Local Libations

A Brief (and Surprising) History of Distilling in Wisconsin

By Erica Krug | Photos By Erica Krug 0

A dream thirty years in the making came to fruition August 14th and 15th with the grand opening of the Wollersheim Distillery in Prairie Du Sac. About 6,000 people visited the new distillery on Friday and Saturday to help owners Julie and Philippe Coquard celebrate the debut of five spirits: Apple Eau de Vie, Wisconsin Apple Brandy, Coquard Brandy Batch No. 3, Garden Gate Gin and Dancehall Absinthe Blanche. Focusing on using local ingredients and bringing a pre-Prohibition tradition back to their property, the Coquards join a growing list of distillers with a thirst for producing Wisconsin-centric spirits.

Distilling (a process in which all the impurities of a substance are vaporized and its pure, high-alcohol condensation is collected) is not a new practice to occur on the scenic, hillside Wollersheim site near the Wisconsin River. After the original owner, Hungarian nobleman Agoston Haraszthy, left for California in 1849, the Kehl family took over the vineyards. A German immigrant, Peter Kehl built the structures that still stand on the property today and when Peter’s son, Jacob, took over the winery in the late 1800s he started to distill brandy along with wine. But by the time Prohibition became law in 1919, the Kehl family had stopped making wine and the area was being used solely for farmland.

In 1972, Robert and JoAnn Wollersheim bought the property from Peter Kehl’s great-grandson to reestablish the site as a winery. The hills were once again planted with woody grapevines and, in the 1980s when Philippe Coquard arrived from the Beaujolais region of France to become the Wollersheim’s winemaker (and new son-in-law when Philippe married the Wollersheims’ daughter, Julie), a dream was hatched to also resume brandy production. But the law stood in their way; although Prohibition was repealed in 1933—Wisconsin was the second state to ratify the amendment that would make selling booze legal again—strict state regulations made distilling complicated and banned wineries from distilling alcohol at all.

 Since the end of Prohibition, the manufacture and distribution of alcohol has been highly controlled, a residual effect of the idea that alcohol itself was immoral and that it was connected to social ills like organized crime. And although it is a state with a significant drinking culture, Wisconsin uses a strict “three-tier” regulation system that creates walls between the production, distribution and sale of alcohol, making things particularly tricky for those hoping to distill and sell spirits.

Under Wisconsin law, alcoholic beverages must pass through both a licensed wholesaler and a licensed retailer before reaching the consumer. If you’re wondering why you can go down to your favorite brewery for a pint of their latest sour, it’s because a brewer can apply for a permit that allows them to 1) act as their own wholesaler and 2) hold two retail licenses; Wisconsin issues similar permits to wineries.

So while breweries and wineries in the state bounced back immediately after Prohibition ended, the first distillery didn’t open until 2004 when Guy Rehorst opened Great Lakes Distillery in Milwaukee. But Rehorst wasn’t allowed to actually sell cocktails or bottles of his locally-sourced vodka or gin from his own facility until state law changed in 2009. Calling the change in law “a tremendous marketing tool” because it allowed tasting rooms, Rehorst said, “I think the mentality of consumers has changed. I think they want local spirits and they're seeking them out.”

Making whiskey out of 100 percent Wisconsin sorghum and naming it after local bootlegger Jenny Justo, Nathan Greenawalt, owner of Old Sugar Distillery in Madison, originally planned to produce spirits for wholesalers, until the law changed shortly after Greenawalt began production. Now people flock to his tasting room, located a few blocks from the State Capitol, on Thursdays through Saturdays to sample Old Sugar’s spirits or order a cocktail like the “Main Street”—Queen Jennie Sorghum Whiskey with bitters, sugar and a dash of house-made ouzo.

In addition to stricter regulations, Greenawalt attributes the lack of distilleries in Wisconsin until recent years to the fact that, even though home brewing has been legal in the United States since 1979, the distillation of alcohol at home is against the law. “A big reason that it has taken so long for the craft spirit industry to evolve is that home distillation is illegal. So there's no legal way to get into the business unless you happen to be born into it,” Greenawalt said. But, he added, over the years the federal government chose not to pursue home distillers unless it was being done on a large scale, which helped to spawn the craft distillery industry. And when the law changed in 2009 to allow distilleries to have tasting rooms, it also permitted wineries to start distilling alcohol, which was good news for Phillippe Coquard and his visions of brandy.

Coquard, who came from a family of winemakers in France, first arrived at the Wollersheim Winery in 1984. When Bob Wollersheim shared his idea of distilling spirits, Coquard was on board. Unfortunately Wollersheim died in 2005, before the change in state law, but when wineries were permitted to distill four years later, Coquard carried out their plan. Grape brandy seemed like a logical choice for the family’s first spirit—brandy is made by distilling wine and aging it in oak barrels—and Phillippe has a love of Cognac, an aged grape brandy from France.

The first batch of Wisconsin Coquard Brandy was released in 2013 and quickly sold out. Another batch was distilled in 2011 and aged until its release in 2014. Their third batch, “the best one so far,” according to Julie Coquard, Wollersheim vice president and marketing director, debuted this month at the grand opening  of the new 25,000 square-foot distillery. An all-Wisconsin brandy made from Wisconsin white grapes, Coquard Brandy Batch No. 3 was dedicated to Joseph Coquard, Phillippe’s father, who was visiting from France for the grand opening. Julie Coquard said Joseph was very surprised to see his name on the bottle’s label.

In addition to the brandies, Phillippe and his son-in-law, distiller Tom Lenerz, are making absinthe and gin, with plans to make whiskey and bourbon in the future. Continuing their dedication to using locally-sourced ingredients, both their floral Garden Gate Gin and Dancehall Absinthe Blanc—named for the dance hall which makes up the top floor of the winery—feature botanicals from Four Elements Organic Herbals in North Freedom.

Guests at the grand opening could sample three of the five spirits (per state law), take a self-guided tour, purchase a gin and tonic or apple brandy punch, and listen to live music.

“We were thrilled with the number of people who came out both days to support our new venture,” said Leah Anderson, in charge of Wollersheim’s public relations. “We heard a flood of compliments about the new facility, the new distilled spirits, our friendly staff, and how smoothly the event went. Hearing feedback like this from our customers is why we do what we do.”

The excitement surrounding Wollersheim’s event scores another win for Wisconsin’s growing craft distillery movement. 

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