What do freshwater rum, ouzo, marc brandy, and honey liqueur have in common, other than alcohol content? Technically not very much beyond the fact that they’re all made, in Madison, WI, by an upstart craft outfit known as Old Sugar Distillery.
Despite substantial legal hurdles that make the distillation and distribution of craft spirits more challenging than craft beer, young idealists from coast to coast are jumping into the field to push the limits of spirits — and possibly strike it rich by finding the perfect novel but delicious consumer-friendly formula.
Although Old Sugar is best known for its Honey Liqueur (which appears at numerous Madison bars and restaurants as a popular cocktail mixer), the crown jewel of Greenawalt’s current efforts may be Old Sugar’s Americanaki Ouzo (above). Many ouzos are a savage whipsaw of acrid, burning bite and then a sickly sweet finish — Old Sugar’s ouzo, by contrast, is deep and mellow, with pungency but no nasty edge, and a balanced level of sweetness. Despite being 90 proof, it’s so balanced that it’s pleasantly sippable straight.
“I might be the only one [making domestic ouzo] for all I know,” says Greenawalt. (For what it’s worth, we weren’t able to find any others, either.) “[The spirit] can be called sambuca, or anisette. I’m half Greek, so that’s why we’re calling it ouzo. I’m not an ouzo expert, but mine is actually pretty mild compared to a lot of them. It’s primarily star anise that gives it its flavor, and there’s a little bit of seed anise in there also. ”
The story behind the making of Old Sugar’s ouzo helps connect the distillery to its terroir.
“I’ve done it somewhat untraditionally — we’re using local grapes,” says Greenawalt. “We picked about 1,200 pounds of grapes this year and separated the juice from the skins and stems and released a very small-batch grappa using the skins and stems.”
Greenawalt sold out of his grappa in a few weeks, and also made a marc-style brandy (which was just about sold out when we conducted this interview, a month ago) by aging the skins and stems in barrels.
“We put it into two barrels, one a medium-char barrel to give it a kind of mellow, vanilla flavor and then briefly in a more intensely charred barrel to give it some caramely tones,” says Greenawalt. “We ended up with a really good full-flavored brandy, where you can actually taste the grapes it came from.”
Despite the fiercely intense effort to craft new and better spirits that defines Old Sugar, Greenawalt’s ongoing sales of bottled liquor represent only a portion of his business. The distillery also functions as a bar and tasting room three days a week.
“We’re open Thursdays and Fridays 4-10pm,” says Greenawalt. “Soon we’ll be open on Saturdays as well, probably noon to 10. We’re basically a bar at night — we sell cocktails, give samples, and do tours.”
The two businesses are natural fits — the Old Sugar bar introduces patrons to Greenawalt’s product and gives him a chance to test cocktail recipes and small-batch creations on a friendly but honest local audience.
It also lets patrons check out Old Sugar’s facilities, which are attractive. A big copper still dominates the room.
“It’s a new still made by Col. Wilson down in the Ozark Mountains,” says Greenawalt. “All he does is make stills, and he has a website — coppermoonshinestills.com. [The still is] solid copper. It’s not copper clad. It’s direct fired with natural gas and holds 220 gallons in the boiler.”
Greenawalt can extract 30 gallons of hearts — “the good stuff that’s ready to go into the barrels” — from a pass through the still, plus tails, which aren’t good enough to age but can boost the quantity of the next batch of spirits.
Barrels line the walls of his East Side distillery. “We’re using mostly 5-gallon barrels — the smaller the barrel, the faster it ages,” says Greenawalt. “We’ve got a few 10s and 15s, and a couple 30-gallon barrels, too. It’s all American oak, primarily from Minnesota.”
The barrels also play a key role in the creation of Old Sugar’s rum, which recalls whiskey far more readily than, say, Bacardi.
“The rum is fairly unique — it’s unsweetened,” says Greenawalt. “Most rums are sweetened, especially golden or dark rums. Most rums will add either caramel or molasses to enhance the color and make it sweeter — ours is completely unsweetened after distillation.”
“We take cane sugar and dissolve it, ferment it, distill it to about 140 proof, and then age it in small barrels for 4-6 months, and that’s where it picks up a lot of its flavor — it changes color from clear to amber and really mellows out, and picks up that really warm, amber flavor.” (The final product is 80 proof.)
Old Sugar rum can be sipped neat; Greenawalt takes his on the rocks.
“We also do dark ‘n stormies with ginger beer,” he says. “It has a strong enough flavor that it goes with anything that can stand up to it.”
When asked about challenges to his business model, one immediately leaps to Greenawalt’s lips: distribution.
“The local sales and tasting nights are going well, but I need to get into other states to really be profitable,” he says. “We’re making roughly 60-80 cases [of 12 750-ml bottles] a month right now — we’re not selling nearly that much at the moment. I’d like to get up to about 30,000 bottles a year, and in a best-case scenario I could probably only sell about a third of that in Wisconsin. I just today submitted paperwork for Illinois… and I’m working on Michigan. Minnesota would be a likely next step.”
BEST BET: The ouzo, which has a gorgeous balance to it that will surprise even ouzo lovers.
Old Sugar Distillery
Distillery and bar in Madison, WI
931 E Main St
Madison, WI 53703
OWNER: Nathan Greenawalt