Drinking your first craft beer after a lifetime of PBR can produce such an epiphany that it drives you to the brewing arts. So imagine what growing up around the good stuff can do. Nathan Greenawalt, 31, owner and distiller at Madison's Old Sugar Distillery, grew up in Brighton, Mich., which, he says, "is a great place for drinking good beer early."
Greenawalt grew up drinking Bell's Porter and benefiting from his dad's interest in cognacs and other fine spirits, wheels turning in his head all the time. "I was kind of a nerd about it," he says, laughing.
While his two brothers went to the University of Michigan, Greenawalt was "the oddball" who struck out for the UW. "I had options, but I decided to come to Madison. I loved the lakes; I love to sail."
After college he traveled, then started working at the Wine & Hop Shop on Monroe Street, where he got comfortable among artisanal beverage crafters over the next several years. "I even considered buying the place at one point," he says, "but then I started getting other ideas. I considered a brewery or brewpub, I dabbled around with winemaking, and I 'played around the spirits,' as I like to say." (It's not legal to home-distill in Wisconsin.)
"I was trying to find my niche," Greenawalt continues, "something that would make me unique."
First, he saw brewing as a "stepping stone" to distilling but ultimately figured he might as well skip the brewery and just open the distillery. "It wasn't that much more difficult," he says.
The first liquor Greenawalt made was rum aged in a small oak barrel: "It was an oaky, unsweetened rum. Three years ago there weren't that many of those," he explains. "It was something I could ferment easily; it has an oaky, caramelly finish. It doesn't become really smooth, but I kind of like that. An 80 proof spirit shouldn't taste like butter."
Greenawalt's original plan was to build a production-only facility. He bought a pot still in Arkansas, from "a guy named Colonel Wilson -- I actually camped out on his property," he remembers.
Shortly after he received his licensing, Wisconsin law changed to allow sampling, pouring cocktails and retail sales in distilleries. While wholesale-only appealed to Greenawalt in terms of the flexible schedule, he moved the Old Sugar Distillery from its initial location on Femrite Drive on the east side and opened a more customer-friendly space at 931 E. Main St., where an inviting large bar and outdoor seating complement the craftsman's confident, innovative lineup.
Recently, Greenawalt expanded Old Sugar's public hours, the better to enjoy the fresh, simple, spirit-driven cocktails he conceived himself. Since the distillery can't pour liquor at the bar that wasn't made in-house, Greenawalt's creativity came in handy. The menu features inventive and easy-to-make drinks that typically feature one or two house-made spirits, bitters, a little soda water, lemon or lime juice and a garnish.
Then there's the chai latte made with Old Sugar's Americanaki ouzo, one of the bar's unique offerings. "I'm half Greek, so our ouzo holds a special place in my heart," says Greenawalt. "It's an ouzo for an American palate. Milder anise, 2.7% residual sugar. Most ouzos do a direct infusion with star anise. We found that approach too pungent."
Instead, Old Sugar completes a second distillation in the head of the still, "like how gin is made with juniper," Greenawalt explains. "And then we do a mini-infusion to add to it."
Another labor of love is the house brandy, for which Greenawalt harvests Marechal Foch, Millot, Frontenac and Delaware grapes from the three to four acres he owns at Mitchell Vineyard, the property of his old boss from the Wine & Hop Shop. Old Sugar also makes a very popular grappa, from the grape skins and stems.
The spirits are bold and clean, well suited for subtle additions of bitters and simple fruit flavors. It's essentially a philosophy of showcasing the single featured spirit, rather than drowning it in sugar and salt or piling on extra flavors. Even Old Sugar's honey liqueur manages to avoid syrupy sweetness, instead showing off the floral, herbaceous character of the honey for a surprisingly delightful drink base. With a little lime and soda water, it's simply perfect on a hot day.
"We keep our cocktail recipes very simple," Greenawalt says, adding that if Old Sugar has a signature, it's tradition with a twist.
"We try and do stuff very old-fashioned here. The pot still really allows the flavor to come through."
That still, the silhouette of which is part of Old Sugar's logo, is clearly Greenawalt's pride and joy. It's the only one in the area. And because it preserves more of the body and flavor derived from the mash than the more modern column still, it contributes to the broad, complex profiles of Old Sugar's spirits.
"Distillation is a tradeoff between flavor and purity. We like to have consistency across our products, have our own identity," he adds. In a state with a growing craft distilling scene, that's key.
Greenawalt has been pleasantly surprised with the community atmosphere among brands. "Great Lakes Distillery [in Milwaukee], in particular, has been really friendly. In general there's a friendly rivalry, but we get along quite well," he says.
With his exciting, wide-ranging selection, Greenawalt is a distiller to watch.