Madison's second annual "Celebration of American Distilling" drew about 300 patrons to the Edgewater Hotel on Thursday evening. The event grew out of a small group calling itself the Madison Malt Society. One of the six founding members of the society is Adam Casey, a well-known fixture in the management of Star Liquor on Williamson Street. He said that even though he sees all kinds of spirits as part of his day job, this event was a chance to taste something new.
Brian Haltinner, owner of Maduro, was also in attendance. He too came to try spirits that he's not seen on the market. At the booth for Spirits of Madison, a new distillery in town, Nathan Greenawalt was introducing his Old Sugar Factory Honey Liqueur. "Very nice, more subtle that most, almost coy without the burning in the throat," said Haltinner of Greenawalt's product.
Greenawalt is so new to the distilling business that the bottles he was pouring from were the very first ones he has filled -- and less than a week earlier.
Like many of the spirit makers in attendance, Greenawalt likes to use local ingredients; the honey he uses is from Oxford, Wisconsin. With a small sip you could taste the honey, which softened the overall character of the alcohol.
Like a beer tasting, which admittedly I'm more familiar with, this event provided visitors with a small glass that allows about a one-ounce sample. With 30-some exhibitors and well over a hundred different products, keeping the sample small was an important consideration.
Another Madison distiller, Death's Door Spirits, came with a gin, a vodka and a clear named White Whiskey. The distillery uses wheat grown on Washington Island off the tip of Wisconsin's Door County for the clear whiskey, which seemed to be a big draw with its rich and malty aroma and a flavor that was very smooth. It was distinguished by its grainy texture from the wheat, which lingered, even expanded on the tongue and palate, and was certainly one of the most interesting overall taste sensations of the night.
Yahara Bay Distillers, also based in Madison, unveiled its not-yet-released Mad Bird Rum. This distillery likewise tries to use Wisconsin-grown ingredients when possible.
One of the most eclectic products on hand (in an area of the liquor business known for its multiplicity of flavor infusions) was a horseradish-infused vodka, named Referent, produced by 45th Parallel Spirits of New Richmond, Wisconsin. I could actually smell as well as taste the flavor of horseradish; it added spice and just a touch of heat in the aftertaste. I could see how this might grow on a person, or maybe root itself into the spirit list of your local tavern. And Referent would sure give a Bloody Mary an interesting kick.
It was, however, apple pie that left the most lasting impression on my taste buds. Long-time Madisonians may know of the Missouri Tavern, on Hwy.12 between Middleton and Sauk City, famous for serving "apple pie" shots. Tavern owner Travis Hasse took recipe info handed down from his father and started Pie Liqueurs, introducing Apple Pie in 2008. Even a small sample left more than a few event-goers looking to see if there were actual pies baking in a room close by. Hasse also offered his latest creation, Cherry Pie Liqueur.
Templeton Rye, from Templeton, Iowa, created considerable buzz with its Prohibition Era recipe, the so-called "Whiskey of Choice of Al Capone." It's currently not sold in Wisconsin, so there was a steady stream of visitors to their booth all night.
The event also had something for the beer person -- trying spirits made from distilling beers was a temptation that I couldn't resist. The Great Lakes Distillery of Milwaukee takes Pumpkin Lager, a seasonal beer from the Lakefront Brewery, distills it, then ages it in former bourbon barrels. With the smooth warmth and solid, but not overwhelming flavor of pumpkin, it struck me as great after-dinner drink.
Another spirit/beer hybrid called Hopquila came from Michigan's New Holland Brewing. The brewery's already-hoppy India Pale Ale is distilled, after which hops are re-introduced through a dry-hopping method of aging for six days. This elixir was very inviting, as its name suggests -- a hoppy tequila for the beer geek.