Just outside of Milwaukee, in an out-of-the-way warehouse in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, resides the home of the Midwest Custom Bottling Company. From this unassuming building comes such diverse offerings as RumChata, a long line of various flavored vodkas, Agave Loco Pepper Tequila, and James River Plantation Sweet Tea Vodka among others. Few people would guess that Wisconsin is the home of spirits ranging from tequila to rum to tea... but such is the case. And all cocktail enthusiasts are the better for it.
We had the pleasure of a personal, guided tour of the facility on a wintry Saturday morning in December. Visiting with Duane Maas of Midwest Custom Bottling was akin to meeting a master chef in his kitchen. This is a very apt metaphor because if there is one phrase that stands out from our visit it is this: "Distillers regard the craft of distilling a particular spirit to be an end unto itself; but we take the spirit and then we package it and flavor it to make a new product with a lasting difference." Just like the farmer tries to grow fine produce-an end unto itself from the perspective of the farmer-it is up to the chef to take those ingredients and make a compelling dish in a visually appealing plate with a taste that keeps the patron returning. Midwest Custom Bottling is exactly that: combining liquor, flavor, and packaging into spirits that keep the customer coming back. More importantly, they don't just work in customary, run-of-the-mill spirits but rather specialize in flavors and bottles that no one else is willing to try.
To extend the metaphor, the story of the "chef" of Midwest Custom Bottling is itself greatly interesting. Maas, after starting in industrial chemicals with Shell, moved to beverage alcohol production after a meeting with a friend on a commuter train eventually led to an interview with Fleischman Distilling. This signaled the beginning of what would become a pattern of taking over struggling production facilities and turning them around to profit centers. "He gets things running smoothly and then gets bored!" brightly announces his wife. Maas worked in many parts of the world producing all kinds of spirits-a journey that led him to places like Standard Brands, Barton Brands, Canadian Mist, United States Distilled Products, and others. Talking to Maas feels like talking to the Yoda of liquor: from bottling, to international inspections, to the science behind the alcohol, he blithely blends encyclopedic knowledge with the stories of his personal experience in ways that belong in a long novel or a four-part video documentary (if not a major motion picture). Listening, one could easily hear him saying, "Try to bottle pepper in a tequila? You bottle... or you do not bottle. There is no try."
After a long and illustrious career, Maas found himself in Wisconsin in the late 90s. Some local dairy farmers had an idea to produce a cream liqueur but lacked the capacity, experience, or capital to do it properly. Midwest Custom Bottling was promptly founded to produce this exact cream liqueur, which would become the horchata cream liqueur RumChata that enjoys robust sales to this day. The company's success allowed expansion into other lines of spirits.
They have their own laboratory for testing flavors and spirits (so secret we were not allowed to take pictures of it). The lab comes complete with a master blender of 30 years experience to develop flavors. They have a brilliant engineer who creates the machinery and modifications necessary to do their individualized packaging runs-a necessity for bottling spirits wrapped in leather or filled with real fruit. They have on their team a plant manager who brings his own decades of experience. The team maintains a colleague in China to inspect the glass that they import ("When you deal with China," Duane notes, "You get what you inspect rather than what you expect."). Is this starting to sound like the Jedi Council of liquor? They would rather describe themselves as a cooperative group, formed and working for their shared expertise and joy in the craft. "With this facility, we could easily scale to 1 million cases of RumChata," says Maas. "We could do 1 million cases of vodka if we wanted to but we're just not interested in doing 1 million cases of vodka. We want to do things that no one else is doing."
We've met many very talented distillers. They have a certain faith in their product and in the marketplace: a philosophy of "if we build it they will come" faith. They believe that by producing a finely crafted spirit it will create its own audience by the sheer quality of the liquor. To an extent, we believe that too. But Midwest Custom Bottling has developed a certain pragmatism to their work counter to the idealism of the craft distiller. They don't distill: they flavor and package. They bring a grain neutral spirit made from corn. It's a very good spirit, in the opinion of Maas, with a high quality production process. But distilling that spirit is not what he wants to do. Instead, he takes that spirit-or a rum or a tequila-and flavors it.
In contrast to the craft distiller, the philosophy of Maas and Midwest Custom Bottling is a blend of pragmatism and idealism. "You can get anyone to buy anything once," casually remarks Maas. And indeed, a quick glance down any vodka shelf in any major liquor store will give evidence to that statement. "The art is getting them to buy it again. We get them to buy it once and, because we get the taste right, they'll come back and buy it again."
That is exactly how the company is set up. Rather than runs of thousands of cases; they craft for hundreds. They specialize in bottles and flavors no one else will try. It's about getting the first purchase with the packaging and then the return purchase with what they call the "lasting difference."
Take the packaging.
"We do things that other companies are unwilling to do." With the ability to get smaller quantities of bottles specified to their own design from their Chinese supplier, they have wrapped bottles in leather, created unusual bottle shapes, and even adjusted the color, composition, and appearance of the spirit itself. They receive referrals from larger distilleries who are unable or uninterested in taking smaller, more boutique orders. Big liquor labels will even use them to outsource experimental products rather than use their own production facilities because, as amazing as it sounds, those plants are scaled for such higher volume that it's not cost-effective to test market smaller runs of bottles; so they call Midwest Custom Bottling.
When that packaging draws in the customer, then comes the lasting difference.
An infusions line of spirits they produce for one customer is a good example where whole berries, fruit, coffee beans or other flavors are physically floating in the spirit. "We've got to put the berries in by hand," grumbles Maas, knowing from memory how trying that can be. The James River Plantation Tea is made with a specialty tea that itself was the result of long weeks of experimentation. "The flavor's got to be right. We looked for a tea that would give the spirit a strength to withstand a 3:1 or 4:1 mix with water where most on the market get watered down at 1:1." They work with flavors that others find troublesome. "A client came years ago wanting to do something with dragonfruit... that's a really subtle flavor that also doesn't have a specific flavor of its own." These flavors that they provide is what Midwest Custom Bottling and Maas call the "lasting difference" that keeps bringing the customers back.
At the end of the tour, we regrouped in their single meeting room and it feels almost like visiting geographically remote but generous relatives instead of entrepreneurs. Indeed, they press samples on us, clearly proud of their product and earnestly wanting (and expecting!) our good opinion. It's a remarkable tour made all the more remarkable for the fact that the plant is clearly quite successful.