Old Sugar Distillery
Location: Madison, WI
Distiller: Nathan Greenawalt
Current Products: Queen Jennie Sorghum Whiskey, Americanaki Ouzo, Cane & Abe Rum and Brandy Barrel Aged Rum, Honey Liqueur, Brandy Station Brandy, Marc Brandy, and Wisconsin Grappa.
Upcoming Products: Whiskey Collaboration, maybe?
Old Sugar Distillery is a craft spirit maker dedicated to high quality hooch. The brainchild of head distiller Nathan Greenawalt, it began humbly in 2010 and has been growing ever since. It's operated by three, yes only three, friends who make everything on-site. And all their spirits, except the brandies and grappas, start from a fermentation of sugar in one form or another, hence the name of the distillery. Time to learn more.
Distiller Profile: Nathan Greenawalt
WD: How did Old Sugar Distillery come about? What made you say, "Yeah, let's start making booze"?
OSD: Nathan Greenawalt worked at the local homebrew supply store for a number of years. During that time he noticed the drastic increase in both demand and supply of local micro brewed beer. As an avid homebrewer, he was initially tempted to enter the industry himself. But, at the same time he was pondering this, he was beginning to experiment with distilling. It quickly became apparent he was more passionate about spirits and the barrel aging process than brewing. So, he decided to open a distillery
WD: You distill all your own spirits, correct?
OSD: Old Sugar Distillery makes all of its products from scratch at the distillery. In the wake of Eric Felten's July article in The Daily Beast titled “Your 'Craft' Rye Whiskey is Probably from a Factory Distillery in Indiana”, there has been a lot of discussion surrounding the origin of craft spirits. We've made it clear, from the beginning that everything produced under the Old Sugar brand is made from scratch by our three full time employees here at the distillery in Madison, Wisconsin.
WD: Related to the previous question, we're asking this of all the craft distillers we profile. Finding the true craft distillers is a bit of a hot topic right now. Liquor labeling and marketing isn't always clear, and sometimes consumers learn later their "small batch" or "craft" spirit purchase is really just a bottling and re-branding of bulk alcohol, much to their dismay. As a craft distiller, what's your take on this clouding of the market?
OSD: There needs to be more clarity. It's not an inherently wrong practice to bottle and sell someone else's product, but it should be clear what is happening. For some distilleries this is the only way they can work into eventually offering their own aged spirits. But, for others it appears an opportunity to obfuscate. There are companies out there whose bottles claim the spirit is bottled and at a particular location. However, if you dig around on their website, you'll find it's actually distilled elsewhere. This feels misleading. It would be nice to find some middle ground that didn't make starting a craft whiskey distillery cost prohibitive, yet didn't allow brands to bottle and sell 'craft' spirits without even needing to own a still.
WD: With the farm-to-table & grain-to-glass movements, people love the local angles and finding out how what they are consuming is made. Old Sugar appears to source all its ingredients from Wisconsin. Can you tell us about that?
OSD: We believe strongly in the movement toward local sustenance & sourcing. Unfortunately, a lot of local production infrastructure has broken down/ been demolished/ not been updated to meet with current demands and this is not always possible at the present. We do source everything we can as locally as possible. However, we don't always have that option. Take our rum, for instance. By federal law rum must come from “... the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses or other sugar cane by-products ...”. There is no local sugar cane production, so there is no local way to source our rum. All of our sugar cane comes from Hawaii. Though it isn't local it is still domestic and it is the furthest from the distillery we source anything.
Aside from that there are a series of tightening concentric circles from which we source. In the regional circle, we get beet sugar from the Dakotas, Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. The beet spirit made from these becomes the base for our Americanaki Ouzo and our Honey Liqueur. Also inside this circle is the Missouri source for all of our glass bottles. Inside the next circle, you'll find our barrels. They are made of midwestern white oak and coopered and charred in Minnesota. Moving even closer our sorghum producer is just 102 miles away in Elkhart Lake, WI. And, since we're talking about supporting local businesses, it's relevant to note we're helping keep him afloat by purchasing more than half his sorghum crop every year. Closer yet, you'll find the source for all the honey in our Honey Liqueur.
But, arguably our most local sourcing happens to correspond with our quintessentially Wisconsin product: brandy. Only 15 miles south of the distillery is Mitchell Vineyard, the source not only of our double-barrel aged brandy but for our grappa and marc brandy as well. And, again, we buy more than half that farmer's annual crop, helping to keep him in business as well. This is what the local movement is about, right? Local businesses supporting local businesses, cycling and recycling dollars locally and slowly building adaptive, resilient, and unique local economies that are an expression of place and of craft more than of accumulation and consumption. It is this philosophy that underlies what we do at Old Sugar Distillery.
WD: While there are others who use them, your use of smaller barrels for aging is less common in the industry. Will you take us through the thought process behind that choice? Do you use larger standard-sized barrels as well?
OSD: The larger, industry standard, barrels are cheaper by volume. However, since aging time is a product of the volume to surface area ratio, to properly age spirits in large barrels, we would have to wait the better part of a decade before releasing anything that meets with our quality expectations. Very few, if any, microdistilleries are well enough capitalized at the outset to be able to do this. We simply couldn't afford to wait that long. While smaller barrels cost more, the amount of inventory on hand and the amount of storage space required are both greatly reduced, making it a better overall economic choice for an operation starting on a shoestring budget, as we did.
We started with 5 gallon barrels. Nearly everything is now in 10's. And, by the end of next year, much of our product will be in 15's. As we grow, we can slowly afford increase barrel size, bringing costs down as production increases. However, not all our products will continue to move to larger barrels. We really like the way our award winning Cane & Abe rum ages in the smaller barrels. It probably will never go into anything larger than 15 gallons. That said, there is one caveat to this rum rule. Years ago, we filled two large barrels with rum. The barrels are hanging out in the corner where they will likely stay for another decade or more before we bottle it as a highly aged limited release rum.
WD: You've got a great stable of spirits available. Congrats! I'd love to know how they're made... (what they're distilled from, etc.)
OSD: This is the basic process for the following five products. We start by heating about 150 gallons of water in the still until it reaches 200 degrees. We then add 1000 lbs of sugar and stir until it's dissolved. The resulting syrup is then pumped into one of our fermentation tanks, where filtered water is added to bring the sugar to water ratio down to a level at which yeast can thrive. We then add champagne yeast. Our fermenters are temperature controlled so the fermentation typically takes 2 – 2.5 weeks and allows us to get up to about 14% ABV. After fermentation we pump the 'sugar wine' back into the still and slowly turn up the heat. Over the course of hundreds of distillations, we've developed a formula for each of our products so we know exactly when to make our heads and hearts cuts. The hearts we collect are pumped into 10 gallon barrels where they age for about 10 months. At the end of the 10 months the barrels are blended together and then bottled and labelled by the 3 man team here at the distillery.
- Cane & Abe Small-Barrel Rum – This is made with dark brown sugar cane. It is aged in 75% new, heavily charred American oak barrels and 25% re-used barrels. Prior to bottling, it is cut to 80 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water.
- Queen Jennie Sorghum Whiskey – This is made from Wisconsin sorghum syrup. It is aged in 100% new, heavily charred American oak. Prior to bottling, it is cut to 80 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water.
- Old Sugar Factory Honey Liqueur – This is made from beet sugar. It is aged in 50% new, heavily charred American oak and 50% re-used barrels. After blending the barrels, prior to bottling, we add honey to bring it up to about 2.5% sugar, putting it on the dry end of dry liqueurs. It is then cut to 80 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water and bottled.
- Americanaki Ouzo – This is made from beet sugar. The initial distillation is as mentioned above. At that point, however, the process changes drastically. We infuse the distilled spirit with star and seed anise for nearly a month before straining it and re-distilling. During re-distillation, we pack part of the head of the still with star anise. The first two gallons of the second distillation are captured and infused a second time. They are then added back to the rest, along with enough sugar to bring it up to about 2.5% sugar, making for a much smoother ouzo than most on the market. It is released as an un-aged spirit. Prior to bottling, it is cut to 90 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water.
- Cane & Abe Brandy Barrel Aged Rum – This is made in exactly the same manner as the Cane & Abe Small-Barrel rum mentioned above. However, the difference is in the aging. Instead of going into a mix of new & used heavily charred barrels, this rum goes into 100% lightly toasted, used brandy barrels. It makes for a much lighter rum with a lot more vanilla character and a slightly younger taste. Prior to bottling, it is cut to 80 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water.
- Brandy Station Brandy – Our brandy is made from 100% Wisconsin grapes. We harvest and crush in the vineyard before hauling the mobile totes of 'wine' back to the distillery for fermentation. After some time on the skins, the 'wine' is transferred to our fermentation tanks. Once it is ready it is then distilled in exactly the same way our other spirits are. After distillation, the brandy first goes into lightly toasted American oak barrels. This adds a lot of vanilla character to the spirit. After about 10 months, we transfer it to used rum barrels to pick up the caramel & butterscotch notes. It spends the next 2 months finishing in these barrels. Prior to bottling, it is cut to 80 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water.
- Wisconsin Grappa – We buy about half the crop from Mitchell Vineyard each year. From that we make our Brandy. The other half of the crop is harvested by home winemakers. For white wines & blushes, they press the juice and take it home for fermentation, leaving behind the stems, seeds & skins. These are all collected and brought to the distillery once the season's harvest is finished. We press, ferment and distill them in a manner very similar to what is done with the brandy. The resulting product is distilled, cut to 80 proof with reverse osmosis water and bottled un-aged.
- Marc Brandy – Each year, we age one barrel's worth of grappa in the exact same way we age our brandy. Prior to bottling, it is cut to 80 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water.
WD: I've been to the distillery, a while back, and really enjoyed the experience. You guys have a great tasting room and open feel. Other states, like say Minnesota for instance, only very recently changed the laws to allow tastings at the distillery. How much has the tasting room and cocktail offerings helped the distillery as a business versus say if you had to rely solely on bottle sales in liquor stores?
OSD: We opened in a very small warehouse space on Madison's far east side a short time before the law changed to allow tasting rooms. Immediately after the law changed, Nathan saw the tasting room as having a huge amount of potential, moved the distillery to its current location and opened to the public. The tasting room is a big part of what we do. It gives us much better margins on our bottle sales and cocktails. It allows for a sort of marketing you can't get from focusing on wholesale. And, it gives us a venue for hosting events, as well as a space to rent for parties, weddings, etc.
WD: Everyone loves to get a good scoop, what can you tell us about your future products? I must say as a whiskey fan who enjoyed Queen Jennie, I'd love to see your take on other styles of whiskey...
OSD: Currently, we're working on scaling up the availability of our current products. Expanding wholesale and breaking into new markets has been the bulk of our focus. However, this fall we are bottling some varietal specific spirits. You can look for Prairie Star, Concord & La Crescent grappas to be released this winter.
WD: Anything else you'd like to share? Super secret experimental spirit that'll blow us all away, maybe?
OSD: Though nothing is in stone, the initial stages of a collaborative whiskey project have been set in motion. If things work out we'll be releasing a number of different styles of whiskey distilled from mashes brewed by a number of different local breweries. It's still possible that things could fall through. But, if they don't this is the kind of project whiskey lovers will not want to miss.
Whiskey Detectives would like to thank Old Sugar Distillery for taking the time to answer our questions, especially Chad Chriestenson. And as always, check back as we'll be working to keep these posts up-to-date with any new distillery or spirits news.
(Images from Old Sugar Distillery facebook page)