The Brew City’s Spirited Rebirth

Milwaukee is a city built on barley and hops. Points on the map — from Miller Valley to Pabst Village – wear the names of the city’s proud Pilsner history. But, while corporate mergers and the craft brewing business took some of the suds away from the “Beer Capital of the World,” a subculture of quality spirits now grows in the shadow of the abandoned breweries.

Distilleries were unheard of in Milwaukee just a few years ago, but two new players mere blocks apart are taking advantage of the city’s evolving culture to produce spirits worthy of attention beyond the cold confines of the Midwest.

Great Lakes Grappa

Great Lakes Grappa

Photo Courtesy of John Lewinski

Great Lakes Distillery:

Built alongside a sprawling brick complex that was once a busy tannery just south of downtown, Great Lakes is Milwaukee’s biggest and longest standing distillery. According to founder Greg Rehorst, the vodka that bears his family name was the first bottle out the door when he opened for business in 2004.

Great Lakes Still Room

Great Lakes Still Room

Photo Courtesy of John Lewinski

The product line has expanded since then to include Rehorst Citrus Honey Vodka, Rehorst Barrel Reserve Gin, Roaring Dan’s Rum, Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit, Menominee Valley Straight Rye Whiskey, Repeal Reserve Straight Rye Whiskey, Amerique 1912 Absinthe Verte, Amerique 1912 Absinthe Rouge, Grappa, Pear Brandy, Cherry Kirschwasser and local favorite Kinnickinnic Whiskey.

Great Lakes Barrels

Great Lakes Barrels

Photo Courtesy of John Lewinski

According to Rehorst, Great Lakes did well in Wisconsin soon after introducing its clear, non-aged spirits. In the last couple of years, they’ve expanded to sell in 26 states.

“Our biggest seller is still our vodka,” Rehorst said. “Kinnickinnic is our number two. But, we’re seeing our gin do very well, also. We’re proud of our Rehorst Gin because it’s unique. We mix botanical ingredients like basil and ginseng to rely less on the juniper flavor of the traditional English gin. And, we barrel-rest our gin in oak to give it notes not usually found in other brands.”

Great Lakes Pumpkin Seasonal

Great Lakes Pumpkin Seasonal

Photo Courtesy of John Lewinski

Great Lakes’ small professional distillery operation offers daily tours for mixology fans, and its entry bar is a popular spot for spirits-minded Milwaukeeans to sample the flavors of the house, while escaping the tavern culture of Brew City. Taking advantage of a distillery tour tasting reveals a gin with a familiar juniper note balanced with a more floral finish. And, while the Kinnickinnic Whiskey might lack some of the body of a true sipping brand, it’s tasteful and rounded enough to make for outstanding cocktails.

The most unexpected treat of the offerings is the Absinthe, which has found an unlikely home here in wintery Milwaukee. The Great Lakes Distillery variety has that unmistakable licorice-like aroma and the lip-numbing kick of wormwood; the exotic spirit brings downtown folk over in good numbers to sample a proper drip pour.

Great Lakes’ already ambitious bottle lineup will soon include a seven-year-aged Bourbon and a line of liqueurs that Rehorst is keeping close to his work shirt until they’re ready.

Central Standard Distillery:

A 10-minute walk toward Milwaukee’s working class Walker’s Point neighborhood brings the spirit seeker to the door of Central Standard. A relative newcomer to the distillery scene, it’s been cooking for less than a year. That’s long enough for its sampling bar to become a popular hole in the wall for the happy hour crowd.

Central Standard’s youth makes it a smaller operation for now, with one cooker still serving as the center of attention. Despite this fact, its offerings have the attention of enthusiasts looking to get away from the national brands.

Co-founder Pat McQuillan explained that, like many craft distillery startups, Central Standard went with clear spirits first. To get some product moving and to keep a young business afloat, distillers can’t easily wait for aged spirits to “embrown” themselves.

“Our gin and vodka source local ingredients like rye and wheat malt,” McQuillan said. “And our house blend of botanicals is carefully chosen from in-state suppliers.”

To add to its clear category, Central Standard threw the curveball of a White Whiskey. Essentially non-aged grain alcohol, folks in the Smoky Mountains would cook such a mix from corn mash and call it Moonshine. At Central Standard, they rely on oats, reducing the sweetness and adding body and kick. It’s early days yet for Central Standard, but McQuillan said business is going well enough for the distillery to start laying up white oak barrels for a six month to two year aged Bourbon.

With additional small batch distillers rustling in Milwaukee and across Wisconsin, the resulting bottled assembly might be enough for the locals to move beyond the High Life.

Pumpkin Smashing

Pumpkin Smashing

Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Pumpkin Smashing

Courtesy of Greg Rehorst, Great Lakes Distillery

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 oz. Great Lakes Pumpkin Spirit
  • 1/2 Lemon slice
  • 1/2 Orange slice
  • Dash Cointreau
  • Lakefront Brewery’s Pumpkin Lager, to top

Preparation: Blend all ingredients and stir gently.


Hot Buttered Rum

Hot Buttered Rum

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Hot Buttered Rum

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 oz. Gin, Roaring Dan’s Rum
  • 1/2 oz. Butter mix
  • 6 oz. Hot water

Preparation: Blend in an 8 oz. mug. Stir gently.

Butter Mix Recipe: Take 1 lb. butter, 2 cups brown sugar, 1 tbsp. ground cloves, 1 tbsp. ground allspice and mix until combined using a stand mixer or a fork.


Gin, Jam & Tonic

Gin, Jam & Tonic

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Gin, Jam and Tonic

Courtesy of Greg Rehorst, Great Lakes Distillery

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 oz. Rehorst Gin
  • 1 tbsp. Homemade fresh fruit preserves
  • Tonic water

Preparation: Combine preserves with gin in Collins glass. Fill with tonic.


Absinthe Martini

Absinthe Martini

Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Absinthe Martini

Courtesy of Greg Rehorst, Great Lakes Distillery

Ingredients:

  • 2 oz. Rehorst Gin
  • 1/2 oz. Dry vermouth
  • 1/4 oz. Amerique 1912 Absinthe Verte

Preparation: Blend ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Shake with ice. Strain. Serve.