PLOVER — Ask most 30-something bar patrons to name three cocktail drinks, and they might make it as far as a brandy old-fashioned. Aside from that Friday fish fry accompaniment, most cocktails and the science of mixology that flourished during Prohibition and through the 1960s have died out with their counterpart generations.
But in the last decade, entrepreneurial craft distillers are shaking up a revival of handcrafted spirits with a focus on locally sourced ingredients. Among them are Brian Cummins and his business partners at Great Northern Distilling in Plover.
“It is an extension of my love of food and the nicer farm-to-table restaurants and unique flavors and those sorts of things,” said Cummins, who has been a fan of mixed cocktails since his college days in the 1990s.
Cummins worked in Wisconsin’s paper industry as a chemical engineer and product manager but was looking for another outlet for his skills. In 2012, he was in a Twin Cities bar drinking pre-Prohibition-style cocktails made with traditional techniques and local ingredients when a friend told him about reading a Popular Mechanics article about craft distilling.
“He said, ‘Boy, wouldn’t that be something cool to do.’ It was kind of a lightbulb moment for me,” Cummins said. “We toured about 25 craft distilleries across the country, really trying to decide what we wanted to be when we grew up.”
In 2013, Cummins quit the mill, and with a group of local investors, he remodeled a former car dealership into a distillery. Equipment was installed that November, and an in-house bar was opened to the public the following spring.
Distilled spirits start with water and yeast mixed with grain, fruit, vegetables or other plant material, which is heated to start fermentation. The ethanol (a type of alcohol) that is created will boil at a lower temperature than water. As the hot vapor hits a cool surface, it returns to liquid that can be collected and further processed to create alcoholic beverages. That’s the easy explanation. Getting from there to a viable business is a steeper learning curve, according to Cummins.
“I have people come and talk about starting a distillery, and they invariably talk about recipes or equipment or things like that, and I always tell them that’s the easiest part,” he said. “The hard part comes when you talk financing and sales and marketing and personnel.”
From the beginning, Great Northern Distilling set a goal of using locally sourced ingredients to develop the complex flavors and unique profiles that would identify their brand, but the test run on their equipment was a small batch of rum. It was good, Cummins said, but sugar — a main ingredient — isn’t local. They set it aside and moved on to potato-based Polish-style vodka, which doesn’t require aging and would provide quick income for the new business.
“Potatoes come from within two miles of the distillery,” he said. “We’re right in the middle of potato fields here in Plover, so it made good sense for this to be the first ingredient we started with.”
The distillery annually uses about 100,000 pounds of cull potatoes that don’t make the grade for French fries but are perfect for vodka. Local, fresh water cuts the 190-proof distillate to 80 proof for bottling.
The company’s Herbalist Gin diverges from the traditional piney flavor of juniper — most of which comes from Bulgaria — and concentrates on locally sourced rose hips, Washington Island lavender and fresh spruce tips from nearby Christmas tree farms.
“While juniper is part of it, it’s not the dominant botanical as in London dry (gin),” Cummins said.
Corn, wheat and rye flours for the company’s barrel-aged Vanguard Whiskey and Rye Whiskey are sourced from Lonesome Stone Milling in Lone Rock; malted grains come from Chilton; yeast is sourced from Milwaukee; and the 30- and 10-gallon white oak barrels for aging are from cooperages in Minnesota.
The charred oak barrels impart color and most of the smoky wood flavor to whiskey, Cummins said. Used barrels are recycled to age brandy and other spirits.
“We partnered with Sunset Point Winery in Stevens Point to make us a really simple semi-sweet white wine that we then distill and age in our used barrels for about two years,” he said. “(Brandy) was always in the plan, but one of the things I found as we were getting into this is that as much as I wanted it to be one of our key spirits, it’s too expensive to do that.”
A limited-release Wisconsin Brandy is available each November for the holidays, as will be the distillery’s new Coffee Liqueur made with coffee beans roasted by Ruby Coffee Roasters in Nelsonville.
Even the sugar-based rum got an encore when a happy accident put Cummins in touch with a local source.
A few months into the business, he got a call from a friend who had 4,000 pounds of sugar bags that had been accidentally ripped open by a fork truck driver at a Wisconsin Rapids warehouse.
“So, I traded two bottles of whiskey for 4,000 pounds of sugar,” Cummins said. “That’s why I named it Opportunity Rum.”
Cummins, his business investors and the small distilling and bar staff have turned a lot of opportunities into action. Distillery tours were added when the bar opened in 2014, and guests get a handcrafted cocktail and product tasting with a $10 tour fee. Cocktails, mocktails and several other non-alcoholic drinks are also for sale at the bar during customer hours.
The Great Northern Distilling brand is fairly well-known in the state’s cocktail establishments, but distributors are just starting to introduce it in Illinois and California. Storage space for barrel aging is already getting tight, and an off-site spot may be needed soon to accommodate growth, Cummins said.
The business is producing 26,000 to 28,000 hand-filled, hand-corked and hand-labeled bottles of spirits a year.
“As that gets more and more frequent, we’ll need to have some labor-saving devices there,” Cummins said.
Beyond the challenge of expanding a business is the challenge of expanding the public’s palate for crafted spirits and fine cocktails. Cummins said creative drinks and mixology can be seen in big cities but not so much in small towns, “so we’re really working to expand cocktail culture throughout central and northern Wisconsin.”
“(Brandy old-fashioned) is a wonderful drink,” he said, “but let’s make the most upgraded and highest-quality version of that we can make, and then share that with as many people as we can.”
If you go
What: Great Northern Distilling.
Where: 1740 Park Ave., Plover.
Hours: Bar, Wednesday through Friday,4 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 1 to 10 p.m.
Activities: Mixology bar; retail sales; and tours Saturdays at 1,2 and 3 p.m.