Rehorst has been producing some fantastic local spirits for quite some time. I have always been impressed with how they purposely go out of their way to produce things the old-fashioned way.
Last year I was working on a project for which I was tasked to create a homemade tonic. Guy Rehorst was there to assist when I couldn't find any quinine, which is an integral part of the recipe.
I recently spent some time with Guy to shake, stir and pick his brain about his passion.
Jason Gorman: How did you get into the business of creating some of Wisconsin's finest spirits?
Guy Rehorst: I was always into beer, wine and spirits, since I was a home brewer and wine making hobbyist I developed a curiosity about distilled spirits; it seemed like a logical next step. I also realized that while there were lots of great craft breweries and small wineries and you could find their products in so many bars and restaurants, there weren't any small distilleries.
Everything on the shelves was either imported or made at one of a very small handful of distilleries in the U.S. I was wrong, later finding out that there were about 30 small distilleries in the U.S. at that time – most of which were associated with wineries and producing small batches of brandy. There are now more than 400 small distilleries in the U.S.
So, I eventually decided Milwaukee would be a good market – people here really support local in a big way, and in 2006 we opened what was then Wisconsin's only distillery.
JG: What are your thoughts on the mixologist movement? Has it gone overboard?
GR: I love it. They are really talented people who like going the extra mile and are very creative; they need an outlet and their customers are the lucky beneficiaries of that. Most of them are modest and hate the term mixologist, but they are special and not your typical bartender. What they do may not be appropriate for all bars or situations, but when they are in the right place they do magic. They've been a huge part of the reason for the success of craft spirits producers like us, they open people's eyes to the endless possibilities of what they can do with a cocktail.
JG: How do you feel about pairing spirits with food? What is one of your favorite combinations?
GR: With the tremendous variety of spirits available now I think pairing spirits and cocktails with food can offer a greater variety and more flexibility than pairing wine or beer. We've done numerous cocktail-paired dinners with local restaurants and one thing consistently happens: those who take part come away amazed at how well these pairings can be.
It's still a new concept to a lot of people, but I think it will grow in popularity. I love pairing whiskey with red meat – smoked cheese and whiskey is another of my favorites. Vodka works well with a lot of seafood. You can create cocktails with all sorts of fresh ingredients, basil, ginger, etc., and create some great complementary pairings.
JG: How did you come up with the amazing Roaring Dan's Rum? And what's the next creation your thinking about – if you can say?
GR: Roaring Dan's Rum came about because we wanted a rum with a Wisconsin twist. We try to put a local spin on everything we do. By distilling Wisconsin maple syrup with the molasses-based rum we produce, we get a really dry rum with a creamy finish – not at all what people expect when they hear we add maple syrup. They usually expect it to be sweet.
We're currently running pretty close to our maximum capacity, but we're always working on future products. Many of these experiments go really wrong and will never see the light of day, but there are a few gems that we're saving for when we do have the capacity. No new releases planned until we solve the capacity issue.
JG: How would someone get started in the business if they wanted to follow in your footsteps?
GR: Learn to brew and make wine. Distilling is really one small step past that. Unlike when I started, there are schools offering programs in distilling now. Once you learn how to make spirits then you need to spend a lot of time with state and federal regulations. They're onerous but absolutely critical to understand.
Before you open your doors you need to understand that just because you may make the greatest product in the world doesn't mean it's going to sell itself, you need to be good at sales or partner with someone good at sales.
Chef Jason Gorman has been eating for almost 41 years, cooking for 26 years, and has had the privilege of working with some of the country's top chefs and restaurants.
He's been fortunate enough to have worked in many different aspects of the hospitality world, from fast casual service, "ma and pa" restaurants, catering, 1,000-room plus hotels, independent stand-alone restaurants, some corporate chains, a casino, 4- and 5-diamond restaurants, even a steakhouse and the state's No. 1 boutique hotel, The Iron Horse Hotel.