) and the heavy citrus notes. This is one that demands tonic, soda, or other mixers and hot summer days. For you gin snobs sneering from your Tanqueray filled martini glasses, try this from the far north and see the redcoats flee.
- Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select Whiskey: we won’t shy away from our prejudice: we give Jack Daniels a lot of (well deserved) grief. We just don’t find their whiskey that compelling in general. When they bottle something, put a celebrity label on it, and then charge $200+, we tend to think “gimmick” and move on. That’s why these events are so awesome and why we’re glad Brown-Forman brought a bottle to Distill America. This whiskey is flat-out amazing. Its balanced; it’s flavorful; the finish is long and rich; the texture is velvety and lush. We had no idea JD was capable of producing something like this. There was a lot of well-known and critically acclaimed whiskey on offer at the event. All the stuff that makes the top lists everywhere. But this! As whiskey snobs, and we count ourselves as whiskey snobs, this is one we look for and might spend the money to obtain. It's worth it. Don't let the label scare you.
- North Shore Sol Citrus Chamomile Spirit: the Proof66 staff does not lack for inventory in their personal bars. When you taste a lot of things, you want a lot of things. Off of this list, we stopped by the liquor store on our way out of town and bought exactly one bottle. It was North Shore’s Sol. Maybe it’s the unique nature of the flavors. Maybe it’s the square bottle. Maybe it’s the fact that North Shore has been doing things excellently for so long and we bought as a gesture of respect. Whatever the case, its flavors are appealing to the common man as well as the certified mixologist. It is exactly what craft distilling should do: make things that the bigger players are too scared to try. For you looking for summer, pool-side cocktails, this is the one for you.
- Ballast Point Opah: from California and a distillery that is fearless in trying different flavors (they had one vodka that they claimed was infused with street taco flavors!) comes this raven-hued beauty. In a style that is part Italian amaro, part amaretto, and just enough sweetness, this liqueur is built for straight sipping and chilled shots. There was an Italian among our party and even he loudly proclaimed that the anise was blended in mathematical symmetry with the herbal flavors and easily a match for anything on offer in the Mediterranean. God almighty, why are you shooting Fireball when you can get a bottle of this?! Pour that vile potion down the sink instead of your throat and get a bottle of Opah.
- Rehorst Barrel Reserve Gin: another Wisconsin product out of the steady and true Great Lakes Distillery, this takes their flagship gin (a lovely product in its own right) and rests it ever so gently in barrels. Offered in very limited batches. The oak character is exactly the touch their modern-styled gin needed. This is the gin all the Gin Martini enthusiasts—and in particular, Perfect Martini (sweet vermouth) enthusiasts—have been looking for. You probably can’t find a bottle. If you can, buy it immediately.
- St. George Spirits Pear Brandy: St George, out of California, has been around for decades and has always had a steadfast commitment to the authentic taste of the ingredients that they use. Their pinnacle achievement, in our opinion, is their pear brandy. Not many people even know what an eau-de-vie or un-aged fruit brandy is or how to recognize it. Well, try this: when it’s done well, it’s a glorious representation of the fruit itself. You shouldn’t be able, when blindfolded, to even know if you’re smelling the fruit or the brandy. In some cases, the brandy smells better. We’ll just say it: this brandy is better than eating a real pear. The dry, crisp taste itself is not remotely sweetened and somehow highlights the fragrant nature of the spirit. You have one eau-de-vie in your bar, or one pear anything in your bar, it should be this offering from St. George.
- Stranahan’s Diamond Peak Whiskey: one of the rare American single malts, Diamond Peak is Stranahan’s premium label and aged for 4 years. While a bit younger, it is full-bodied and rich. It’s a pleasure to see America distilling great whiskey in the name of bourbon and rye but there are some fantastic single malts coming out and this is one of them. No need for wine cask finishes, Diamond Peak stands well on its own. If you're tired of buying single malts from across the pond and sick to death of exotic wine-cask or sherry-cask finishes (we kind of are), then look for this one. Irish whiskey drinkers weary of Jameson should most definitely seek it out.
- Tailwinds After Dark Rum: a new product just entering the market from the retro-labeled Taildragger rum series and… well, because it's dark rum, we tasted it suspiciously. And then we said this: we had no freaking idea whatsoever that dark rum could actually taste this good. This is another spirit that stamps its foot and insists upon being mixed in your favorite cocktails. We chased down the traveling cocktail cart begging for a Mai Tai made with this rum. If you have any sense of Polynesian tiki drinks in you, After Dark is an absolute requirement in your bar. It is the (very short and very spare) hula skirt adorning your beach cocktail.
- Vikre Voyageur Cognac Cask Finished Aquavit: being in Wisconsin and surrounded by a fair number of blond-haired lithe bodies, you know you’re in Viking country. With so many northern distilleries on display, there was probably more aquavit here than in any other venue in North America (and maybe even Norway). Theses caraway infused spirits can also benefit from resting in oak and a shining example comes from Vikre. Resting in cognac casks, it gave a softening vanilla/grape aura on the hard edged caraway. Another example of why Distill America is such a marvelous event: who buys aquavit when they barely know what it is? Even knowing what it is, who buys an oak-aged aquavit?! At this venue, you actually just taste it. Trying this one, you just nod and buy. For anyone wanting to impress their father in-law or other pretentious drinker, this is something they'll never have tried before (even if they've heard of Linie Aquavit even that isn't aged in cognac casks) pull this bottle out and watch the jaws hit the floor.
- Wondermint Schnapps: this is a classic coming out of Death Door Spirits. We knew this was a successful liqueur because it was sitting on the shelf of the bohemian hipster pad that served as our Airbnb headquarters shining like a jewel among an otherwise paltry selection of bottom shelf stuff. This is a party drink. It is a sweetened mint schnapps but instead of doubling down on the sweet (like most of the crappy schnapps on the market today), it gains sophistication from a complex set of flavors headlined by a touch of absinthe. That je ne sais quoi makes all the difference between something you’d shoot as a twenty-something and pray to god you didn't see come back up and something you'd sip as a thirty-something that you can’t live without. It’s one of those signature spirits from the Great Lakes area that tourists should seek out and treasure back in warmer climes.
- WhistlePig 12yr Old World Rye: a newer expression from the wildly popular (and very tasty) WhistlePig, this is presumably a similar independent bottling of Canadian rye whiskies. With heavy critical credentials behind it, the various wine cask finishes give this rye whiskey a delicious character. While its price might put it out of reach of many, this is a rye that muscles its way into the upper echelons of the best rye whiskey available by any of the bigger distilleries the same way Rocky Balboa muscles in on a hanging slab of beef. Any whiskey enthusiast, anywhere, would be happy with a glass of this.
There you have it. All of these are spirits that we would shell out our own money (and already have ourselves in many cases) to stock at home. Take our expert-but-street-trained word for it! But even better, next February attend the event for yourself and achieve spiritual enlightenment!
by Neal MacDonald, editor
[Disclaimer: Proof66 helps sponsor Distill America and receives complimentary tickets... but not because we profit from it (we don’t) but because we believe in and value the event.]