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Nonchemists might have trouble understanding Old Sugar Distillery production manager Dave Van when he describes the process of distilling whiskey, brandy, rum and liqueurs. But they won’t mistake his passion for it.
“When you come in the next morning, it smells fantastic,” Van says after describing a one-day, one-night process that includes 220-gallon kettles, beet sugar, cane sugar, sorghum, filtered water and yeast, along with a series of carefully concerted activities—among them “pumping mash” and “de-barreling."
At last count there were 10 craft distillers either in business or just about to open within 50 miles of Madison, eight of them in Dane County. Ten years ago, there was only one craft distillery in Madison—Yahara Bay Distillers—and two in the entire state. Nationally, there were 50 craft distilleries in 2005, and now there are at least 1,315.
Local sales and consumption figures for distilleries are difficult to come by. Even Death’s Door Distillery marketing director Margaret Ebeling says she doesn’t know how her business stacks up against others. She says she believes sales in Wisconsin are consistent with a 2016 study backed by the American Craft Spirits Association that found that the craft distillery industry had $2.4 billion in retail sales in 2015, growing at a rate of 27.4 percent per year. The market share for craft spirits reached 2.2 percent in volume that year, almost tripling the 0.8 percent from 2010.
National authorities say this growth will continue because retailers and wholesalers have seen what craft brewers have been able to do in the last two decades or so. Craft brewers now control about 12 percent of the beer market, more than doubling their market share since 2011. Nationwide there are more than 5,200 craft breweries.
What is a craft distillery? Some people say they know it when they see it. But the American Craft Spirits Association defines craft distillers as those that produce no more than 750,000 gallons per year, and are not controlled by a large supplier.
Ebeling says what makes craft spirits different from craft beer is that the large, dominant distillers are making good products alongside some of the more dominant beer companies.
“We are not fixing a problem,” Ebeling says. “We are telling different stories.”
Death’s Door sources its wheat and some of its juniper from Washington Island, off the tip of the Door County peninsula. Whenever possible, Death’s Door buys from producers in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Midwest. The distillery has its origins in efforts to revitalize the economy of Washington Island by creating a market for its wheat.
Starting with a dream and using locally sourced ingredients are dominant themes in the stories many of the local distilleries tell.
Bartenders, liquor retailers and review writers are interested in these stories. Ultimately, so are consumers. Still, Ebeling says, the product has to be good. The story only helps break a tie.
“It’s fine to be local, but it’s necessary to be exceptional,” Ebeling says. She expects the industry to continue to grow, but believes consumers will start to ask questions and demand proof that companies are doing what they say they are doing.
“I see customers asking more questions, and that will stabilize the industry,” Ebeling says. “The ones that survive will be the ones who are doing the right things.”
Dustin Beilke is a freelance writer who lives in Madison and prides himself on drinking responsibly.