On a cold January day in 2008, as big, fluffy snow flakes fell, blanketing Riverwest in white, I visited Guy Rehorst and Doug MacKenzie at the old Great Lakes Distillery location.
It was the perfect day to sample Great Lakes' first attempt at distilling a grappa from the seeds, stems and other leftovers from grapes pressed into wine at a central Wisconsin winery.
It seemed safe to say back then -- and also now -- that because Great Lakes was the first licensed distillery in the state since Prohibition, MacKenzie's grappa -- distilled from Wisconsin-grown Marechal Foch and Millot grapes -- is the city's first commercial grappa and likely the first in Wisconsin.
A little more than a year later (thanks to government hoops), Rehorst and MacKenzie were ready to officially launch the grappa as part of a trio of new brandies -- the first installments in Great Lakes' "Artisan Series" of fruit brandies.
At a recent tasting, the grappa was as fruit-forward as I remembered it from 14 months earlier.
But what came as real surprises were the Kirschwasser, made by distilling fermented cherries, and the Pear Brandy Eau-de-Vie, both made from wine produced by AEppelTreow Winery in Burlington.
So, not only are these three brandies distilled in Wisconsin, they are made from Wisconsin produce. Keeping things even closer to home, the labels for all three un-aged distillates were designed by MacKenzie's mother, Claire.
If the grappa is grapier than most, the traditional German Kirschwasser is super cherry-fied and the Eau-de-Vie is so fruity that it's like drinking ripe Bartlett pears.
"Pears are some of the best fruit for distilling," writes MacKenzie in the distillery's blog. "The aroma and flavor of the pear eau-de-vie (French for "water of life") is distinctly fresh Bartlett pears. I would suggest that anyone who's a fan of pear flavored vodka to try this. It'll amaze you at how much better real pear is compared to the artificial flavors that they use in most vodkas."
The brandies - all of which are 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume) are made in small batches of just a few hundred bottles each and so it's unsurprising that they'll cost you a bit -- $25 for a 375ml bottle. The grappa, while still on store shelves, is sold out at the distillery, suggesting its finding an audience in Brew City.
But, these are sipping libations, not gulpers, so as Rehorst is fond of noting, "They are very expensive to produce, but a small amount goes a long way."
Gone, I guess, are the days of fortifying kids for the long walk to school in winter with a nip of grappa or rubbing the brandy on the achy gums of teething toddlers. Probably for the best.
In other Great Lakes Distillery news, the team won a Gold Medal in late March at the 2009 San Francisco World Spirits Competition for its Rehorst Citrus & Honey flavored vokda. The judges considered entries from more than 450 distillers and importers from 21 countries.
The event has been a successful one for Rehorst which has won medals there in 2007 for its premium vodka and 2008 for its premium gin.
The distillery also helped kick off baseball season in Milwaukee with a limited edition Play Ball '09 Milwaukee Vodka, the proceeds of which benefit Children's Hospital.
The distillery, 616 W. Virginia St., in Walker's Point, is open for tours Fridays at 4:30 and 6 p.m. and Saturdays at 3:30 p.m.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.