Thursday, January 21, 2010

Recycling Distillery Waste

Now that we do tours of the distillery we've found certain questions get asked a lot. One of the most popular is "what do you do with your grain after it has been used for your products?" Traditionally distilleries have sold or given their "spent grain" to local farmers who use it as feed for cattle and hogs. Unfortunately this didn't work for us because we produce very little and we're located in the city -farmers, understandably weren't interested in driving into the city to pick up the small amount of spent grain we generate. We tried many ways of getting rid of it and occasionally found people who wanted to use it as deer feed and compost for their gardens. This unfortunately wasn't going to work as our volume grows. Fortunately we got a call last year from a new venture that said they would love to get their hands on our waste (so to speak).

That call was from the visionaries at Sweet Water Organics, an urban fish and vegetable farm in a re-purposed industrial building located in Milwaukee's Bay View neighborhood (and only 2 miles away from our distillery!). Sweet Water is the first major commercial application of aquaculture techniques developed by Milwaukee's Will Allen who has become quite famous for developing and teaching techniques for growing sustainable food in an urban environment.

We visited Sweet Water Organics on a cold December day and were stunned when we first walked into the old industrial building. The space was bright from a combination of natural light streaming through the windows and massive grow lights mounted over long troughs of lettuce and watercress- a sight for sore eyes in the middle of a Milwaukee winter. Beneath the troughs, pools filled with fish, Tilapia and Perch. The pools provide nutrients to the plants, the plants naturally clean the water from the pools which is then returned to the fish.

Our spent grains and other components of the urban waste stream are found in a massive compost pile behind Sweet Water. Jim Godsil, one of the founders turned over a pitchfork full of compost- practically soil now which was laden with hundreds of worms. Soon the worms and worm castings will become another product offered by Sweet Water.

Sweet Water frequently opens for fish auctions, tours and events, check their website for a schedule of times.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Excise Tax update. A victory... for now?

It's a rare victory for Spirits producers, wholesalers and the service industry. The Wisconsin state Senate has dropped an effort to increase excise tax on spirits 58%. The increase was said to help legislators fund harsher drunk driving laws. Senator Jim Sullivan the Senate sponsor of the plan had a change of heart when it was discovered the cost estimates were likely twice as high as previously thought.

So, we're safe for now but don't expect politicians to keep their hands off alcohol. With government spending increasing faster than taxes you can bet liquor excise tax will continue to be a target for local and state politicians to fund all manner of legislation in the future.

The Journal Sentinel article is here.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

WI Senators propose raising excise tax 58%!!!

Several Wisconsin state senators are proposing an increase of 58% in the excise tax on spirits. It seems they realize they can't get the increase in tax on beer that they wanted just a few weeks ago and like any good predator have chosen to prey on what they perceive as a weaker target- spirits producers and wholesalers.

So, what is excise tax? All alcohol producers pay federal excise tax upon shipment of their product. In most states the state excise tax is paid by the wholesaler, because we produce our product in Wisconsin we pay the federal and the state excise tax. In our case, excise tax is the single largest expense in our product. We pay nearly $3 per 750ml bottle between Federal and State excise taxes before it gets to your local bar or store. After producers and wholesalers pay their excise tax, sales tax is charged to consumers. Excise tax is priced into the product and passed on to the consumer, therefore an increase in excise tax will cost the consumer more.

Senator Jim Sullivan was quoted in the Milwaukee Journal article as saying ". . . but I don't know that 50 cents a liter stops you from having gin and tonics in the backyard in the summer." Evidently he's not considering the effects on the hospitality industry overall. It may be one drink for him, but for people who's livelihood is selling drinks it's significant. Tens of thousands of people in this state make their living in bars and restaurants. Margins in these businesses are tight, and in the current recession many are already hurting without the added cost the proposed tax increase will create. A 58% tax increase on spirits will only hurt them more.

As for us, we are a small business that has only been selling our product for a little over three years. We have 3 full time employees and I have yet to pay myself. Last year we paid the equivalent of 2/3rds of our payroll in excise tax. By the looks of it the state will get an increase this year but I'll still be unpaid. Since we began selling in 2006, there are two more small distilleries in the state, and a recent change in law we fought for this summer would allow the states wineries to expand into distilling. A 58% increase in excise tax may dampen the expansion of these businesses.

There is also a large disparity in who pays how much of these excise taxes. Unfortunately politicians don't seem to know (or care?) that spirits producers/wholesalers already pay a disproportionate amount of alcohol excise tax. It is implied that because spirits contain a higher amount of alcohol that they should be taxed higher, but the costs to a producer are not proportional. Alcohol is alcohol. According to the government a 12 ounce glass of beer has equivalent amount of alcohol to a 5oz glass of wine or a cocktail containing 1.5 ounces of 80 proof liquor, yet the state excise on that cocktail is four times the state excise on the glass of beer. The senates proposed excise increase will make it about six times the excise cost of equivalent beer.

It's obvious state politicians favor (or fear) the beer industry, given the statement from Senate majority leader Deckers office; according to, Carrie Lynch, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, said he supports the tax increase and that it will be easier to pass than a tax increase on beer. "We just don't think we can get the votes for that, and we could sit here all session and try to get the votes for that or we could get something done," Lynch said. -In other words, lets stick it to the spirits guys because we can't stick it to the beer guys. In an interview on Milwaukee's Fox6 State Senator Lena Taylor said "We had to find a revenue, so what did we do? We did it on booze. Booze is what causes you to drive drunk." As if it somehow finds a way into your system all on it's own and turns the key for you. Evidently Senator Taylor also believes beer and wine do not contribute to drinking and driving?

I'm not advocating increasing the tax on beer and wine, I have many friends employed in the beer and wine industry, they struggle to make a dollar just like the rest of us. I'm merely demonstrating that spirits already pay a disproportionate amount of excise tax, lets not make a bad situation worse.

More info on how this effects the hospitality industry here-

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Antique Rye Whiskey Uncorked

Distillery friend Scott W. stopped by this morning. He's had a bottle of old whiskey collecting dust and decided who better to share it with than his good friends at Great Lakes? Scott got the bottle from his grandfather. The bottle itself is a neat artifact considering this was prohibition era "Medicinal" whiskey, but the fact that there was still whiskey in it really had us intrigued.

The bottle of J.A. Dougherty's Sons Pure Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey was still in it's box. The whiskey was produced by A. Overholt & Co which was located in western PA. The bottle states that the whiskey was produced prior to January 17th 1920 and says it was aged 13 summers which means at a minimum it is about 90 years old.

Unfortunately the bottle had previously been opened and about an ounce was missing, but this did nothing to dampen our enthusiasm as Doug dug out the cork which crumbled on extraction. I was standing back 5 feet taking photos as Doug began to pour. From that distance I immediately got a whiff of vanilla. The color was a deep reddish brown- from it's "thirteen summers" of age.

Nothing about this Whiskey disappointed. The nose was powerful and while some alcohol likely was lost over the years (but still enough to give a nice buzz), the flavors were wonderful. The typical rye spiciness was there as expected but were well complimented by sweet undertones, caramel, vanilla and leather.

If you've got some old spirits around, feel free to share them with your friends at Great lakes!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Artisan Series Brandies & Smoke

I just had an interesting cocktail making session at home this evening, and thought I should throw up a quick post about it.

I've been working on some new cocktails for the Pear Brandy, the Kirsch, and the Grappa. This has been a bit challenging because the brandies have a wonderful nose and a delicate flavor that I don't want to bury with too many other ingredients. In addition I've been working on some cocktails for a couple of cocktail paired dinners in the near future. One of the flavors I've been working with is smoke. You can incorporate smoke into cocktails a number of different ways. You can use peaty Scotch like Laphroig, add smoked ingredients, or as I tried this evening smoke your glass. To smoke a glass basically light some wood, herbs, or spices on fire in a metal dish, and cover with your glass you will serve your cocktail in. As your ingredient smolders it's smoke coats the inside of your glass.

This is not a new technique, but one that is used very infrequently and I think should be explored more thouroughly. So, after a number of trials here are the two that stuck for me.

Smoky the Pear
2 oz Great Lakes Distillery Pear Brandy
1/2 oz Honey Syrup (3 parts honey to 1 part water)
1 Bay Leaf
- In a heat proof dish light a dried bay leaf on fire. Let it burn momentarily and slowly cover with the glass you will pour you drink into. While the glass is smoking combine pear brandy and honey syrup in a shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into the smoked glass. Enjoy.

Smoldering Grappa
2 oz Great Lakes Distillery Grappa
1/2 oz Agave Nectar (found in most health food stores)
1 tsp wormwood
- In a heat proof dish light a wormwood on fire. Let it burn momentarily and slowly cover with the glass you will pour you drink into. While the glass is smoking combine grappa and agave nectar in a shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into the smoked glass. Enjoy.

These are way too much fun. Just enough smoke and sweetness to enhance the brandies, but not so much flavor that the subtlties of the spirits are lost. Although these drinks are probably not for everyday drinking the technique is a lot of fun and the cocktails are delicious.

While digging through my collection of herbs, spices and whatnot looking for things to light on fire for my smoke experiments, I found some dried chamomile. So I made a chamomile syrup (1 cup water, 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup chamomile - dissolve sugar simmer for 20 min, strain). This is awsome with gin, in fact I am finishing my second Chamomile Sour as I write this.

Chamomile Sour

2 oz Rehorst Gin
3/4 oz fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 oz chamomile syrup
1/2 of an egg white
dash of my homemade ginger ginseng bitters, or orange bitters will do
-Shake all ingredients with ice extra hard for 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Enjoy.


Monday, March 9, 2009

Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit distilled...

I just finished distilling this year’s batch of Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit. For those of you not familiar with it, let me explain. We take Lakefront Brewery’s Pumpkin Spice Lager and distill it, then age it in used bourbon barrels for the summer and bottle it for release in fall. This is not some sort of sickly sweet pumpkin liquer. The best way to describe it is a lightly flavored, young malt whiskey. The actual name for this product is bierschnaaps. It’s an old German tradition to distill leftover beer before it spoils. Unfortunately, our federal government feels the term bierschnaaps is misleading to the consumer. So, after trying several attempts at other names for the product, the best we could settle on was “Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit”.

This year’s batch will be even better than last. After meeting with Russ Klisch (Lakefront Brewery founder and president), we made some alterations to the recipe. Actually, all they did was leave out the hops. Hops are what give beer its bitterness, and even though this beer is lightly hopped to begin with, I thought we could get a better result without it. The bitterness of the hops is magnified during distillation, so this forced me to distill last year’s batch to a higher proof to strip away some of this flavor. Along with stripping away the hops flavor, some of the essential flavors were taken away as well. I was able to take more of a whiskey type approach to distilling this year’s batch. This allowed more of the pumpkin, spice and malt flavors to come through.

I suggest you to try this as an alternative to whiskey in your favorite cocktails. It makes a great old-fashioned as well as just neat or on the rocks. Check out the website for some of the recipes Jason has come up with or try some of our local establishment’s signature cocktails and martinis. Thanks again to Russ, Luther and everyone at Lakefront for this year’s effort. I can’t wait for September!

A quick note about the bottom photo: Jeremy Zuleger is one of our favorite sales reps from 102.9 The Hog. He showed up just in time to man the hose for loading the still with Pumpkin Lager. Sales people beware; you may be put to work when you show up here!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

About the Brandies

In my last post I mentioned the three brandies that were about to be released. Now that they’re available, I thought I would explain them in a bit more detail.

Let’s start with the grappa. Grappa has its origins in Italy and seems to have a reputation as harsh, fire-water type of beverage that old Italian men drink as some sort of right of passage. This can be true, but there are many wonderful grappa’s out there. Unfortunately, I think most of them stay in Italy and they export the fire-water here to the States.

Grappa is distilled from fermented pomace, which are the solid remains from the winemaking process. The freshest possible pomace makes the best grappa. We were lucky enough to receive ours from the winery within days. Our grappa comes from Wisconsin grown Millot and Marechal Foch grapes, which are hearty, red-varietals whose vines can withstand harsh Wisconsin winters. It has a fresh and lively bouquet with a nice grape finish.

Grappa is typically drunk neat as an aperitif. However, it can be an ingredient in cocktails such as a grappa gimlet (grappa, gin and lime juice). It is common in Italy to add a shot of grappa to coffee. This is known as a cafĂ© correcto or “corrected coffee”. I love this way of thinking.

Kirschwasser is a traditional Swiss-German un-aged brandy distilled from cherries. The first reaction that most people have when they smell and taste Kirsch for the first time is: “that’s not cherry”. I think this is because we’ve now been trained that cherry is the artificial flavor of a Maraschino. Let’s be honest, cherry flavored vodka, cherry candy, cherry soda and definitely Maraschinos smell and taste like no cherry from a tree, but that’s now what we associate as “cherry”.

Kirsch has a smooth, subtle aroma and flavor. Like grappa, it is typically enjoyed neat as an aperitif. It’s also traditionally drunk with some sugar or simple syrup and bitters (sort of a cherry old fashioned). Personally, I can’t wait to see what kind of cocktails Jason starts using this in.

Pears are some of the best fruit for distilling. 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. Again, it is best drunk neat, but I’m sure it will find its way into some incredible cocktails or martinis.

The Kirsch and pear were done in collaboration with Charles McGonegal of AeppelTreow Winery in Burlington. He supplied the wines that these were distilled from. We have done some contract distilling for him in the past for spirits that he uses to make fortified apple, cherry and pear wines with. The results were so positive that we teamed up to make these excellent brandies. Along with some fine fruit wines, Charles produces a superb line of hard ciders. His winery is located adjacent to the Brightonwoods Orchard near the Bong Recreational Area. It’s definitely worth a trip down on a spring or summer day to have a tour and tasting.