Distill your liquor
See it distributed before you
And hear the lamentation of their women
Thus read the immortal words of Conan the Barbarian - altered here for the distiller - when the great warrior is asked, What is best in life?
It's not often that one gets to compare a local distiller to Conan the Barbarian but in speaking with Nick Quint of Yahara Bay Distillers it's hard not to draw some comparisons.
Here's Nick a few years ago at age 61. He's retired. He's looking towards a future of golf or RVs or whatever... but something inside of him rebelled against that. He had a preexisting connection with distilling through family in Iowa. And in an act of courage equal to assaulting Thulsa Doom, he eschewed the quiet life, acquired a still, and fearlessly opened up Yahara Bay in Madison, WI because that is exactly what he wanted to do. Looking back, he now claims it doesn't even feel like work and is the best possible "retirement."
It's fun and amusing to draw comparisons to Conan the Barbarian but there is something distinctly brave about what he has done. Where we talk to microdistillers they're most often quite a bit younger and while sharing many emotional similarities he differs - most crucially - in that he exceeds many of them in raw ambition.
At my age, I can't afford to sit around for 20 years waiting for stuff to age, he says, gesturing around at his operation ranging from his own products, to private labeling, to imports, and a local microbrewer waiting patiently to discuss some business opportunities. I've got to make things happen now. Later he mentioned, I didn't want to sit on my death bed regretting that I hadn't tried.
So perhaps the better analogue is Tennyson's Ulysses rather than Conan who, at advanced age himself undertook a perilous voyage.
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done
And if there is nothing else one learns from speaking with the master distiller of Yahara Bay, it is that he regards the work he's doing as wholesome and noble.
Like most start-up microdistilleries, he began with vodka. Two years ago I had no idea what I was doing and I made a lot of mistakes, he says. The copper still arrived in many, many, many pieces with a picture of the assembled still included like a holiday snapshot to serve as the instruction sheet. Did you have a tough time putting together your kid's bike on Christmas morning? Imagine it coming in a tub of pieces with the gleaming picture of a bike and having that to work it out on your own from that! Welcome to the life of a craft distiller.
And here is where the ambition comes in. As well as his own product, there are barrels and containers containing imports. Nick has obtained an importer license and struck a deal with the first Vom Fass in the United States that recently opened in Madison (a delightful store in its own right that allows a consumer to taste a spirit, select a specialty glass bottle, and see it bottled and labeled before your eyes). Yahara Bay will supply the local Vom Fass with aged brandy and cognac among other spirits imported from boutique distilleries in Europe. He has also made some private label arrangements and produces the spirits for Death's Door Spirits, whose product he makes with the same adherence to quality but slightly different recipes. Of all things, it is apparently the un-aged Death's Door whiskey (basically moonshine) in an almost unmarked bottle that they can't keep on the shelves right now. He also speaks of bottling imported spirits and working with distributors for their products (he has a shipment from a rum producer sitting innocently on a work table). All this and Nick casually mentions that over fifty local farmers have come by with their own ideas about what he can distill with their products and how good it will taste.
My attorney can't keep track of it all, he says, shaking his head. I tell him my word is my bond and he says, 'Sure but how about the other guy?! You can absolutely get burned on any of this stuff.'
In passing, he then mentions that he's looking at upgrading his still so that he can increase production capacity.
Ambitious? Yeah. Diageo probably ought to be thanking their lucky stars he didn't enter the business at age 51 instead of 61.
Yet the nobility is there. Like most craft distillers, he doesn't see himself competing with them. But he does feel a close kinship with the local farmers. We're a lot more closely tied with agriculture than anything else, he says pointing to other areas of the country But it's the community that drives the sense of nobility in what Nick Quint does. Where craft distilling is going well (upstate New York being a particular example)it tends to be in areas where fruits and grains support the local economy. He himself works with Wisconsin farmers to get the best possible products - most often times organic but he doesn't want to go through the bureaucratic hassle of getting the stamp of approval - and in turn, they love being able to see product that otherwise wouldn't be sold (hail-damaged apples, for example) put to good use. (The best possible use, in our opinion.)
Hearing Nick Quint and his wife (who has opened the Art Gallery at Yahara Bay in the front of the distillery to promote the local artists) speak of working with local produce, distributing to locally owned restaurants, and making a grass-roots effort to inform the public about the craft-distilling going on right in their own town (a local restaurant says the Quints will often come by for dinner, ask a fellow patron if they've heard of Yahara Bay, and if they say no go ahead and buy their first drink of locally made spirits) is when it clicks in your mind: this is what it's all about. This is what craft-distilling, at its essence, really is. It's a close community (here farmer and distiller and restaurateur) working together in the larger community.
That's noble work.
And, we must admit, it's given him a rather cavalier attitude towards professional judging. (Only his vodka has been submitted to any of the judging institutes we follow here at Proof66.) I don't like medals and ribbons, Nick says gruffly. Every palate is different. We do our stuff handmade with local and natural products and we sell local. In short, he couldn't care less about beating other distillers because those other distillers don't have the same kind of focus and the same kind of sense of community.
So in Madison, one can buy liquor based on slick marketing campaigns or one can buy from Nick Quint. To us, it seems like a pretty clear answer.