Photo courtesy of Great Lakes Distillery
So, you want to be a distiller, do you? The late-night parties... the rap stars stopping by with their posses after the clubs have closed; glamorous models in slinky, black cocktail dresses hanging around the mahogany bar spanning the front of the room (tended by smirking, half-shaven euro-bartenders); the wealth and the privilege and the prestige adorn you like your James Bond smile and martini with olive. Glasses raise when you enter the room and women swoon when you leave it!
Well, let us introduce you to Guy Rehorst, owner and founder of Great Lakes Distillery. And while he's living his dream of owning a distillery it's quite different from the sort of romanticized version we all drink and dream about.
When one hears the word distillery immediately called to mind are the sprawling estates of Old Kentucky where rivers flow, grass flourishes, and ancient brick buildings house unnumbered barrels quietly maturing their wares while invisible angels take their share to the murmur of breezes in trees and birds in the air. Great Lakes Distillery (GLD) is neither the party atmosphere depicted in commercials nor the idealized Kentucky estates. It is instead a true microdistillery: an open air room leased in an office park in a modest brick building. In the case of GLD, the inside is immaculately clean, with stainless steel drums gleaming and the polished copper still proudly standing on one side. Oak barrels lay in the center of the room where future whiskies are aging (we look forward to trying those). This is the reality of the microdistillery: low square footage, small-batch apparatus, and the same burnished pride in equipment that car enthusiasts have displaying their waxed classic vehicles in the climate controlled garages.
GLD staff is similarly spartan. Far from the picturesque vision of French peasantry coming together in the village square to make communal wine, here at GLD there are a total of four employees and the Rehorst family figures prominently in the day-to-day running of the operation. The bottles are filled by nothing more glamorous than a four-spout mechanism that looks just a little bit like a soda fountain at the local 7-11 (see the device here). The labels are also attached by hand, one at a time, with a rolling mechanism that peels off the labels that adhere to the bottle. If silk-clad models do hang around GLD, we didn't see any working in the Sunday afternoon, saw no sign of their presence (surely they would have left a sheen of glitter about the place had they lingered here), and we don't imagine they would prefer this kind of work to the runway. Instead, family members are pressed into service: labeling, distilling, boxing (and, we hope and trust, tasting).
For those who dream of distilling understand that Rehorst himself spent a great deal of time in test batching. He tested over 20 different batches of vodka comprising countless variations of grain and yeast before he settled on a formula for his Rehorst Pemium Mlwaukee Vodka and easily twice that many for their gin, whose flavor profile changed when he tried to scale from test batch to large-scale production, before creating the highly regarded Rehorst Premium Milwaukee Gin. (And remember that large-scale for GLD is a mere 600 gallons.) To this day he gets his joy from testing and trying new spirits: Wisconsin cranberries (he has yet to get the flavor right), different rums (those flavors are still coming together as well), aging his forthcoming rye and bourbon batches, and just released (only a few hundred bottles!) a line of grappa, pear brandy, and cherry brandy.
And great wealth? Forget it. Rehorst says, I haven't made a penny from this operation... but then again, I haven't had a bad day of work yet, either.
GLD takes enormous pride in crafting their spirits from entirely local products or local sources. An example is their honey, which comes from the nearby Wisconsin Natural Acres - who have, in Rehorst's opinion - the healthiest bees in the world. The bee keepers have made agreements with the local farmers to avoid spraying their fields at times of the year when the bees are active to maintain a healthy, natural purity in the bees themselves, and so in the quality of their honey. The couple of employees on hand actually hand zest hundreds of lemons for the making of their Citrus Honey Vodka... that puts the hand in hand-crafted distilling! Because of the zesiting, Rehorst says, It's a spirit we hate to make but love to drink. After the success of their seasonal pumpkin spirit made from the Pumpkin Lager of Lakefront Brewery - the local microbrewery - they have worked on adjusting the formula of the lager with Lakefront in order to improve the quality of their second seasonal spirit run. The local bartenders - in bursts of creativity - have created special local recipes from this seasonal spirit that are unavailable anywhere else. These are examples of what a local handcrafted distiller can do that the larger distillers will never be able to replicate. Their only exception to local products (beside the aforementioned lemons who would have poor luck growing in Wisconsin) is juniper (whose flavor from local producers is not conducive to gin) and the bottles themselves (quality glass in the volumes they need are difficult to impossible to find in the states); both the juniper and the bottles are currently brought in from Italy.
Given the great dedication GLD has in supporting the local economy and celebrating all things Wisconsin, one would think the civic authorities would embrace them, praise them, and hold them as paragons of the small business community! Surely, premium distilled products is something that this city, known already for its grand beer heritage, would be welcomed and praised by the village elders! That is what one would think but in fact, the regulations and requirements on distillers are twice as byzantine and half as clear as anything involving wineries or breweries. In Wisconsin, a distiller is deemed hazardous and as such is the only food producer with that regulatory title, which galvanizes every health inspector like tinted windows and chrome rims agitate local police. Distilleries have to go through a lengthy filing process for their spirit and even their labels; GLD is currently waiting on five different labels - one of them their absinth - for approval to begin distributing. While wineries and breweries can offer tastings on the site of their operation, like every distillery GLD is banned from offering tastes of its product and tourists are forced to cross the street and taste at a local bar (to the bar-owner's delight, no doubt). Our favorite, was a chain-link fence roughly 20 feet high and padlocked inside the premises! This is to cordon off the boxed product before it is taken away for distribution; you see, the fence is to protect the revenue where revenue is the government's revenue because it hasn't yet been taxed. So, GLD staff carry a key in their pocket and whenever they want access to their storage, they haul out the padlock and open up the gate, which secures the state's proceeds from... well, whatever it was in the imagination of the regulators.
Currently, GLD products - particularly their vodka - sells very well in southeast Wisconsin. But Rehorst has no ambitions to conquer the market and become the next mighty distiller of vodka or any other spirit. Instead, he hopes to follow the path of the microbrewery and offer an expanded line of spirits and grow in local, concentric circles with Milwaukee at the center. They view their competition as Big Liquor premium products... the likes of Grey Goose and Ketel One for vodka or Tanqueray for gin. In contrast, the microdistillery community is a tight-knit one where they see themselves as expanding the market and tastes for fine liquor rather than taking anything from each other. In fact, Rehorst himself helps administer the American Distillers Forum, a blog where distillers (and some bloggers) form a nationwide community of craft distilling.
So if you have a chance, sample the line of Great Lakes Distillery and raise a glass to founder Guy Rehorst and his staff. From the toil of he and those like him are great spirits made.