Po Lo of Lo Artisan Distillery, makers of rice spirits.
It was the seventh successful year for Distill America, the evening-long "celebration of American Distilling" hosted by the Madison Malt Society. This year, the event was bookended by Madison Cocktail Week, creating a happy synergy between the showcase and all things boozy.
Madison Cocktail Week events were well-attended, and Distill America once again sold out.
The event returned to the newly renovated Edgewater Hotel for 2015, which allowed for continued expansion. There were nearly 20 new vendors, bringing the total to just under 70.
To help navigate the crush, there was a convenient new mobile app, which, in theory, allowed event-goers to interact by rating products they tried. Unfortunately, the login feature wasn't working, but it still proved helpful in displaying specific bottles vendors had brought with them and where they were located.
Attendees lucky enough to snag early-entry VIP tickets experienced special products that were not available later, or listed in the app. There was Redemption's spicy 10-year rye whiskey, and a couple of rarer offerings from High West, among other treats.
Distill America helps underscore what a burgeoning sector craft distilling is, in the country generally, but also in Wisconsin and Illinois. Well-established, well-regarded national craft companies like St. George Spirits and Ransom Wines & Spirits are represented, but so are local, newborn family operations like J. Henry & Sons from Dane, Wis. The family makes bourbon from their own red corn, a varietal developed by the University of Wisconsin in 1939.
Part of Distill America's draw is that it is not only for consumer enthusiasts, but for beverage professionals as well, who come to buy for their stores and restaurants. The confluence of regional distributors, large distilleries, and tiny mom-and-pop operations makes the event an ideal spot to pick up on trends.
Plum brandy, or Slivovitz, was big this year, an increasingly popular libation that is typically clean and crisp with a lingering fruity finish. And Malört, the bitter liquor hailing from Chicago, is turning from bad-tasting practical joke to actual category -- Few Spirits makes a good version, but the exciting Letherbee Distillers wowed with a palatable product that will find a broader market.
Adam Seger, the drinks genius behind the amaro-like, botanical-infused spirit Hum, arrived with his new product, Balsam. It functions like a vermouth concentrate, allowing imbibers to add it to red wine to create a "bespoke" vermouth experience. It is undeniably delicious, smart and cutting-edge.
For additional spirits geekery, Charles McGonegal from the craft cider distillery AeppelTreow, was the man to talk to about chemical interactions between fruit and wood. A limited-release perry, or pear cider, aged in chestnut barrels was a highlight of the show.
It was also exciting to see new products enter the Wisconsin market that were recently awarded a gold medal by the American Craft Spirits Association (full disclosure -- I was a judge at the event, held in Louisville, Ky., in January). Finn's Gin is a great-tasting product from Chicago Distilling Company that makes a fine martini.
Distill America has already outgrown the Edgewater's new ballroom, leaving no room for last year's wildly popular mobile drinks cart (at which local bartenders made cocktails using vendor products on hand). While it was sadly missed, major local sponsor Death's Door did sport an ice luge, which somewhat made up for it.
The ice was molded in the shape of Wisconsin, with the funnel in Door County and the exit in Madison, naturally. Filled with Death's Door's refreshing Wondermint (a Schnapps liqueur), it was a perfect finale to a wonderful event.