Brian "Blaze" Blazel moved to Milwaukee from Eau Claire to study mechanical engineering at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, but enthusiastically changed directions when he was offered a job as a brewer at Milwaukee Brewing Co.
"It’s pretty common for a distiller or brewer to have background in engineering or chemistry," says Blazel.
Last summer, Central Standard Craft Distillery – a micro still and tasting room in Walker’s Point – rented space in Milwaukee Brewing Co.’s building and hired Blazel as a distiller.
Today, Blazel divides his time between brewing and distilling and, recently, OnMilwaukee.com stopped in to get the low-down on his new spirit-making gig.
OnMilwaukee.com: How is your background in engineering helpful with distilling and brewing?
Brian Blazel: It helps having a background in engineering when upkeeping the equipment. Also, fluid movement, thermodynamics.
OMC: Are brewing and distilling similar?
BB: There’s one extra step with distilling. You make the alcohol as you would for beer and then distill off the alcohol – for whiskeys. We haven't done anything other than grain mashes but for a brandy you would use fruit so it’s like making wine first and then distilling that to make brandy.
OMC: Does it take longer to distill than brew?
BB: Not necessarily. It depends on the product.
OMC: How did you learn distilling?
BB: I had been reading about it for two years. The opportunity popped up because when the owners took over this space from Jim (McCabe, owner of Milwaukee Brewing Co.), they mentioned they were looking for a distiller and Jim told them about me.
I shadowed a couple of people on distillation runs. The guys at Great Lakes Distillery have been great. Any problems I had during the early stages I could call them. Death’s Door in Middleton has also been very helpful. They have a huge, state-of-the-art facility.
OMC: When did you start distilling?
BB: At the end of July. There wasn’t a lot of testing, we just hit the ground running.
OMC: What have you made so far?
BB: A 100 percent rye malt vodka, a gin that’s very floral, an oat-based white whiskey and we have a rye and bourbon aging. We will have a (non-white) whiskey by next Thanksgiving and our straight bourbon and rye have to age for about two years.
OMC: What’s white whiskey?
BB: It’s whiskey that hasn’t aged, so there’s a quick turnaround. It’s basically a placeholder until we age a bourbon, which takes two years. A lot of distilleries will buy another distillery’s whiskey, relabel it and sell it as their own. We’re trying to do it in a more natural way and we’re making it and aging it all ourselves.
OMC: Have you botched any batches?
BB: No, but we are definitely learning the finer points and a couple batches have turned out better than others. So far we’ve been able to save anything that started to go a little sideways.
OMC: On your own time do you drink more spirits or beer?
BB: I like bourbon and rye and whiskey, but for special occasions. I don’t go home and pour myself a glass of whiskey. I’m more of a beer drinker.
OMC: Where are bottles of Central Standard spirits sold?
BB: At the end of November we started selling retail through Beer Capitol. You can get it at larger liquor stores like Discount Liquor, Ray’s, Otto’s and I think Woodman’s. Eventually, we will be in stores like Roundy’s and Sendik’s.
OMC: The distilling equipment is in the open for customers to see, but can you actually distill when the tasting room is open?
BB: No, we can’t. The government doesn’t like that.
OMC: Is it because distilling is dangerous?
BB: Distilling shouldn’t be dangerous if all of the safety measures are in place. The still explosions you hear about are people in their yards or garage not being safe.
OMC: Have you ever tried home distilling?
BB: No, I’m not that gutsy.
OMC: Where do you live?
BB: In Bay View, near Humboldt Park.
OMC: Do you like Milwaukee?
BB: I’ve been here nine years now and I really like Milwaukee a lot.
OMC: Milwaukee is traditionally more of a beer town. Do you feel most Milwaukeeans have a lot to learn about spirits?
BB: I think the public as a whole, not just Milwaukee, has a long way to go in spirits education. It was the same when brew pubs starting to come around in the mid ‘90s: people didn’t know any difference in the beer – just that it was made locally – and now people know so much more about beer. It’s coming around with spirits, too.
OMC: Do you give tours of the distillery?
BB: I give some of the tours.
OMC: When are the tours? How much are they and how long do they last?
BB: They are $10 and offered Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. People stand in front of the equipment and we talk briefly about the history of the company and they get a tasting flight and a rocks glass. It’s about a half hour or so depending on how many questions people ask.
OMC: Do people ever go on a Milwaukee Brewing Co. tour and then one over here, or vice versa?
BB: I’m not sure, but you can’t bring beer in here from Milwaukee Brewing Co. or Central products over there.
OMC: You serve beer in the tasting room?
BB: Yeah, we’re the first (distillery tasting room) in Wisconsin to get a liquor license. With our production license we can only serve our spirits, but we can also serve beer. I don't know the intricacies of that one, but we can. We have six signature cocktails so far.
OMC: Any regrets that you didn’t finish engineering school?
BB: No. I never ever dread coming to work. I have a lot of creative control and will have more in the future. It’s a really fun job.
Central Standard Craft Distillery tasting room is open Wednesday-Friday from 5 p.m. to 12 a.m.; Saturday from 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. and Sundays from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.