Milwaukee is known for fun, intimate brewery tours, from Sprecher to Lakefront to Milwaukee Brewing Co. Along the same lines, Great Lakes Distillery – a small-batch distillery that makes vodka, gin, rum, whiskey and absinthe – offers a tour-and-tasting experience at their Walker's Point space, 616 W. Virginia St.
"A lot of people know how beer is made, but few understand spirits," says Jason Neu, a spirits ambassador who also handles day-to-day operations. "We jump at the chance to educate people."
Tours take place Monday through Thursday at 2 and 4 p.m.; Fridays at 2, 4 and 6 p.m.; Saturdays at 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. and, starting this Sunday, 2 and 4 p.m.
The free tours are about 20-30 minutes and for $5, guests can enjoy a five-flight tasting of various Great Lakes' products after the tour. They are also invited to buy one of the many craft cocktails from the Great Lakes tasting area which include the Roaring Dan's Rum-based Bar Knuckle Boxer or the French Bulldog made with Great Lakes' absinthe and gin.
Tour groups during the week are usually small, but on the weekends, the tours attract anywhere from 40 to 100 people. The popular Saturday tour inspired the addition of the two Sunday tours.
The tour begins with Neu reminding us that, "It's bad luck not to drink during the tour." Tour-goers are then led to "Wisconsin's Largest Distillery Museum" (basically three small shelves), that features kettles used to make moonshine during prohibition and a partially-full, circa-1917 bottle of whiskey from Milwaukee's National Distillery, which became Red Star Yeast during prohibition.
Nue points out how prohibition, even after it was repealed in 1933, changed the way Americans drank forever. Distilling at home remained illegal, which is part of the reason why it is difficult for people to experiment in hopes of creating a product worth taking to the next level.
Home brewers of beer, on the other hand, are able to do this, and consequently, there are many micro- breweries that pop up all the time. Great Lakes Distillery, on the flip side, opened on Holton Street in Riverwest and became the first distillery in Wisconsin since prohibition. There are currently nine distilleries in the state, but most are primarily winemakers.
"Peoples' thoughts and attitudes about spirits are changing," says Nue. "We used to think that vodka was from Russia and gin was from England and that was that. Now, people are thinking differently."
It's remarkable how many bottles of five different spirits are made in a relatively small amount of space. Most of the "tour" actually takes place in a portion of the warehouse space that's the equivalent of one large room. But the information, delivery and appearance of the distillery equipment make the tour a truly interesting experience.
There are two sections of equipment: one section with four or five 65-gallon containers that create the alcohol from various ingredients and a machine that distills it (distillation means the extraction of the alcohol). Neu refers to the piece of distillation equipment as a "Willy Wonka-looking booze machine," and for good reason. (See photo).
One batch of spirits makes 600-800 bottles of liquor. Everything is hand-bottled, labeled and corked. Consumers can return their empty bottles to the distillery and get $1 in credit put toward a tasting or cocktail.
Great Lakes Distillery products are sold in Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota. They include Rehorst Premium Milwaukee Vodka, Rehorst Premium Milwaukee Gin and Rehorst Citrus & Honey-Flavored Vodka. They also feature Roaring Dan's Rum, fruit brandies, a malt whiskey made with Lakefront Brewery's Pumpkin Beer and two kinds of absinthe.
Doug McKenzie, the sole Great Lakes distiller, is a one-man band when it comes to booze making. Aside from his daily responsibilities, he's always working on potential new products, from rye whiskey to grappa. These "experiments" are in the back of the warehouse fermenting in American white oak barrels. Each barrel has a "birthday" which is the date it was barreled, and twice a year, McKenzie samples one of the spirits-in-the-making to see if it's "ready."
"These are our babies. I'm not going to rush anything," he says. "It might take two years, it might take 10 years. We're learners here. We're not afraid to say that."
Although Great Lakes Distillery is not technically a bar, the tasting area functions like one in that it's open to the public from noon to 6 p.m. from Monday to Thursday, Fridays until 8 p.m. and during tour hours on the weekends. All of the cocktails are made with Great Lakes spirits and in-house-made syrups / liqueurs.
The ability for guests to taste at the distillery is a relatively recent development. Prior to July of 2010, after the tour, guides escorted tour-goers across the street to Branded inside the Iron Horse Hotel or Motor, also across the street inside the Harley-Davidson Museum, for the tasting portion of the event, because it was illegal for customers to drink at the distillery.
Great Lakes Distillery owner Guy Rehorst, with the help of legislatures, had the law changed to allow on-site consumption of alcohol, as long as the drinks were made with products created at the distillery.
"A licensed distiller can't have a liquor license," says Rehorst. "But we can now, as a licensed distillery, pour our own products."
Other local products are for sale in the Great Lakes gift shop, including Wisconsin Natural Acres honey, Bittercube bitters and Bolzano meat products. T-shirt, sweatshirts and glassware are also available.
In early 2012, Great Lakes Distillery will move their tasting area to the second floor, which is currently under construction. The new space will add 3,500 square feet to the operation – the space is currently about 10,000 square feet – along with a patio. The staff, which includes six full-time employees, is excited about the expansion, but expansion is not the main goal.
"Our attitude is people might try our products because they're from Milwaukee, but they'll keep drinking them because they're good," says Neu.
Molly Snyder grew up on Milwaukee's East Side and today, she lives in the Walker's Point neighborhood with her partner and two sons.
As a full time senior writer, editorial manager and self-described experience junkie, Molly has written thousands of articles about Milwaukee (and a few about New Orleans, Detroit, Indianapolis, Boston and various vacation spots in Wisconsin) that range in subject from where to get the best cup of coffee to an in-depth profile on the survivors of the iconic Norman apartment building that burned down in the '90s.
She also once got a colonic just to report on it, but that's enough on that.
Always told she had a "radio voice," Molly found herself as a regular contributor on FM102, 97WMYX and 1130WISN with her childhood radio favorite, Gene Mueller.
Molly's poetry, essays and articles appeared in many publications including USA Today, The Writer, The Sun Magazine and more. She has a collection of poetry, "Topless," and is slowly writing a memoir.
In 2009, Molly won a Milwaukee Press Club Award. She served as the Narrator / writer-in-residence at the Pfister Hotel from 2013-2014. She is also a story slam-winning storyteller who has performed with The Moth, Ex Fabula and Risk!
When she's not writing, interviewing or mom-ing, Molly teaches tarot card classes, gardens, sits in bars drinking Miller products and dreams of being in a punk band again.