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Awildan Distilling

Updated: Feb 4, 2023

Sun Prairie, WI


Crusin’ Rating: B+

Booze Rating: A-


Crusin' For Booze- Wisconsin Beer Wine Distillery Blogger- Awildan Distilling- Hand painted Nortic logo

Awildan - an old English word meaning “to make or become wild” - evokes, at least for me, the outdoors, no civilization, and, perhaps most importantly, getting back to our roots as those who first tamed nature. We, as humans, have long been intertwined with nature and the world around us and it is only in our most recent centuries where the dependency on nature around us has fallen to the wayside. If you’d ask Hannah or I, we’d tell you that there is something so uniquely satisfying in taking something from nature such as a plant, something you’ve grown yourself and then making something directly from it. And that’s all the sweeter when you luck out on some wild grown blueberries, is there anything better than that?

This week we are taking a deep dive into the meaning behind the word Awildan and looking at Awildan Distilling and the man behind it, Jeff Olson. We had the recent pleasure of visiting his small, but exciting, operation out in Sun Prairie in the midst of a snowstorm that would see us get the only under-forecasted and under-hyped snowfall all winter. This was a group outing, the likes of which has not happened ever, between The Artist, The Buffalo Prince, The Pranskter, The Wanderer [our newest addition], Hannah, and myself. Barlow had to sit this one out as, while he is a fan of snow more recently, he doesn’t quite have all his people manners down just yet. I had caught wind of Awildan Distilling from lurking social media and it just so happened that it was the first weekend where they would be featuring their spirits in cocktails right at the distillery, a happy accident that I admit I had not planned at all. Admittedly, what got me hooked on this place is that Jeff, a fellow UW Madison grad and former brewer at Karben4 Brewing, was producing a spirit I had not yet seen in Wisconsin. While it is fairly common to see individuals switch to producing for different breweries, it’s rarer to see local UW grads do it. It's even rarer to see someone go from producing beer to producing spirits. As soon as Awildan opened in 2022, they were on my radar of must-tries. So, we set out to our favorite chicken-wing dive bar, Chicken Licsks, to get some food as the snow fell and then went for an early Saturday afternoon review with the Crusin’ For Booze crew.

The Crusin' For Booze Review Crew
Pictured left to right: The Artist, The Buffalo Prince, Cru, Hannah, The Wanderer, The Prankster

We’d been to new spots before located in a small industrial park and I can name at least five off the top of my head that are currently located in these parks years after opening. I was absolutely not put off by this point of seeing a sign near the road for an imbibement producer in what looks like it could be storage sheds or general industrial businesses. I have said it before and I will keep hammering on the fact, if you are looking for Crusin' For Booze spots and the real gems, don’t let the location or the appearance of the area ever deter you.

With signage clear enough from Nelson Road in Sun Prairie that leads you directly to the front door, it was easy enough to get all six of us there and out of the snow. Walking into the multi-level building and it was deathly quiet for a moment. I think we all had a brief moment of - are the hours correct? Are they open? Are we just walking into a production floor? - all situations that Hannah and I have run into, more than once. Thankfully though a small clang of glassware and a hint of conversation let us know that we were in the right place. We walked up a few steps on our left and were greeted by a brightly lit, new, and cozy space of Awildan Distilling.

The first thing that immediately pops out at you is the clearly Nordic-inspired paintings adorning the top of the walls and the absolute massive centerpiece that dominates the far wall. The Artist immediately called out that she thought it was all hand-painted which was pretty impressive as they were all hand painted by Jeff himself. I can’t even stay in the lines when handwriting, much less painting. To the right is an absolutely stunning bar that appears handmade with wooden dragon scales overlapping. Serious craftsmanship at work there and with the only other bar in the same sort of craftsmanship in nearby Stoughton, The Viking Brew Pub. Jeff stands behind the bar looking about as Viking as any Wisconsinite I have ever seen shaking up a cocktail for the only other patrons at the distillery. It’s an intimate space, with a handful of seats at the bar, a low six-seater table that we claimed, and a two-person high-top tables. Jeff offered all six of us complimentary tastes of Awildan’s two spirits as we sat down in some rustic chairs with the Prankster claiming the head of the table in a chair made out of old barrel staves. New pine, including corbels, accent the ceiling and additional paintings. Turns out that Jeff is a man of many talents, not only distilling spirits, brewing beer, and painting, but we even heard he’s in a Celtic band.

As I stated earlier, there are two spirits available at the distillery. The first of which, and really where I think that the name Awildan makes sense, is Genever. Now, if you’re not from the Netherlands, you might not be familiar with this spirit. A precursor to Gin, “Genever”, translates to Juniper. I know what you are thinking, you can’t stand Gin, the pine like qualities of London dry especially, but let me stop you there. Genever is the precursor to Gin, and while I won’t get too far down the rabbit hole for why Dry Gin and Genever relate, I can say that Genever, while similar in the fact they both contain Juniper, is a distinct spirit that tastes quite different than the gin you are used to. Genever uses a barley spirit base or barley wine (not to be confused with Barleywine, a beer style I am partial to). Genever, like Scotch, can only be made in a few places - Belgium and the Netherlands, to name a few - so while this may not be recognized by the EU, it’s good enough for us right here in Wisconsin. Genever, unlike Gin, doesn’t come from a neutral tasting base spirit, but instead comes from a malted (usually barley) base. In this case, Awildan is using it single malt whiskey (still in production) as the base for this spirit. I think its fair to say that Genever is a mixture of whiskey and gin. Our small trivia fact for your history class is the Dutch used to have a medicine based in barley wine that tasted just awful, the addition of juniper and other botanicals gave way to what we recognize as Genever today!

Onto the spirits themselves. Our tasting of the two spirits was complimentary and I can tell you it was enough to pique all of our interests to taste the spirits used in varying combinations of cocktails offered at the distillery that range from $10-11, which I would say is market-standard for Madison when talking about nicer cocktails with fresh-squeezed juices.

Genever (46% ABV) - Pouring completely clear, I think to the unfamiliar they will just say it smells like gin. Hannah and I have been in the business of sniffing long enough, though, to pick out underlying botanicals in different gins so you can bet we picked out more than just juniper when examining this spirit. At different moments we picked up mossy wood, vanilla, juniper, wheat grains, malted barley, Autumn leaves, coriander, Cassia, and even a little cardamom. When tasting, this spirit was crisp with a little sweetness from the malt and then while complex, there were distinct tasting notes we could pick out of wood, mossy bark, lemon peel, coriander, cardamom, Gentian Root, various spices, Cassia, and what could only be described as tree bark. This spirit was complex and pleasant, intriguing even, and I kept going back for tastes of it by itself between cocktails because I wanted to pick out which aspects were coming through in each cocktail.

If you're a cocktail nerd like me you might notice that a lot of the ingredients listed in both our taste and smell (and ingredients that are listed as actual inclusions in the creation of this spirit) share a lot of similarities with- bitters. Old fashioned bitters to be exact. Cassia Bark, Cardamom, Angelica Root, Gentian Root - all are common ingredients in various bitters and Gentian Root is the main ingredient in Angostura (Old-Fashioned) bitters. Both bitters themselves and bitter liqueurs (Amari) are becoming more and more in vogue in the cocktail scene and I found it really interesting to be tasting a spirit where I could pick many of those components out. I absolutely bought a bottle of this for myself to test out at home and see if bitters will enhance certain qualities of cocktails or even if I could use some Genever as a sub for the bitter element in Crusin’ for Booze cocktails at home.

Spiced Rum (45% ABV) - Talk about another thing that is starting to get a newfound renaissance in the craft cocktail world - Rum! All over, tiki drinks are seeing a revival as well as that flagship rum cocktail, the classic Daiquiri. I, myself, have become a big fan of the funkiest of all funky Jamaican rums and have done a complete 180 on what I used to think was a spirit less desirable than Tequila in my college days. With newfound appreciation for rums that don’t default to coconut flavor or feature a pirate as their logo, I feel like I have come to recognize the subtle differences in various rums. I know when you see the words “spiced rum” together you’re going to think of a particular brand that, in truth leaves much to be wanted in the spice and taste departments. This is not that rum. First of all, this rum is clear, secondly you can both smell and taste the spices including peppercorn, ginger, and cloves as well as that the smell only blackstrap molasses and cane sugar can provide. When tasting we picked up cinnamon, oakiness, peppery spice, and overripe banana. While this one finished just a little bit harsh, it was an excellent rum made right here in Wisconsin rather than Barbados or Guyana. The Buffalo Prince and the Prankster both snagged bottles for themselves to take home.

The spirits were both winners here and our host was absolutely accommodating, patient, and willing to answer tons of questions, including what he has planned in the future. The goal of Awildan is to become something we haven’t seen before in Wisconsin, or really anywhere in our travels and that’s a Brewstillery! We’ve seen Winery/Breweries and Winery/Distilleries and even a Cidery/Distillery but never a Brewery/Distillery! Jeff has big plans to make whiskey and use his own barrels to age beer and cider in them, and use the whiskey for a base for those beer and ciders in the first place. We are talking a full on family tree of imbibements all at Awildan. The other thing we are most excited for is an all-Wisconsin Juniper where all of the botanicals are locally sourced and grown. While Jeff sources locally whenever he can, not everything can be sourced right here in Wisconsin starting out. That was our one small caveat we ran across, but one we could completely understand when talking to a new business owner. We enjoyed our trip and we are going to be adding Awildan to our Crusin’ for Booze Tour easily. We look forward to checking back in as the cocktail menu evolves, beers get produced and other aged spirits get released. This is an easy win for us, if you’re within an hour, definitely worth the trip to kill a Saturday afternoon and if you’re in the Madison area it’s a must-stop. I would even say on a weekend trip to Madison and you’re looking for a spot a little outside town that’s serving up some cocktails without being too far from Sun Prairie, check out Awildan Distilling!

Until next time, keep on Crusin’, don’t stop boozin’!


To learn more about Awildan Distilling please visit their website at: or on Facebook: @AwildanDistilling

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