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Feb 9, 201501:17 PMBlaska's Bring It!

with David Blaska

Make my whiskey local

(page 1 of 2)

Farmers, it is said, are the only entrepreneurs who buy at retail and sell at wholesale. But that’s only if you’re selling commodities. Raw milk is a commodity; processing it into an artisanal cheese adds value.

That’s what Joe and Liz Henry have done since day one on their farm in the Town of Vienna, 20 miles north of Madison. They have continued the seed corn business started by his father, Jerry Henry, in 1946. Now they’re adding even more value with the release of their first craft whiskey: J. Henry & Sons Wisconsin straight bourbon.

The Henrys, including son Jack, will release their first batch of 5-year-old, 92-proof whiskey at the Distill America event at Madison’s Edgewater Hotel on Saturday, Feb. 28. (Might want to book a room, if tasting.) Joe Henry told Blaska’s Bring It! that the family is selling the 750-milliliter bottles for somewhere in the $50 range. Two distributors have been lined up to supply retail liquor stores.

The “mash bill,” or recipe, calls for corn as the major ingredient plus wheat and rye. Not just any corn but an heirloom, red corn developed in the 1930s by the University of Wisconsin. It’s responsible for a “robust” flavor, Joe Henry tells me.

Unlike most locavore distillers, “We produce all the grains we use for the bourbon right here on the farm.”

A tasting room is being prepared for the farmhouse at 7794 Patton Road (between the villages of Dane and DeForest), where the aging barn and distillery is located.

The changing temperatures of Kentucky are credited with extracting more flavor as the liquid ages in the barrel, so the weather extremes of Wisconsin should really make a difference. The new distillery claims that the uncontrolled temperature “allows the wild Wisconsin weather swings to squeeze deliciously complex flavors out of the barrels and into the bourbon. The result is a Wisconsin craft bourbon with aromas of sweet corn, caramel pudding, toffee, creamy vanilla, dark cocoa, cinnamon, coconut shavings and Jamaican allspice.”

It’s a propitious time for whiskey. Perhaps it’s the Mad Men effect — a return to the late 1950s, when American whiskey ruled the rail. After 30 years of losing ground to vodka, rum, and tequila, domestic whiskey sales increased 40% in the past five years, Fortune magazine reports. Most of that is on the premium end.

J. Henry joins Death’s Door, which opened June 4, 2012, in Middleton, and Yahara Bay in Madison as local craft distillers.

The local micro-distillery movement follows the 30-year growth of microbreweries, for which many farmers now grow hops as well as grain. (Recounted here.)  In 2010, The Whiskey Exchange reports, there were 250 craft distillers; four years later, there are more than 500. (The American Distilling Institute defines “craft” as no more than 52,000 cases annually.)

Simultaneously, southern Wisconsin hillsides are being planted with European Vitis vinifera grapes (ironically, grafted onto native North American roots to combat phylloxera in the mid-19th century). So many that they’ve organized into an association that claims 110 wineries.

That has prompted UW-Madison’s College of Agriculture to hire a specialist, with funding from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture.

Vineyards like Botham follow the original, Wollersheim Winery, established by Agoston Haraszthy across the Wisconsin River from Prairie du Sac in the 1840s. A few years later, the Hungarian immigrant left Wisconsin during the 1849 California gold rush — only to establish that state’s wine industry. Winemaking on the Wisconsin River hillside ceased after a hard freeze in 1899 but resumed in 1973 after the Wollersheims bought the property from the fourth-generation Kehl family.

Coming full circle, Wollersheim is planning to build a brandy distillery, scheduled to open this summer.


Old to new | New to old
Feb 9, 2015 03:35 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous


I am glad there is another value added WI ag product out there on the market. But I don't think they can call it bourbon unless it is made in Kentucky, and bourbon can only be distilled from corn. At least so my relatives in KY tell me with pride. You will note that Jack Daniels (made in TN) isn't bourbon. And making corn whiskey in WI is nothing new. Another branch of the clan that settled in Forest County in the teens have been making it for generations. The only choice was clear or colored (with charred oak chips).

And I almost spilled my "Forest County Special" when I read ""Blaska's Bring It! continues to search for the truth". What is it, Monday is joke day? There is plenty of truth out there, Dave. Don't just tell your version of it.

Feb 9, 2015 05:12 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Nice piece on the new local distillery. We can both agree (!) it's a good thing. It also gives hint that you were formerly a respectable journalist.
But then, of course, you put your "Disinformation Ministry Minion" hat back on as the second page of yer blogge descends to your current level of hack-spertise. How can you quote a "source" like Wisconsin Reporter, as if they're anything other than a propaganda rag of the Bradley Foundation?

Feb 10, 2015 11:02 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

"developed in the 1930s by the University of Wisconsin"

Guess those days are numbered, huh?

Feb 10, 2015 12:16 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

"propaganda rag of the Bradley Foundation"

What's the difference between the Bradley Foundation and The Annie E. Casey Foundation? Besides the fact that Casey distributes $150 million and Bradley distributes only $50 million.

Feb 10, 2015 02:17 pm
 Posted by  coolkevs

"propaganda rag"
What is not true about the UW allowing employees to attend the budget forums on the taxpayer dime?
And I guarantee all you will be hearing is "woe is me"
Should Blaska be quoting One Wisconsin Now?

Feb 12, 2015 02:54 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Bourbon can be made anywhere in the US. Unfortunately, many of my fellow Kentuckians continue to think we're the only place that can make bourbon.

It just so happens, about 95% of it is made in Kentucky. And nearly all of the best bourbon, of course. Haha. But per the Pedia known as Wiki: "Bourbon also has been made in California, Colorado, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia, and most likely in other U.S. states as well." I have to admit, the Colorado bourbon I've had was quite a nice product.

Also, bourbon isn't just corn. It's at least 51% corn, plus rye, wheat, and/or malted barley. There's a few other rules too:
- new charred white oak barrel
- distilled to 160 proof or less
- barreled at 125 proof or less
- bottled at 80 proof or more

Jack Daniel's isn't bourbon. Not because it's made in TN, but because it's charcoal-filtered, making it Tennessee Whiskey, even though the process to that point is essentially bourbon.

Excited to see another entrant in my favorite liquor, though I doubt I'll be seeing much of it down my way.

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About This Blog

Raised on a farm near Sun Prairie, David Blaska is a recovering liberal who spent 18 years in daily newspapers, including 12 at The Capital Times in Madison as a reporter and editor. He served Gov. Tommy Thompson as acting press secretary in 1998 and is a veteran and survivor of 19 years in state government. He served 12 years on the Dane County Board of Supervisors. From December 2007 to November 2011 he wrote the consistently popular "Blaska's Blog" for Isthmus online's "The Daily Page" until, he says, the intolerant liberals ran him off. He blogs from Madison.

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