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Sunday, February 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Snow Freezing Fog
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Hootch house at Old Sugar Distillery
Twice a week, the doors are open
Not a bar. A workspace.
Not a bar. A workspace.
Credit:Sharon Vanorny

The streets are quiet in this part of town. Sandwiched between the buzz of Williamson and the rushing roar of East Wash, Main Street has the feel of a dark back alley you shouldn't enter alone. But I'm alone this night, passing power lines and smokestacks, factories and offices that are shuttered and dark. My boots are too loud on the silent street, and I'm trying to look alert.

Then suddenly, a bright window, a warm glow of light. Through the glass, I see people laughing. I open the door and a flood of sound rushes into the alley like a Santa Ana wind. This is the place.

The place is the Old Sugar Distillery, 931 E. Main St. It's a spacious, high-ceilinged room, a mix of wood and metal, industrial yet warm. On one side of the room is a gorgeous copper still; on the other, wooden barrels line the wall. Patrons in T-shirts and thick-rimmed glasses press against a long, wooden bar. Others, in suits straight from work, squeeze around the too-few tables sprinkled throughout the room.

There's no indie rock soundtrack, no thumping bass. The light is harsh, unforgiving. This isn't a bar I've stepped into - it's a workspace. A workspace that, since last year, owner Nathan Greenawalt invites us into on Thursdays and Fridays between 4 and 10 p.m.

He's added picnic tables outside and hopes to have food carts in the summer. "You have a view of the Capitol," he says, gesturing vaguely to the west, then adds with a laugh, "You have a view of the power plant, too."

The distillery isn't licensed as a bar, so it only serves the liquor made in-house. But that limitation hasn't hurt the cocktail menu, one of the better ones in town. Some favorites are the Honey-Cap (like a caipirinha, but with honey liqueur instead of cachaa) and the 8th Infantry (rum, red wine, maple syrup and pomegranate juice).

You can buy liquor by the bottle, too. Honey liqueur, freshwater rum and ouzo are the main event, but there are limited-run specialties now and then. Recently, they offered a brandy made with local grapes. It sold out in three weeks. They'll be selling a sorghum whiskey in July.

"We've got kind of a neighborhood vibe," says employee Lauren Reynolds, balancing an impressive stack of dirty glasses that towers high above her head. "There's been a steady pickup since we opened." With tasty drinks, friendly staff and a coveted view of the power plant, it's not hard to see why.

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