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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  Light Rain
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Distill America 2014 highlights beer influences and bigger flavors in Midwestern spirits
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Micro-distillers brought their most fun ingredients and cocktail ideas to the table.
Credit:Julia Burke

When Distill America was conceived six years ago, says organizer Adam Casey (of Star Liquor fame), "It was just a thought: 'let's do a tasting.' We didn't even have a name for it."

Now, he laughs, "our biggest problem is getting enough tables." The event has grown into a celebration of American distilling that brings micro-distillers from Utah to Door County and everywhere in between, showing off their newest products and highest-end spirits while craft bartenders throw down in spontaneous mix-offs using the ingredients around them. "We were lucky to get the idea right at the same time as the micro-distillery movement was beginning to take off," says Casey.

It's clear that that movement is hitting its stride; across-the-board quality has never been better, and Madison's thriving craft cocktail scene means local customers have access to an impressive array of products in bars and liquor stores. As a first-time attendee to Distill America, held Saturday night at Inn on the Park, I was struck by several exciting trends.

Craft crossover: As beer gets boozy, booze gets beery

The practice of aging beer in bourbon barrels became especially popular with such varieties as imperial stouts during the last decade's craft beer revival, and now beer is returning the favor, cropping up in spirits' aging and flavoring. New Holland, of Holland, Michigan, for example, has joined the likes of Rogue and Dogfish Head as a brewery with a distillery component. It's making Beer Barrel Bourbon, a genius idea by which the barrels for its popular bourbon-aged Dragon's Milk stout are then used to age bourbon, yielding molasses and malt sugar notes and an incredible smoothness to the finished product. This lovely product is available in Madison liquor stores including Star.

Few Spirits, of Evanston, Illinois, is playing with beer, too. Its new gin contains hops, yielding a grapefruit and resin flutter on the palate rather than the usual herbal juniper. Distiller Paul Hletko, a longtime homebrewer, grows them in his backyard.

Gin gets burly; rye just gets better and better

I think I heard the phrase "gin for whiskey drinkers" at least three times, and I thought it to myself even more as I tasted through the beefed-up (but not Beefeater) gin selection. Whether distillers are tired of juniper or just capitalizing on the popularity of rye and bourbon, gin is getting a treatment that I can only verbalize as "Ron Swansoned." The aforementioned Few gin is a perfect example –– like honey on the palate, with pepper and spice rather than herbs and florals; whiskey is actually the base spirit, so it's nowhere near a London dry gin, which is made with neutral spirit and infused with a wallop of juniper. As a whiskey lover, I couldn't be happier.

Rye's rise to prominence shows no signs of slowdown. Few's sensational rye, currently on the cover of Whisky Advocate, is made with wine yeast that yields watermelon and honeydew notes. "It's unavailable pretty much everywhere, but Star Liquor has it," Hletko informed me. Michigan-based Journeyman Distillery rye is also outstanding, showing fruit and mineral tones that twinkle delicately.

Mixing in mind, and new takes on old favorites

With craft cocktail bars hotter than ever and showing up in more and more cities, micro-distillers brought their most fun ingredients and cocktail ideas to the table. Lo, a Door County Hmong-owned distillery, impressed me with its tasty and versatile flagship 120-proof rice liquor, an excellent starter for a variety of drinks.

On the much more specific end of the spectrum, Blaum Brothers of Galena, Illinois, a clear favorite of the evening, brought stellar vodka including a jalapeño-flavored bottling with a little habanero and peppercorn, dubbed Hellfire. For spice fiends, it's an incredible spirit, and I'm dying to try it with beer cocktails or perhaps the world's best Bloody Mary.

Breckenridge Distilling, out of Colorado, brought its welcome addition to the exploding bitters market, an aperitif that tastes like the bitters version of tea with honey. This fascinating addition to the mixologist arsenal is a promising choice for beer cocktails, but I'd drink it in just about any drink calling for a bittersweet, floral bitters addition. And mixed with Breckenrdige's top-rated bourbon? Simply amazing.

Then there were the ready-to-go cocktails, of which the outstanding Barreled Boulevardier from High West was my favorite. The Park City, Utah-based distillery blends Gran Classico (a Swiss bitter amaro), Vya sweet vermouth, and bourbon blended back into barrels and aged for 7 months. The stunning cocktail, ready for an orange peel and a glass, is available in Madison liquor stores.

Finally, it seems tequila's popularity is inspiring agave lovers to branch out. Plainfield, Illinois-based Tailwinds Distilling made my night with Midnight Caye's Rested, an agave-based spirit aged in Buffalo Trace barrels and showing beautiful caramel and mint tones. Agave lovers should take note of this excellent distillery, founded by commercial pilots. "I traveled in agave areas a lot and realized, wow, they're making amazing products from this one source," master distiller Toby Beall told me of his love affair with rum and tequila–inspired spirits.

I was struck throughout the evening by the incredible variety and quality of Midwestern products holding their own against giants like Templeton Rye and High West. The night's best offerings are available locally (with the exception of Tailwinds, which is limited to the Chicago area but well worth a visit) –– a testament to a strong and growing public appreciation for fine micro-spirits in Madison.

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