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Raise your glass to the Great Lakes Distillery

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Story and photographs by Nancy A. Herrick

Guy Rehorst was looking for a new challenge. Co-owner of a successful manufacturing company in Milwaukee, he had his partners buy him out and then took some time to think about his next career.

He spent part of that early retirement enjoying time with friends and family — and sharing a drink or two with them.

“They talked about how many small breweries there were and all of the craft beer options available,” Bobbi Krier said. “So he thought he could do the same thing with spirits.”

And he has. But it has been a long and winding road.

Rehorst’s Great Lakes Distillery, located just south of downtown Milwaukee, is the state’s first craft distillery to open since Prohibition and the only one in southeastern Wisconsin.

He started Great Lakes in 2004 and his first product, Rehorst Premium Milwaukee Vodka, was ready to sell in 2006. In 2007, the first full year of production, Great Lakes sold about 2,000 cases. Sales have reached 7,000 cases a year and counting.

Distilling is a highly regulated business, so Rehorst had to slog his way through the various federal laws and limitations. He also successfully fought to change a Wisconsin law that prohibited distillers from offering samples and selling their products on site the way breweries and wineries do.

As the business and range of products have grown, daily tours and tastings have been added and are a popular pastime among Milwaukee visitors and residents alike.

On this Sunday afternoon, Krier is leading a tour and explaining how Rehorst went from a beer and wine hobbyist to starting Great Lakes, which now produces a dozen or so varieties of spirits that are distributed in 13 markets, with another 20 on the horizon.

“It will be interesting to see what happens because we are just about at capacity,” Krier said. “Everything we make we sell.”

When he started Great Lakes, there were 30 local distillers in the nation; now there are more than 400. As an innovator, Rehorst also is on the leading edge of two other trends:

> The local foods, or locavore, movement, uses locally produced fresh ingredients wherever possible. Great Lakes products are made with Wisconsin wheat, honey and maple syrup. Door County cherries and Wisconsin Marechal Foch and Millot grapes are used in the artisan flavored brandies.

> The craft cocktail movement takes an inventive approach by combining unusual flavors, fresh ingredients and seasonal offerings. The ’Sconnie Splash, for example, is made with Rehorst Citrus and Honey Vodka, Wisconsin cranberry juice and tonic. The Mooncusser uses Great Lakes Roaring Dan’s Rum, locally made Sprecher cream soda and bitters. Both are served at the newly opened bar area at Great Lakes.

But the distillery’s spirits hold their ground when they stand alone, too, and have gained respect within the industry.

“We’ve held our own and have bested some of the well-known brands in national and international competitions,” he says. Awards include a Double Gold Medal for its gin and Gold Medals for its whiskey and citrus and honey flavored vodka at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Back in Milwaukee the tours and tastings just keep growing in popularity. They sometimes reach capacity and guests must be bumped back to a later time.

It all takes place in the 9,500-square-foot facility that houses the fermentation tanks, still, storage and distribution facilities. Krier and her colleagues keep the factual information short, lively and interactive.

Then Ross Salchow takes over, explaining what the group is about to taste. Samples range from the more neutral vodkas and gin to the heavier whiskey and absinthe. Quantities are large enough for a few sips, but small enough to prevent any undue rowdiness.

Rehorst has reintroduced distilling to southeast Wisconsin with great success. So what’s next for the company?

“We always are thinking about and working on new possibilities for spirits,” Rehorst said. “But our production capacity is reaching its limit.”

He says the priority for now will be to increase capacity and “then go forward from there.”

Take a tour, have a taste

What makes craft spirits different from those that are mass produced? Participate in a Great Lakes Distillery tour and tasting to find out. They are offered daily at 616 W. Virginia St., Milwaukee. The tour is free. Afterward, taste a flight of six Great Lakes products for $5.

Tour times:

1, 3 and 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday

1, 3, 5 and 6 p.m. Friday

1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. Saturday

1, 3 and 5 p.m. Sunday

Tour information hotline is 414-431-8683. Reservations for groups of 11 or less are not needed. Tours fill quickly (especially on weekends), so arrive early.

On the Shelf

Here are the products currently made at Great Lakes Distillery;

Rehorst Premium Milwaukee Vodka

Rehorst Citrus & Honey Flavored Vodka

Rehorst Premium Milwaukee Gin

Amerique 1912 Absinthe Verte

Amerique 1912 Absinthe Rouge

Artisan Series Brandies — Grappa, Kirschwasser, Pear, Peach

Roaring Dan’s Maple Flavored Run

Kinnickinnic Whiskey

Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit (limited edition)

Where to find Great Lakes products

By the bottle: Great Lakes’ spirits are widely available at most Wisconsin Pick ‘n Saves and liquor stores. In Kenosha they can be found at Tenuta’s and Woodman’s, in Lake Geneva at Bruno’s Liquor and Roses Fresh Market, and in Racine at the Liquor Depot and Timer’s Beverage Center, just to name a few. Most sell in the $27 to $33 per bottle range.

By the glass: Great Lakes’ spirits are served at many establishments, such as the Sunnyside Club and Johnny Midnight’s in Kenosha, Kirsch’s Restaurant and the Geneva Inn in Lake Geneva and Sebastians and the Yellow Rose in Racine.

A complete list of Wisconsin locations can be found at