DANE, Wis. — We’re ready for a bit of day drinking at 1:30 p.m. on a Monday and know where to begin.
A tree-lined driveway near Dane, 20 miles north of Madison, leads to expansive lawns and a farmhouse with pillars and shutters. Doors are locked, but on a chalkboard is this: We’ll be right back. We’re touring the rickhouses.
Sprinkled through Wisconsin are farmers with a thirst to quench the public’s cravings for beverages from small-batch beer to vodka. It’s a way to add streams of new revenue from farm-grown grains, and visitors can sample these farm-based spirits and suds across the state.
This particular locale — J. Henry and Sons — is a 2,000-acre farm where corn, wheat and rye turn into a four-grain bourbon (the barley comes from Breiss malthouse, 100 miles northeast). The liquor, introduced in 2015, has won national awards.
The only person on duty today is Aaron Rostad, tasting room manager. He wraps up a tour, then prepares a round of drinks in the farmhouse-turned-tasting-room.
The Farmer’s Cocktail is a mix of bourbon, lemonade and house-made ginger-mint syrup. The garnish is fresh leaves from a chocolate-mint plant, plucked from the farm and slapped inside Rostad’s hands to bring out the scent.
Propped on the bar are corn cobs with deep red kernels, developed at the University of Wisconsin in 1939 and planted in the mid-20th century by Jerry Henry as cattle feed.
Rostad says yield per acre is low compared to average yellow kernel corn, but Joe Henry (Jerry’s son) and wife, Liz, “chose to honor the history of what was grown on their land” to make bourbon.
The couple secured and propagated 1,227 kernels of the heirloom W335A from the university’s seed bank. Now they grow 75 acres and “are the only bourbon makers in the world using this variety,” Liz Henry says.
Her husband is a crop farmer whose property includes his family’s 440-acre homestead.
The bourbon is fermented and distilled by Paul Werni, of 45th Parallel Distillery, 225 miles northwest. He uses J. Henry’s grains and recipe. Barrels of the liquor age at least five years on the farm, then return to the distillery for bottling.
Rostad says the farm’s capital investments began a decade before the first round of bourbon reached retail shelves. The barn was converted into a 900-barrel rickhouse (storage building with racks). A second rickhouse was built to hold 5,000 more barrels.
On the 90-minute tasting and tour ($15), we learn farm history, bourbon basics and more. Like other farm-based tasting rooms, this one has abbreviated business hours.
We sip as Rostad, a sommelier and mixologist, coaches us to properly sample three bourbons (keep your neck straight and nose out of the glass, for starters).
Our guide found his job on Craigslist and moved from San Diego in 2018. He seems like an all-in kind of guy: Nearly covering an inside forearm is a tattoo of … red kernel corn.
The bourbon is sold in Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota. In autumn, 1,000 bottles of a 10th anniversary blend will be released.
More remote and earthy is Dave’s BrewFarm near Wilson, 60 miles east of Minneapolis. Owner Dave Anderson hosts occasional weekend tastings, announcing the dates on his blog.
We arrive around 6 p.m., an hour before closing time. Vehicles line a rural roadside and mowed areas near the driveway. It’s a short walk downhill, then the turn of a corner. That’s when we hear much laughter and chitchat on a hot, humid Saturday.
Nearly all the 20-some customers ignore outdoor seating and favor the cooler, concrete floor tasting room. Tastings at the 35-acre, wind-powered farm launched in 2009; Anderson’s homebrewing began in the 1980s.
Seating is plentiful: stools at the bar, folding chairs around rectangular tables. Beer is poured into stemmed, glass goblets. It’s $5 for a full pour, $10 for an eight-beer flight (2 ounces each).
On the menu, beer descriptions could rival fine wine in detail. Names are playful: Gentle Misnomer, Mr. Fahrenheit, Cat Got Your Tongue?
Anderson, a college psychology major and beer judge, works solo. He fine-tuned his skills and palate at Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology.
He prefers to not make the same beer twice and has a binder full of handwritten beer recipes.
Singing the brewer’s praises are craft beer lovers Randy and Polly Blom of Minnesota. Randy says “unique flavors that you don’t get anywhere else” is why they often make the 45-minute drive to Dave’s.
Anderson grew his own hops but didn’t like the return on investment, “so now I just focus on the beer and the environment,” he said.
Only a cornfield separates Ledgerock Distillery from Jay and Heidi Retzer’s farmhouse, near Fond du Lac. Breezy weather isn’t unusual: Within view is a 41-turbine wind farm.
Welcome to a sliver of the Niagara Escarpment, a 650-mile-long geological ridge whose limestone-filtered water goes into the vodka, moonshine, gin and bourbon made with the Retzers’ corn and wheat. Acreage includes his family’s homestead, 15 minutes south.
Served on weekends are $5 signature cocktails (Wisconsin Sunshine has vodka, lemon juice, simple syrup, triple sec and soda). Tours and tastings are available too.
The Retzers studied Perlick Distillery, 75 miles north of Eau Claire, before opening Ledgerock in 2018. Vodka is Scott Perlick’s specialty among the 2,000 acres of crops farmed by his dad, Tom.
Scott is an Air Force vet and law school grad. The distillery opened in 2015 in a converted barn. Nearly complete is a 50-seat tasting room addition. Visitors sip cocktails with vodka infusions (honey, jalapeno, horseradish, dill) and, in August, meander an 8-acre maze within a 50-acre sunflower field.
It’s pizza and pints on Sundays at Sawmill Pizza and Brew Shed, 60 miles northeast of Minneapolis, near Clear Lake. Pies with locally sourced ingredients bake outdoors, June to October. Owners Dustin Booth and Emily Fradenburgh began business just days after their marriage at the former sawmill in 2013. Now they host weddings for others.
A brewery, with Booth as brewer, was added in 2017. Run of the Mill, a cream ale, is the most popular of seven taps.
At organic Stoney Acres Farm, 30 miles northwest of Wausau, owner Tony Schultz fires up a trio of outdoor ovens for Friday and Saturday pizza nights, April to November. Brew-meister Josh Wright makes three barrels at a time onsite: Athens Light, a light lager, is the most popular.
Schultz, raised on the farm, buys hops from two hours away — for now. Hops make up 20 of his 155 acres. Weeds and mildew compromised the crop last year, but he refuses to apply chemicals, “no matter what.”