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As guests walk into Yahara Bay Distillery, they are likely to first lay eyes on Carl, the 90-gallon, hand-pounded copper pot still. From the bar, they can watch the distilling process and enjoy handcrafted cocktails. The liquor showroom, opposite of Carl, displays Yahara Bay's signature products including vodka, the newly released 3rd Gear and apple-brandy (for Old Fashioneds, of course), each wrapped in a unique label.
Next to the showroom is the distillery's art gallery showcasing pieces made by local Wisconsin artists. Toward the back of the distillery, guests can enjoy live music in a lounge area with retired wooden barrels scattered among tables and chairs.
While it seems like Yahara Bay, the first distillery in Madison, has everything, it was missing one thing: food.
With the exception of frozen pizza and cheese sticks, guests could only fill their stomachs on spirits. That is, until the beginning of the month when Yahara Bay released a new menu focused on local products.
Chef Josh Pleasnick is the prep-cook, line cook and the dishwasher all in one. He's also a bit of a MacGyver, as he's working without a stovetop; much of the food he makes is prepared in one of three toaster ovens, a hotplate or a panini grill. We recently sat down with Pleasnick to ask about the new menu and his relationship with food.
Where did you get your start in the food industry?
I use to be a gunsmith and I use to manufacture firearms and I just didn't want to do that anymore. I went back to my roots and went back to cooking because I want to make people healthy and happy. I left the gunsmithing world and started working in restaurants. It went back to me missing growing my own vegetables and seeing what we could make with them as a kid. I went into cooking and never came back.
Did you have a garden growing up?
I had my own garden. I had my own chickens. I made goat cheese with the neighbor's goat [milk] down the road. That was when we moved to Wisconsin and we were living in a small town called Herman. I think seven people live there — it’s pretty darn small. Our neighbors were all dead — we lived next to the graveyard and right next to the church. Our pastor would come over and we would have potlucks. I missed that part. We had a smokehouse on our property. We had apple trees. We had pear trees. It was what I needed when I was growing up, it was very relaxing.
Did you grow up in a big family?
No I just had one sister. When I got older I started to cook for myself and I didn't really know what I was doing, but I had my great-grandmothers cookbooks, which I still have. I read all her handwritten notes, handwritten in pencil. They have all the dates that she tried the dish- so I'll see notes like "1951: made these cookies and they turned out great, but they needed a little bit more cinnamon."
What do you cook for your family?
I have three daughters (ages 10, 6 and 3) and almost everyday they wake me up and ask for pancakes. Pancakes and eggs different ways is a daily thing. They still have simple taste — I'll try to make the something super fancy but in the end they are still kids. My oldest daughter, we love to bake together. She mixed the pancakes this morning, she did it without a recipe and I just cooked them. My other two love to help. My youngest laid on the ground and cried for 20 minutes because I wouldn't let her crack the eggs.
Give us some highlights of the debut menu.
Muenster Cheese Curds $5
Usually when I taste cheese curds I taste old fryer oil and it's not appealing. I can deep fry anything. We got in these fresh muenster cheese curds from Monroe. When we first got the cheese curd they were less than 36 hours old from the time they were cut to the time that they came into the building. I sear them until they got melty. I like them fresh and I like them warm — it is a little caramelized with a different texture.
Three P’s $2
I toast and curry up some fresh pumpkin seeds and throw them in with some chili style popcorn. Crush up some pretzels that I spice, so there are three different spices on it all at once.
Beer Schmeared Grilled Cheese $6 half, $11 whole
I wanted something that kids and adults will like. I make a bacon jam to make it a little more upscale. I render our bacon, caramelize onions in stout beer and then I cream them all together. I add apricots to it to give it a little fruitiness and sweetness to go along with the smokey and the salty. Schmear that on with a baby swiss and a cheddar.
Do you get a lot of kids who come to Yahara Bay Distillery?
We actually get quite a few kids. The cliche "baby on a bar in Wisconsin" is definitely a thing here. Parents will bring in their kids a lot on Saturdays. We try to keep it as kid friendly as possible — a lot of people who work here have children. We are still a distillery but we want to make it feel comfortable for a family.
How does the menu pair with the atmosphere?
Almost everything on the menu has one of our liquors or products in it. I try to think how do the menu items pair well with the cocktails we create and how do they match with our setting? I wanted to keep it tapas style, small food at a low cost. So if you come in just for a cocktail, you don't feel bad about ordering some food.
Anything else you wanted to add?
This is an immerse yourself in the experience kind of place. Walk around with a cocktail and look at art. Sit down and listen to live music. Chat at the bar with your friend and watch the distilling process happen. When you are here you are in the process of it all. You are watching what you are drinking being made. You can smell the food cooking you can hear the music, experience the art around you.