Great Lakes Distillery (GLD) is Wisconsin’s small batch distillery, each batch of their spirits are handcrafted and was the first distillery to open in Wisconsin once prohibition came to an end. According to Guy Rehorst, the founder of Great Lakes Distillery, the distillery tries to use local products when they can.
“In some cases that’s just not possible, we make a rum; molasses and sugarcane don’t grow here so we have to ship it in from Louisiana. But our rum actually does have a Wisconsin twist to it, we add maple syrup to it during distillation, so it has a little hint of maple to it,” says Rehorst.
The grains that they use to create their product comes from a popular malt house that is located up in Chilton, Wisconsin, which is popular with brewers and distilleries. GLD has been using their grains since the distillery opened in 2004.
GLD offers a tour that lets visitors step right into the midst of the distillery floor. Tour-goers learn about the process from fermentation to distillation, something that may be familiar to those who have toured breweries are the three fermentation tanks. But where making beer ends with those tanks, the distillery then transfers the batch to a unique batch still.
“Once that fermentation is done we’ll pump it into the pot still, the whole theory of distillation is that alcohol has a lower boiling point then water,” says Rehorst. “So we heat it up, we use steam to do that here, and as it starts to heat up that alcohol vapor rises and goes through the still in various stages and comes out after its been re-condensed back to a liquid.”
Part of being a small batch distillery is that GLD creates batches that are approximately 1000 bottles and they typically bottle around three times a week. Tour-goers are able to see the bottling area, where distillers can fill four bottles at once and then use the manual labeler.
The tour comes to a close with visitors sampling the five core products of Great Lakes Distillery – Rehorst Vodka, Rehorst Citrus Honey Vodka, Rehorst Gin, Roaring Dan’s Rum and Kinnickinnic Whiskey.
GLD’s vodka’s are made using Wisconsin red winter wheat, which gives the vodka a smoother taste then many commercial types of vodka. The Rehorst Citrus Honey Vodka, not only has fresh lemons squeezed into it during distillation (which is different then commercial vodkas that use artificial flavoring), but they also add honey. The sugars from the honey don’t appear in the finished product, but there is a subtle honey taste and smell.
The Rehorst Gin features a flavor profile with nine botanicals. While it includes the typical gin ingredient, juniper berries, they also add orange peel, lemon peel
“Most people don’t know, but Wisconsin is the largest producer of ginseng, in North America, and it’s also considered the highest quality ginseng in the world.”
The Roaring Dan’s Rum is flavored with maple undertones, like with the Rehorst Citrus Honey Vodka; the maple is added during distillation so none of the sweetness carries over. The rum was named for Roaring Dan Seavey, who fittingly is the only man to be charged with piracy on the Great Lakes.
“He moved to Milwaukee and owned a saloon and brothel here. In 1908 he stole a ship in Michigan, sailed it across and sold the cargo in Chicago and was chased by the government revenue cutter in Milwaukee for about a week, and then they caught him and took him to federal court in Chicago. No body knows why, there’s no record, but he was released. There’s speculation that he knew the judge or that judge owed him a favor, you know he ran a brothel so there’s always the potential that he had dirt on people.”
The Kinnickinnic Whiskey – which the name Kinnickinnic translates to being a blend – is a mix of a bourbon that GLD gets from down south and then they blend it with their own with a malt and rye whiskey.
Great Lakes Distillery also makes other smaller or limited edition batches these can be experimental, like their Barrel Aged Gin or unique fruit flavors like Pear Brandy. Their Absinthe is a popular choice since they released it.
“There was a ban on absinthe that started in 1912 and once that ban was lifted we immediately began working on our product and getting it approved by the government. We’ve been surprised, we sell way more then I would have expected,” says Rehorst.
The upstairs Tasting Room is open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Public distillery tours Sunday through Thursday at 1, 3 and 5 p.m., Fridays at 1, 3, 5 and 6 p.m. and Saturday at 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 p.m. The Saturday public tour is the most popular, and often sells out quickly, it’s recommended to either book online or call to make reservations. Groups can also book private tours by calling (414) 431-8683 x111. Great Lakes Distillery is located at 616 W. Virginia St. Milwaukee, WI 53204.